If Chris Nolan's Dark Knight film trilogy breathed new life into the Batman franchise then Rocksteady's Arkham Knight series is its gaming equivalent.
The first, Arkham Asylum, was superb - I loved it from the Joker's opening gambit to the final credits.
Following that game was a near-impossible mission for Arkham City, but although Batman's second outing never quite ascended to the giddy heights of its predecessor, the addition of an open world and playable Catwoman were welcome steps forward.
Arkham Knight, the final installment in Rocksteady's Bat Trilogy, more than makes up for any previous disappointment. Lessons from Arkham City have been learned and brought to bear in what I can only describe as a tour de force of game design.
The bat is back, and he's riding on the back of a must-have contender for Game of the Year.
Tank you very much
I don’t like racing games. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I don’t like cars *ducks*. For both these reasons I was shocked to find myself hopelessly in love with Arkham Knight’s most significant addition to the well-loved formula: the Batmobile.
The Batmobile is more than just a car; it’s a tank, a personnel carrier, a combat aid, a puzzle piece, and most of all, your best friend. It changes the face of the Arkham series and is largely responsible for restoring the magic dust that Arkham City lacked.
Most importantly it feels insanely awesome to drive. Other vehicles, lamposts, structural columns - these are little more than detritus to be brushed aside by its immense power. Every time I stepped inside I became an armoured terror, unmatched in raw strength. You will genuinely feel like the scourge of Gotham’s underbelly.
The Batmobile can be operated in two modes: speedy automobile and slower, but more manoeuvrable tank. The former is used for pursuing fleeing enemies and the latter for the numerous tank battles that happen throughout the game. These involve the same mixture of timing and response as Batman’s fisticuff skirmishes but you’re in a massive tank that makes things go boom. Enough said.
With the Batmobile in tow, the play experience is more varied, more exciting, and the city of Gotham is a more dynamic experience. It’s the seamless transitions between Bats and his motor that make that all the difference: the Batmobile can be called at any moment for you to hop in and run down your foes, and similarly you can eject yourself from its cockpit into the air mid-drive. It’s just all so effortlessly cool.
While I didn't expect to like the Batmobile quite so much, I was even more surprised by the extent to which the blessed machine stays with you like a loyal hound.
Whether you're hammering enemy fortifications or delving into one of The Riddler's puzzle dungeons, it's amazing how Rocksteady has managed to so fully integrate the experience of taking a car-tank-robodeath-thing with you like it was a pocket watch.
Like a Bat out of Hell
Discounting the Batmobile for a moment (by which, I think you've probably guessed by now, I'm a tad obsessed), the game still shines.
The much-lauded combat system returns with its timed counters and tool selections. The basic system remains largely unchanged, but it's smoother than ever, with triple counters and a host of unusual takedowns on offer.
There are a few new rules of engagement: enemies are smarter, and have more tools at their disposal to sniff out The Bat. These include the likes of electrocution drones and thermal imaging-resistant armour and they're added slowly and with care to provide a consistent challenge.
I'd really like to detail the 173489485 ways I used my bag of tricks to clear a room of fully armed soldiers, but that would spoil the surprise.
Sweet dream or a beautiful knightmare?
Arkham Knight is an action game rather than an action-RPG and the former genre tends to suffer in terms of longevity. Well not in this case.
Gotham consists of three enormous islands filled with quests that slowly progress as the game draws onward. Don't get me wrong, we're still talking about Assassin's Creed: Unity levels of content here rather than The Witcher 3, but there's at least 40 hours of play time on offer.
The truly impressive part is how consistently brilliant that content manages to be. Cutscenes and set pieces are assembled with an artistic grace that takes into account the greatest strengths of the gaming medium. Part of this is down to the clever decision to pit Bats against Scarecrow this time around.
The master of poison sends Brucey on some horrendous trips, enabling the developers to play with your sense of the real - a trick that Far Cry 4 employed at times to similar effect. Games journalists have developed the dangerous habit of calling good storytelling in games 'cinematic' but Arkham Knight doesn't simply replicate cinema, it allows itself to be playful and disturbing in a way that only games can be.
This is just one of many ways that Arkham Knight recovers from the wobbly Arkham City: The Riddler's puzzles have been lovingly thought out and will twist your brain; Gotham, unlike Arkham City, feels genuinely open and exciting rather than simply an expanded cage; even the scripting has taken a turn for the better.
There are holes in the Dark Knight’s armour but they are few and far between.
The biggest is quest blocking. Although Bats can access all three islands from the start of the game, the Batmobile can't. Which would be fine if the available side-quests and missions took account of that, but they don't - meaning that you'll sometimes arrive at a seemingly active quest only to be told 'Oh dear, no Batmobile'. It’s a strange design decision for a game with an open world.
The other main problem with the game concerns its performance on PC.
It was clear within hours of its release that the PC version was totally broken. Single-digit framerates, crashes, and a host of other bugs caused Warner Bros. to remove the PC version of Arkham Knight from sale, everywhere. It's still missing from the Steam Store and no-one knows when it will return.
In fairness to Rocksteady, the latest patch has solved most of the serious issues, and the developer has promised a suite of extra support and tweaks for PC gamers in the future. But even so, the affair remains an unsightly blemish on the game’s record.
Batman: Arkham Knight verdict
Given the debacle outlined above, this verdict only really applies to the console versions. But rest assured, on PS4 or Xbox One Arkham Knight is consistently excellent.
I struggle to think of another action game that has mastered action, puzzling, platforming, adventure, and racing quite so effectively, and presented each element with such an insane degree of polish.
Every other contender in the field should gaze on in awe and take note - this is the new gold standard.