Holy game­play, Bat­man! ‘Arkham’ cap­per rocks!

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD Byrd is free­lance writer.

In­re­cent years, aside from the Dark Knight film tril­ogy, di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan, many of Bat­man’s most pop­u­lar out­ings have been in video games, specif­i­cally those made by the Bri­tish devel­oper Rock­steady Stu­dios. The re­cently re­leased “Bat­man: Arkham Knight” caps off a tril­ogy that be­gan with “Bat­man: Arkham Asy­lum” (2009) and “Bat­man: Arkham City” (2011). Although “Arkham Asy­lum” was a much-lauded game — with a 92 score on Me­ta­critic for the Xbox 360 edi­tion — I dis­liked it. Per­haps be­cause I was ac­quainted with Grant Mor­ri­son and Dave McKean’s graphic novel, “Arkham Asy­lum: A Se­ri­ous House on Se­ri­ous Earth” (1989), I ex­pected some­thing stranger than what the game had to of­fer. I also took ex­cep­tion to its cloy­ing use of voice-over. If you lin­gered in an en­vi­ron­ment, you were likely to hear Bat­man re­state your cur­rent ob­jec­tive again and again— a prob­lem for a game filled with se­crets and hid­den nooks beg­ging to be un­cov­ered. It felt ter­ri­bly con­de­scend­ing to me, but I fin­ished the game, if only be­cause I promised my cousin I would if he would play “Fall­out 3.”

Cour­tesy of said cousin, I played through the open­ing of “Arkham City” but couldn’t shake my bad feel­ings to­ward its pre­de­ces­sor. So I skipped it and didn’t bother nab­bing it when it was avail­able, gratis, to Play Sta­tion Plus mem­bers. To say I wasn’t ex­actly champ­ing at the bit to play “Arkham Knight” is to err on the side of gen­til­ity. My wari­ness was stoked last week when I didn’t re­ceive the PC re­view code that I had re­quested. In hind­sight, it’s blaz­ingly clear why the PS4 ver­sion ar­rived in­stead.

Rock­steady en­trusted the Chicago-based devel­oper Iron Gal­axy with port­ing “Arkham Knight” to PC. When the game was re­leased on June 23, it was met with waves of de­ri­sion from the PC gam­ing com­mu­nity. On Steam, peo­ple vented over not get­ting the game to work or not be­ing able to run it with a de­cent, sus­tain­able frame rate. Sales of the PC edi­tion have been sus­pended as Rock­steady and its part­ners work to rec­tify the mat­ter.

Al­low­ing for these reser­va­tions, imag­ine my sur­prise — nay, shock — when I dis­cov­ered that pretty much from the open­ing cutscene on­ward the game roused the old comic book afi­cionado in me, leav­ing me to won­der what sort of tizzy the game would have sent me into when I was 13 or 14.

In case you didn’t pick up the last game, know that at the end of “Arkham City” the Joker dies. Set­ting the tone for what is to come, “Arkham Knight” be­gins with Frank Si­na­tra’s ren­di­tion of “I’ve Got You Un­der My Skin.” The cam­era pans from the ex­te­rior of a fu­neral home to its in­te­rior and comes to rest above the Joker’s body ly­ing in a cre­ma­to­rium cham­ber. Though it may seem like a small de­tail, the first de­sign choice I ap­pre­ci­ated was the way the de­vel­op­ers give you a mo­ment to ab­sorb the sit­u­a­tion be­fore a dis­creet on-screen prompt ap­pears, di­rect­ing you to press a but­ton to in­cin­er­ate the corpse. In fact, I no­ticed the prompt only the sec­ond time I played through the scene. On­the whole, I was re­lieved that “Arkham Knight” di­aled back much of the ob­nox­ious hand­hold­ing that marred my ex­pe­ri­ence with “Arkham Asy­lum.”

If set­ting fire to the Joker isn’t enough to grab you, the next scene surely might. Adopt­ing a first-per­son cam­era view, the game fol­lows a po­lice of­fi­cer as he en­ters a diner, sits down at the counter and places his or­der. The art di­rec­tion here and in the rest of the game is com­mend­able. Ev­ery­thing from the wait­ress to the decor seems hag­gard, as though all have seen toomuch life. Any­one who was ever smit­ten with Frank Miller’s Bat­man comics— which pop­u­lar­ized the grit­tier take on Gotham City evoked by the Dark Knight moniker — will prob­a­bly breathe in these de­tails with gusto.

The of­fi­cer hardly has time to re­lax on his stool be­fore another pa­tron asks him to see to a cus­tomer who is flout­ing the nosmok­ing rule. Alas, when the of­fi­cer goes to in­ves­ti­gate, he’s sprayed with a neu­ro­toxin that causes him to suf­fer san­ity break­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Soon there­after, Scare­crow— a vil­lain ob­sessed with us­ing fear to sub­or­di­nate his vic­tims — takes to the air­waves to threaten Gotham’s pop­u­la­tion. In the wake of a city­wide evac­u­a­tion, Bat­man at­tempts to bring Scare­crow and his crim­i­nal al­lies to jus­tice. But the Dark Knight’s san­ity is none too sound. In short, he starts see­ing the Joker with in­creas­ing fre­quency.

“Arkham Knight” al­ludes to much of the Bat­man lore. Jim Star­lin, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo’s “A Death in the Fam­ily,” which chron­i­cled the death of Bat­man’s side­kick, Robin, is a touch­stone, as is Alan Moore, Brian Bol­land and John Higgins’s clas­sic graphic novel, “The Killing Joke.” The game’s ex­plo­ration of psy­cho­log­i­cal de­cay owes a huge debt to Moore’s story, which il­lu­mi­nated the co-de­pen­dency at the heart of Bat­man-Joker re­la­tion­ship.

Ev­ery­one in Gotham seems in need of coun­sel­ing. Lis­ten to the anony­mous hench­men’s chat­ter, andyou will hear the com­plaints of war vet­er­ans who feel so­cially dis­en­fran­chised.

The game’s pop psy­chol­ogy never gets in the­way of its game­play. “Arkham Knight” is a good brawler with ex­ten­sive skill trees. The game also boasts a num­ber of dev­il­ish rac­ing chal­lenges. The Bat­mo­bile is more nim­ble than it may ini­tially seem if you remap the brake to the left trig­ger and master the pow­er­slide move. How­ever, there are ve­hic­u­lar com­bat sec­tions later in the game that can be quite te­dious if you haven’t se­lected your up­grades wisely.

As an open-world game, “Arkham Knight,” on con­soles at least, makes fab­u­lous use of the Un­real 3 graph­ics en­gine, ren­der­ing Gotham in ro­man­ti­cally grungy de­tail. This is the first Bat­man game that I’ve played that feels ad­e­quate to the comic book’s legacy.

BAT­MAN Arkham Knight Rock­steady Stu­dios Warner Bros. In­ter­ac­tive En­ter­tain­ment PlayS­ta­tion 4, Xbox One

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