Hands-On With the ‘Ultimate Batman Simulator’ of ‘Arkham Knight’
Rocksteady's final chapter in its Arkham trilogy is bigger than any previous Batman game – but will it make its size count?
Being Batman within the frame of a video game has never been so thrilling as during one of Rocksteady's previous two games featuring the DC Comics icon. The London-based studio produced Arkham Asylum in 2009, leading to substantial plaudits, and 2011's Arkham City was better still, for my money anyway, taking the action outside of Gotham's infamous institution for the insane and onto the crime-polluted streets and sewers of the wider metropolis.
Rocksteady took a break after City to focus on a new-gen-only Batman experience, allowing Warner Bros Games Montréal to fill the void between then and now with the prequel of Arkham Origins, the reception to which was warm but came with criticism of its recycling of prior gameplay elements (and fantastically jaggy frame rate problems). It was sweet to be back in Gotham, but with no new tricks of real note added to Batman's arsenal – simple crime-scene analysis sequences aside – Origins lacked the compelling bite of Asylum and City. But this summer's Batman: Arkham Knight is looking to correct that critical course – back towards the acclaim, the high scores, and the prestige that comes with delivering a triple-A game that truly makes good on its many promises. And this one is promising a lot.
"The opportunity that going new-gen only presented us was huge, and it gave us the chance to bring in features that we'd wanted to see for a long time," Rocksteady's Guy Perkins tells me, after I've spent half an hour with Arkham Knight, playing through a handful of snappy scenarios featuring collaborative brawling, silky smooth rooftop traversing, dead body scanning (which I wasn't really supposed to see, but I finished up the other stuff quicker than my guide expected) and fireman rescuing. And then there's the small matter of a certain vehicle making its Arkham series debut. "Having the additional horsepower (of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) meant that we could create the entirety of Gotham City, and bring in the Batmobile. We've made the game we always wanted to make, and Batman is at the peak of his powers in this outing."
The addition of the Batmobile is exciting, for sure, and Rocksteady's team has been careful to ensure that its massive-scale Gotham – Knight's open world is said to be five times larger than that of City – isn't divided into obvious in-car and on-foot sections. "We approached the design so that they work with each other, so the Batmobile is an extension of you," Perkins says. "If you want to use the car, you can, but you don't always have to."
In practice, though, the Batmobile is a fiddly, fidgety contraption that may well take a while to satisfactorily tame. What I play skips any kind of tutorial proper, and it's likely that the full, final game will break the player into the car's many powers slowly. But all the same, I regularly found myself pressing the wrong button while in control of Rocksteady's vision of the Dark Knight's powerful wheels, ejecting from the driver's seat when I meant to boost, or activating its guns-blazing, chassis-strafing battle mode when I was simply trying to back up from a wall I wasn't supposed to be parked in. In my hands, the Batman of Arkham Knight wasn't quite as cool as his cinematic depictions have presented him.
But then again, that's fine, because Rocksteady's Batman isn't the same as the comic book Batman, or the Hollywood Batman, or the animated Batman. He is the developer's own creation, a character certainly taking cues from previous versions of the Caped Crusader, but unique and original to the video games medium. "There's a style and tone to our Batman that's different to others," Perkins explains. "We've got Kevin Conroy back, doing the voice. We look at all sorts of places for inspiration – it sounds cheesy to say it, but a lot of people at the studio are Batman fanatics. Everyone has a favourite Batman, a favourite actor, or show, or series. People love Batman in all his guises, so [for ours] to be considered amongst all of those is great. It's an amazing privilege."
Perkins is keen to stress the emotional, personal aspect of Knight's story, one that will pit Batman against the titular Arkham Knight, a new villain of the studio's creation, and Scarecrow, who has successfully brought a number of recognisable adversaries, such as the Riddler, the Penguin and Poison Ivy, together to bring our hero down. In the vertical slice I get to see of the game, there's little evidence of quite how the story will unfold, but with prior Arkham series games praised for their bold narratives, I've no doubt that Rocksteady will realise a plot that keeps players hooked beyond trophy chasing and Batmobile racing. The precedent's there for quite the finale.
"We've done things in the past like killing the Joker at the end of City – and that was a brave move," Perkins says, referring to this climactic sequence where, yup, Rocksteady went and bumped off Gotham's premiere super criminal. "He's very dead, and very gone, and that changes Arkham Knight from a narrative perspective, because who is going to step into those shoes? Scarecrow was left out of City for a reason, and that was to bring him back here. As much as Joker was part of Batman's psyche, the yin to his yang, Scarecrow is almost the same as Batman, in so much as he uses fear as a key weapon. He's an interesting character for Batman to play off against, as he's not physically intimidating – he's mentally challenging.
