Editor’s Note: The following contains very mild spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight.
In order to save Gotham, it’s become necessary to destroy it.
Or at least, that’s my excuse, as I destroy railings, smash up cars and knock over an incalculable number of lampposts in Batman: Arkham Knight.
I’m a few hours into Rocksteady Studios’ sequel, and a thick cloud of finality looms over it. Batman’s in the middle of the worst night of his life, as a rogue’s gallery of super-villains – presided by the armoured, mysterious Arkham Knight – threaten to destroy Gotham. The dialogue is terse and full of portent. Thick clouds roll ominously past the full moon. And yet here I am barrelling around the city streets, having a whale of a time in the Batmobile.
At first, I was a bit nonplussed by the way Arkham Knight foists the game’s driving sections on you. Using the Batmobile to get from point to point is all well and good, but why am I going up and down in lifts in the thing? Why has the Riddler spent what must have been months – and millions of dollars – devising what are essentially subterranean race tracks for me to drive around?
But gradually, the cynicism melted away as the Batmobile’s usefulness began to fall into focus. The Batmobile really is a fun and handy means of getting around. It provides a change of pace from swinging from rooftop to rooftop, and its sheer speed means you can traverse Gotham’s streets without getting into the tiresome and repeated fisticuffs that often bogged you down in Arkham City.
Arkham Knight’s Batmobile is a cool-looking thing, too. Like the metal beast designed for the Dark Knight movies, this particular conveyance is a fearsome amalgam of sports car, SUV, and tank – it’s all intricately-moving parts and overlapping bits of armour, not unlike Batman’s brand-new suit, in fact. The Batmobile can also transform into an interesting battle configuration when you hold down the left trigger, which allows you to fire missiles and bullets at the Arkham Knight’s army of drone tanks (the game’s very careful to point out that you aren’t killing people, even though you’d expect a few deaths through collateral damage alone).
These tank battles are absorbing in themselves, aided partly by the Batmobile’s agility when it’s in battle mode; the thing can strafe and jolt around with a touch of the left stick, which comes in handy for avoiding enemy tanks’ roving lines of sight, which criss-cross the screen like the laser sight on a sniper rifle. You can then return fire with your own Vulcan Gun, with each successful hit filling an energy meter. Once that’s topped up, a few taps of the X button allow you to let rip with a devastating volley of rockets.
Rocksteady have even found a way to work the Batmobile into some of Arkham Knight’s puzzles. A grappling hook and winch, one of several upgrades provided by the endlessly-resourceful Lucius Fox, allows you to do all kinds of things, from pulling the car up the sides of buildings, to peeling back doors like the lid on a tin of sardines, to creating impromptu ramps from bits of spare roofing.
Many of these moments are as clearly delineated as the bits of destructible scenery that Batman can blow up with his spray-on explosive gel, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining to interact with. I particularly enjoyed an odd little moment where I had to use the Batmobile’s winch to operate a broken lift in order to rescue a trapped factory worker, for example. (Actually, this scene marked a rare occasion where the Batman’s implacable facade actually broke. “Probably best not to drop the lift with me standing on top of it,” Batman testily scolded me, when I ham-fistedly pressed the wrong button.)
That the Batmobile’s so useful and enjoyable to play around with quickly quickly turns it into another character in the game. You know how attached you could get to characters like Epona in the Zelda games or Agro in Shadow of the Colossus? The Batmobile becomes as much an ally as those non-player characters did. Using the Batmobile becomes such second-nature that you start to miss the big cumbersome thing when it isn’t around.
Sure, there are moments where the driving doesn’t really gel with the level design. There was one sequence that involved driving around on some rooftops that really tested my patience, as the narrow width of the buildings and the twitchy quality of the controls left the Batmobile rolling off to the streets below. Having to press X to brake and reverse, when so many other driving games have for years asked you to brake with one of the triggers, takes a bit of getting used to. There’s also something un-superhero-like about spending long, slightly ponderous stretches quietly moving the Batmobile around with a crane so you can get to the next bit of the adventure. It’s like suddenly spotting a character with the gravitas of, say, Darth Vader operating one of those UFO Grabber machines at a seaside amusement arcade.
But these are more than counter-balanced by the moments where the missions and the Batmobile’s huge range of gadgets really comes together. Turbo boosting up ramps and over the gaps in demolished bridges really does make you feel like a superhero. Power-sliding up to a wall and then launching the Dark Knight up into the air, his cape billowing behind him, is really grin inducing. I’d really like one of those big claw things on the back of my own car – though I’d probably use it to load and unload my shopping rather than to stash Poison Ivy or various rescued hostages in my boot. Also, I happen to drive a Toyota Yaris.
I really like the way you can drive the Batmobile remotely, which means you can pilot it to one part of the map while Batman’s wandering about in another – again, handy for solving puzzles or getting rid of pesky tanks. And I like the way you can call the Batmobile to your side with a tap of the shoulder button, and along it comes, like a faithful dog with massive low-profile wheels.
Even when the game falters – like its first meeting between Batman and the oddly unthreatening Arkham Knight, who’s more Cartman in a Power Rangers suit than a Bane-like figure of menace – the Batmobile slides in to brighten things up, as you send the villain’s henchmen packing with a barrage of missiles.
Of course, I’m only a few hours into Batman: Arkham Knight, and the game clearly has lots more to offer. But immediately, the Batmobile’s managed to freshen up a now established franchise with a familiar range of mechanics in ways I hadn’t expected. Far from a bolted-on feature thrown in as a box-ticking exercise, the Batmobile feels as much an irreplaceable part of Batman’s arsenal as his cape or his Batarang.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Batmobile’s engine’s purring and I have a city to save – and demolish, all at the same time. But as the Joker once said, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…
Batman: Arkham Knight is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Xbox One version played.