The Batman “Arkham” series is one that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years (although Origins to a lesser extent). Batman is my favorite comic book character, and the teams at Rocksteady and Warner Bros. have always made the player feel like they were indeed the Batman. At the core of my love for the series has always been its fantastic combat and stealth mechanics. There isn’t a melee combat system in gaming that feels as good, and dangling the minions of super villains from the ceiling never loses its charm.
Going into the final game of the series, Rocksteady was challenged with what every developer must face when their series gets to be a bit long in the tooth: how do we continue to innovate? What mechanics can we add while keeping the core of the game intact? In the case of Arkham Knight, the game’s marketing made it very clear what Rocksteady’s answer to those questions were: the Batmobile. Yes, it seems the team at Rocksteady was very pleased with this new addition, and their level design reflects it.
Clocking in at around Hour 2 of the game, "Chapter 3: Infiltrating Ace Chemicals" begins with Batman tracking down Scarecrow to Ace Chemicals. Up to this point, gameplay has largely centered on familiarizing the player with the Batmobile and a couple of new abilities such as the Fear Multi-Takedown. After a cutscene of Batman and Gordon being confronted by the Arkham Knight, the player is given control with the task of infiltrating the facility.
At this point in the game I had spent about 80% of my time in the Batmobile. Having the Arkham Knight destroy the bridge leading to Ace Chemicals was a godsend, as I knew that I would finally be able to get out and get to what I come to the Batman games for: stealth and combat.
Initially, I was not disappointed. I tackled the first set of patrolling guards utilizing tactics old and new: a silent takedown on a single guard, and a Fear Multi-Takedown on a set of two. Before I could get too excited, I had to travel to the top of the chemical plant to perform a small mini game in order to locate the hostages throughout the plant. While not particularly fun, it is kept very brief and before long I was back in control of the Bat. With the locations of each hostage detected, I was once again excited about the potential for awesome stealth sequences created by hostage situations.
In the end, the level did not play out as I had hoped. Rather than having wide open rooms filled with stealth gameplay possibilities, each hostage is rescued by a brief single combat sequence and a Batmobile puzzle. After the first stealth encounter, there was not another for the remainder of the mission. Once the first hostage is rescued, the Batmobile enters the fray (after an all-too-brief absence), and the player is forced to participate in one of the game’s many tank combat sequences. While not necessarily bad, they sure don’t have the thrill of the main combat system, and I found myself getting bored after destroying the first few tanks. From then on, the player has to drag the thing with them to every hostage location while frequently getting in and out of it to complete puzzles in order for them to proceed. In addition to the puzzles, there are two additional tank battle sequences (one including a mini-boss) that add to the frustration.
And herein lays the problem: this level’s design appears to be completely deaf to what kind of game it takes place in. When I’m playing Portal, I know from the moment I hit “Play” that I’m going to get a series of puzzles that will involve object placement and physics-based puzzles. When I’m playing Battlefield, a game heavily focused on vehicular combat, a level dedicated to tank battles is not seen as out of place. And when I’m playing Batman, based on my own notions of the character and the previous three games in the franchise, I fully expect the vast majority of my gameplay time to consist of sneaking up on bad guys and punching them in their smug faces. In this level, however, that was not the case. Below is a list of the encounters throughout the level in order:
Stealth > Hostage Finding Mini Game > Hostage 1 Stealth & Combat > Batmobile Tank Battle > Combat > Batmobile Puzzle > Hostage 2 Batmobile Remote Control Combat > Combat > Drive Batmobile > Combat > Batmobile Ramp Puzzle > Batmobile Tank Battle > Batmobile Puzzle > Series of Puzzles that swap between Batman and Remote Controlled Batmobile > Hostage 3 Combat > Batmobile Puzzle > Batmobile Tank & Mini-Boss Battle
As you can see, out of seventeen encounters, only six of them consist of the “meat and potatoes” (stealth and combat) of the Arkham games. In comparison, the Batmobile is in ten of them. This is incredibly disproportionate and based on this level, it appears that the feature that was invented for this game wasn’t created to supplement the existing gameplay; it usurped it.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is only the third mission in the game. In my opinion, when introducing new mechanics and features it is preferable to spread them out, rather than front-loading them at the beginning. Instead of letting players reacclimate to the Batman gameplay and learn the new additions to those mechanics, the first several levels are incredibly Batmobile focused. Chapter 3 initially appears to be the first time the player can break free of the Batmobile chain and get to the core of the game’s gameplay, yet instead it forces them to return to it again and again. The design goal of this was most likely to provide a large amount of variety, but instead it left myself with a large amount of apathy throughout my playthrough.
“Chapter 3: Infiltrating Ace Chemicals” is a problematic level that appears as a bad omen to the player. The pride and joy of the Arkham series, the stealth and combat mechanics, continues to take a back seat to the Batmobile as the game exits its tutorial sections. Forgoing focus on great new abilities such as the Fear Multi- and Tag Team Takedowns, the level indicates to the player that the Batmobile, and all of the lackluster mechanics that come with it, is the core of what Batman: Arkham Knight has to offer.
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