I had the opportunity to play 20 minutes of Batman: Arkham Knight during a private meeting at the Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment booth at E3 2015. Naturally, since I’m a lifelong Batman fan, I was very excited. But I was also nervous and skeptical. So far, most of the things I’ve seen about this game, whether it be trailers, in-game footage, or featurettes, have not impressed me.
Not that Rocksteady has necessarily led us astray since Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is, in my humble opinion, the best game in the series. Arkham Knight, in comparison, has this sort of “bigger, better, and more badass” vibe that is becoming a growing trend in video games. Basically, it seems that a lot of the upcoming releases to current-gen consoles are larger versions of games we played last-gen. The same gameplay elements and mechanics, but with way more stuff to do. That doesn’t seem like a sign of a healthy gaming industry, but one that is a bit stunted in terms of innovation.
I have to call out the reveal of Fallout 4 as a prime example of this. That game’s segment of the Bethesda press conference introduced us to a sequel that looked like a carbon copy of what had come before (swap out the setting), but with a few new things (Pip-Boy games and Minecraft-style fortress building). It didn’t look like it was enough return on our five-year investment. Not even in terms of graphics, if we’re being completely frank.
But I’m getting off topic here. Arkham Knight, in all of its promotional wonder, has demonstrated the same exact problem. Batman has a metal suit and leather cape, a Batmobile that can transform into a tank, pretty much all of his allies, and lots more stuff to do. Is the game as much a big jump from Arkham City as that game was from Arkham Asylum? No way. You’ll get a lot of the same.
In fact, this latest Batman game is weakened by the other titles it inspired. Since Arkham Asylum, we’ve had two proper Batman sequels, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and now the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight and Mad Max. All of these games adapted the innovative combat system and open-world gameplay from Batman’s first (and best) adventure. After playing through pretty much the same foundation (give or take a few elements; e.g. Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis System) for six games, can Arkham Knight possibly be in any way fresh?
Yes, it can. And it is. This very harsh 180 is brought to you by just how much fun I had playing Arkham Knight, which is an improvement on almost every single gameplay element in its predecessors. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the Batmobile portion of the game (which is the big new feature in Arkham Knight), the combat is so fluid and addictive that I played past my allotted 20 minutes and a staff member had to prompt me to let the controller go (played it on a PS4, by the way).
Jumping right into the demo, I had several missions that I could complete. There was a main mission involving Scarecrow, a robbery in progress at Gotham City Bank, and a few others, but I spent the first ten minutes pretty much just gliding through the city skyline with my fancy leather cape, which looks and feels awesome. I could perform dive bombs at any time to gain speed and then lift off again to even higher heights, grappling on to almost any object at whim and in mid-air.
I pretty much flew over Gotham (Batman does it better than Superman probably ever could) the entire time until I spotted several groups of thugs causing trouble, at which point I could perform a glide kick, which is as powerful as ever. No bad guy is getting up from that. I could also prompt a glide kick on one guy while throwing a couple of Batarangs at his buddies, taking out all targets in a couple of swift movements.
The combat is more dynamic and fast-paced than I’ve ever seen before in the franchise. Although Rocksteady will hate this comparison, I’d say the developer has picked up on Arkham Origins‘ speed, but added the feeling of non-lethal calculation that is a must for the Dark Knight. This might sound a bit cliché, especially in terms of a game that is almost absolutely a brawler in esesence, but you really do feel every punch, thanks to the excellent sound work and a little help from controller vibration.
Rocksteady is being a bit more logical in terms of finishers as well. In past installments, after punching or kicking an enemy off his feet, you almost always then had to perform a special finishing move that took about a second more than you had during a big dogfight. As you prepared to for the unnecessary KO punch (BATMAN just finished PUNCHING you in the face a thousand times), another goon could easily sneak up behind you and sucker punch you, disrupting the finisher and allowing the fallen enemy to get up again. It was frustrating. Luckily, the studio has done away with that. If Batman knocks an enemy off his feet, you can continue to mash the attack button to knock the guy out. No more fancy finishers, although you still have the option to do so. Actually, if there’s one way to describe the improved combat system, it’s that you have a lot of options on how to neutralize thugs.
Eventually, I did call the Batmobile in a bind, and I made sure to run over some of the bad guys in record time. The button work in terms of getting in or out of the car while it’s still moving is pretty responsive and overall effective in terms of surprising your enemies. I couldn’t quite make sense of the cannon in tank mode, and I’m going to go back to my main criticism of the game for this one: why does Batman have a tank? “Bigger, better, and more badass.” Even some of the thugs on the street can’t believe it during their off-screen conversations: “The Bat has a tank now?!”
I found that I could traverse Gotham City just as well by gliding, which makes the Batmobile an optional tool. That said, there are plenty of streets, bridges, tunnels, and off-road paths to traverse in Gotham. Rocksteady has at the very least provided us with a suitable playground for the car. You’ll want to spend a lot of time driving to discover all the hidden stuff in the game. But the most important question of all is: do chicks dig the car? Sorry. I had to.
For the last 10 minutes of the demo, I decided to complete a mission. Two-Face’s goons were in the middle of a bank robbery at Gotham City Bank. Walking into the bank prompted the stealth portion of the game. This is the bread and butter of the Batman Arkham series, and it’s done just as well as its predecessors. I’m not sure that it’s improved in any way, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing here. Batman is so overpowered in almost every other way that it was nice to take these armed robbers out one by one. If you’ve played through the first three Arkham games, the mission is fairly standard. There are a couple of fun Two-Face voice-overs spread out, as well.
I left the WB booth wanting to play so much more of the game, explore the other missions on the map (which is indeed huge, by the way), and punch way more dudes. I didn’t particularly care for the Batmobile, and even though it’s the big new element of the series, I feel that I’ll probably go without it until a mission prompts me to use it. In terms of my original criticism of the game, I’ll say this: now that I’ve played it, I absolutely recommend Batman: Arkham Knight as the best summer game of 2015. If not a completely original and innovative installment, it’ll at least be interesting to see how Batman, at the top of his game, goes out swinging.