"Batman is not indestructible – he is just a guy in a suit, and that vulnerability is evident. We've this personal story that sees his own agenda come to the fore. The story that we're telling is very emotional – it certainly feels that way to us. And the way it's revealed and developed is paced really nicely across the missions. If you're a massive Batman nerd, while our story is a new one, there's tonnes of stuff in here that you'll identify with, and things that will resonate with you. And if you're not, then it's still a great action-adventure game, which just happens to have Batman in it."
'Batman: Arkham Knight', Time to Go to War gameplay video
The ingredients are in place for the great action-adventure game Perkins is selling – Batman's movement is fluid, and this new Gotham feels like the adventure playground this digital superhero's always needed, full of perplexing puzzles to solve and lore-nodding environmental details. But where Origins failed to do much new with Batman's skills, Knight does dial up the gameplay, adding a clutch of fresh features which extend beyond the belated arrival of the Batmobile.
During a raid of one of the Penguin's weapons caches, my Batman engages in a bout of fisticuffs with an intimidating slew of goons – but not alone. Nightwing joins the fray, and with the tap of a shoulder button his moves can combine with Batman's to double-team any individual foe. One of the four main face buttons allows the player to step into the boots of the former Robin, opening up new moves unique to this sidekick. Together, they defeat the goons and deal with the stockpile of arms that, otherwise, would end up on Gotham's streets. Combat is something that the Arkham games have always been celebrated for, their free-flowing combo system and countering mechanics inspiring other games' own close-quarters encounters. Wisely, Rocksteady haven't tried to dramatically fix something that isn't broken.
"We have tinkered with it, and refined elements," Perkins says. "We've added new moves to the combat, and increased the number of animations. Now, when you get grabbed, it doesn't have to break your combo, as you can bash your way out of it. We've got moves where you can pick a thug up off the ground and immediately go into a super beat-down, which is pretty awesome. If you're fighting near a wall, Batman's behaviour will change – there are context sensitive actions, so Batman might flip off the wall, or bash people's heads into it. So there are a lot of changes, but the fundamental combat is still there and hasn't changed. And it's flattering that other people have seen our system as an inspiration."
Prefer real blows to virtual combos? Visit Fightland.
Elsewhere, the Riddler's been busy, converting sections of the city's sewers into traps-laden tracks for the Batmobile to blast through – the one I take a few laps around has controllable platforms that slide in and out above a watery death, and it's up to the player to hit the right button at the right time, while keeping up the car's momentum, to beat the Riddler's time limit. It's a fun distraction, but it is just that – these courses are something I'll probably visit only sporadically during the story proper, unless I need to in order to progress, and come back to after the plot's completed. The Gotham City Police Department is open for business in Knight, too, and Batman can apprehend criminals and drop them down into the cells across the course of the game. There's more – new gadgets, new-to-the-series allies, and the constant threat of the Arkham Knight's militarised forces, who come at you in tanks and armoured cars. It must have been tough for Rocksteady to know exactly where to draw the line on all this new-gen-facilitated stuff, given the increased power of today's home consoles.
"How much do you want to bite off, as a developer, is always a challenge," Perkins confirms. "But the way we approached this was by thinking about what we really wanted to create, and that was the ultimate Batman simulator. We needed the car. We needed the city. But we also have to make sure that what we're doing is relevant, fun and exciting, and that it stays fresh for the duration."
That consistent freshness is something I obviously can't confirm after just the briefest of hands-on time with Arkham Knight, but what I've seen so far fills me with confidence, and no little anticipation for the full game. I loved City, and while I enjoyed the tense claustrophobia of Asylum, being out in the open really gave me the Batman experience I'd always wanted in a video game. Knight is set up to be a very natural expansion of City, and if my gut feeling proves correct, and I get a proper grip on the blasted Batmobile controls, it'll be a trilogy concluding adventure that Rocksteady can be proud of.
"This project is the final Batman game for us, and it's been an emotional rollercoaster," Perkins concludes. "We're sad that it's coming to an end." The rest of us will have to wait and see what tears roll when the game's credits do.
Batman: Arkham Knight is released for PS4, Xbox One and PC on the 23rd of June.
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