There's a new Batman film out this weekend and it's certainly taking a beating by critics. That's not unusual for the brooding vigilante, who holds the heavy burden of fan expectations on his armoured shoulders. Just last year the caped crusader received a thrashing when Rocksteady released the finale of its dark knight series, Batman: Arkham Knight, with a botched PC port. It was a sad state of affairs that Warner Brothers was rightfully taken to task for, yet this conversation - and some nitpicks about the new batmobile - overshadowed the fact that Rocksteady delivered Batman's finest video game adventure to date.
There's a lot to be said of Rocksteady's swansong to the caped crusader, but allow me to sum up this monolithic epic with one in-game gesture: Arkham Knight is the only game that lets you incapacitate bank robbers by hacking into computer terminals to deactivate escalators. This makes no sense, of course, but it's never anything less than hilarious as adrenaline-pumping goons are thwarted by the stairs going still beneath their feet. Silly, sneaky, and sadistic, it's only fitting that a game about a Batman with a batmobile would be batsh*t crazy.
Arkham Knight is a strange game in a lot of ways; one made all the stranger by the fact that it was Rocksteady's third stab at a series that hasn't altered its DNA in any significant way. You're still Batman. There's still brawling. There's still sneaking. There's still puzzle solving. The second entry in the series, Arkham City, added an open-world and this latest (and supposedly final) entry finally put the player behind the wheel of the Batmobile, but by and large Arkham Knight is the same game that wowed us back in 2009 with Arkham Asylum. Only this time it's smarter, more imaginative, and all around a much smoother ride.
Yet its best qualities were seldom publicly discussed due to the fact that its greatest trick revolved around a major spoiler in the first act that Warner Brothers spent years keeping under wraps. But hey, it's been nine months, so I think we can finally discuss it. Major spoilers to follow. You have been warned.
Joker is back! And he's better than ever. Probably because he's not really back. As it turns out, he never really went away because Arkham Knight plainly states what has been the crux of so much Batman fiction: Joker is part of Batman. Arkham City killed the clown prince of crime at its conclusion, much to the chagrin of many fans. Mark Hamill, who had voiced the character for roughly two decades, said Arkham City would be his last turn as the Joker. The popular theory was that Ra's al Ghul would dip his corpse in a Lazarus pit (the rejuvenating, resurrecting liquid that's kept al Ghul alive for centuries) and he'd simply come right back into the fray, possibly with a new voice actor in tow (Troy Baker occupied the role in the third-party spin-off Arkham Origins). Or maybe people thought Hamill would return, but only for a cameo. What nobody expected was that Joker would return as a figment of Batman's imagination and provide a far greater and much more interesting role than he'd previously played in the series.
The funny thing is that Joker is much more menacing as a representation of Batman's id. Regular Joker could be stopped by bullets and batarangs, but this new mental Joker is a part of Bruce Wayne that's been there for a long time, just waiting to break out. And in the end, during the game's final act, he just about does in a glorious dream sequence where Batman thinks he is Joker and runs around with a shotgun murdering the rogues gallery of super villains that have plagued Gotham City for so long. Penguin? Boom! Two-Face? Bam! Anyone dumb enough to get into this mad man's way gets pumped full of led. It's a mesmerising sequence deeply rooted in Batman's own tortured psyche, and as stylish and cathartic a triple-A game's ending sequence has been since Gordon Freeman found a suped up Gravity Gun at the conclusion of Half-Life 2.
Yet Batman's surplus of testosterone is represented long before this trippy nightmare. Batman quite simply likes beating people up, and this is effortlessly translated into the medium of video games because combat in the Arkham series is very, very enjoyable. Hopping into a crowd of goons and knocking out a half dozen of them before they even have time to properly react is always a thrilling way to begin a battle. Going the sneaky approach and snickering as criminals get scared out of their minds is never not laced with a good does of schadenfreude. Even the much derided Batmobile makes some degree of thematic sense to this newer, more unhinged caped crusader. Though his intentions are noble, Batman's devious approach to crime-fighting is all very Joker, minus the bullets.
Put simply, Batman is a dick. And that's sort of the point. Batman is a representation of badass machismo, and while he certainly has his moments of saving the day, he's not actually a hero. He's a severely troubled man with cool gadgets, a great physique, an obsessive mind, and a rogues gallery of terrible people for him to exercise his anger issues on. It's not that Batman's a hero; it's that Gotham is so messed up that this insane vigilante is considered a hero. That's pretty bleak.
As much as I love Arkham Knight, I hope the Arkham series has truly come to an end. One of Arkham Knight's greatest storytelling assets is the fact that it has its own canon and doesn't feel like a long-running franchise. Beloved characters can die in the Arkham series - just as Joker did at the end of the second game. That gave Arkham Knight a real sense of high stakes, as anyone could go at any time. Dragging the series out any further would be a mistake. Arkham Knight felt like a conclusion to an epic series and how many big franchises can you say that about?
How rare is it that the third game in a series makes the boldest changes? Arkham Knight isn't quite a great game, but it is an audacious one. One that sticks to a formula, yet expands upon it in new and interesting ways that cleverly work in sync with its narrative. This isn't a game about playing as Batman. It's a game about being Batman. And as the enemies constantly say in the post-game "you've got to have some sort of screw loose." Arkham Knight finally lets Batman go mad. And what a spectacle that is.