It was immediately clear why Warner Bros. and Rocksteady had chosen the venue they had for the final press showing of Arkham Knight. The St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel, despite its name, looks like it belongs in Gotham City. It is an imposing red brick, marble, and steel structure that could quite easily serve as an overrun hideout for any of the series’ villains. Penguin, perhaps; it has that air of grandeur and ostentatiousness that Cobblepot seems to gravitate towards to offset his less than threatening appearance.
As I sit in the entrance hall waiting for the event to start, I half expect Batman to come smashing through the frosted glass ceiling above me; for half a dozen London businessmen to flip over tables and pull out assault rifles; for the foyer to turn into a signature Arkham series Challenge Map. The thing is, the hotel is so unmistakably Gotham because it was Gotham: it was a set used in the feature film, Batman Begins.
Once I had made my way up to the suite holding the event, I found myself in a grand living room, only the living room was made up to resemble one from Wayne Manor: Arkham series music played in the background, projected swarms of bats would screech and flutter their way across the ceiling, and an enormous family portrait of Bruce and his parents hung above the fireplace. For today, Rocksteady wanted us to be in Gotham.
“The city is as much a part of Batman as he is of it.”
It was apt considering the series’ jump to an open-world Gotham, and as I spent some time playing in Batman’s home city I realised how much attention to detail and care Rocksteady had taken in bringing the iconic location to life. “It’s about detail,” Rocksteady’s Gaz Deaves tells me when I asked him how Rocksteady approached the creation of Gotham. “It is about creating an environment that is completely bespoke: every rooftop is different and has had things placed there by an artist specifically to create the feel that every single square inch of Gotham City is living, breathing, alive, and is detailed… The city is as much a part of Batman as he is of it.”
For Rocksteady, the gameplay heart of their final title in the Arkham trilogy was always going to be the Batmobile, and the introduction of the Batmobile meant that a large Gotham City was needed for players to tear around. But the Batmobile also had an effect on the game’s villains and the subsequent interactions they present. Riddler is perhaps the best example of this: he has seen the Batmobile, and has developed an obsession with it. “He sees it as a puzzle,” Deaves says, “as a riddle for him to unpick. And how does Riddler approach anything? He uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut.” Deaves is referring to the Riddler Racetrack challenges. At first glance they might feel a little forced; like something that has been added to tick a checkbox because there is a vehicle in the game. Fortunately they are, like many of Riddler’s previous distractions, a lot of fun.
Riddler has transformed the entire Gotham waterworks and underground sewers into elaborate race tracks “full of telemetry capture equipment”. He’s analysing the Batmobile at every corner, jump, and hairpin. As you race around the subterranean tracks, you need to be alert as Riddler constantly changes the space in front of you. You can manipulate elements, such as ramps, platforms and doorways, but it all relies on your reflexes as the Batmobile reaches top speeds and you’re pushing to beat Riddler’s countdown timers. It might sound a bit contrived, but it makes for much more compelling gameplay than collecting dozens and dozens of Riddler trophies. Plus any excuse to hop into the Batmobile is welcomed.
“…firing and dodging your way through encounters, as the streets of Gotham become more and more damaged by the ceaseless back-and-forth of tank artillery.”
But the Riddler isn’t the only villain to be directly influenced by the presence of the Batmobile; the eponymous Arkham Knight and his drone army exist, Rocksteady says, as a counter for the formidable new piece of technology at Batman’s disposal. Drone tanks are more than capable of posing a significant threat to the Batmobile, and encounters with battalions of them are tense affairs. Projectile-guiding white lasers crisscross the streets of Gotham as tanks move to surround you. Once the lasers turn red you have a fraction of a second to move out the way before you’re hit. It almost seemed like the drones worked together to hem me into gradually constricting networks of lasers. Luckily the Batmobile’s Battle Mode handles beautifully so you’re a nimble death machine capable of dolling out staggering amounts of damage even when horribly outnumbered. Register a few hits with the Batmobile’s main cannon and you’ll get a single-shot guided missile salvo that locks onto your target of choice. This keeps you firing and moving and firing and dodging your way through encounters, as the streets of Gotham become more and more damaged by the ceaseless back-and-forth of tank artillery.
It isn’t only about Batman and his vehicle; the Dark Knight has always had allies who fight alongside him, and this was an aspect of the IP that first made an appearance in Arkham City. While you couldn’t play as Batman and Catwoman, or Batman and Nightwing simultaneously, you could still switch characters to undergo sets of side missions. This time around, however, you get to play as both Batman and his allies at the same time. This is thanks to the new Dual Play mechanic.
When Rocksteady revealed Dual Play, I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of concern. How they intended to pull this off within the parameters of combat encounters left me scratching my head. They went into development of this feature with one goal: capturing the chaotic nature of Batman and an ally taking on hordes of thugs. I got to test it for myself as Nightwing joined Batman to take down a weapons cache belonging to Penguin. Batman smashed through the glass ceiling of the bank where Penguin was hiding weapons, and before I’d even felled the first thug, Nightwing was at my side. Within seconds the scene exploded into a cacophony of yells, insults, punches, kicks, and bone cracking takedowns. Switching between Batman and Nightwing is completely seamless and happens so fast that if you blink at the moment you press the swap button, you’ll miss the transition. It’s fast enough that if you are playing as Batman, and you see Nightwing about to take a hit from a thug in the background, you can instantly switch to him and counter the impending attack. The camera, somehow, keeps up through all of this. There is potential for the Dual Play encounters to devolve into balletic button mashing, but there is also potential for more savvy Arkham players to set up devastating tag-team takedowns that are superbly animated and engrossing to watch. Time it right and Batman will flip a thug into the air for Nightwing to land a flying kick, instantly knocking the target out. It makes for some of the most convincing Batman role-playing in the series to date and I’m intrigued to see the combos between Batman and Catwoman, or Batman and Robin.
We’ve always wanted to play games as Batman, and to a large extent the previous games in the Arkham series have allowed that. But those early titles have always had their limitations in how far that Batman fantasy could extend. Comparatively, the earlier titles now feel like they were just touching the surface of what it means to be the Batman. Is Batman: Arkham Knight poised to become the quintessential Batman game? Is it destined to become the definitive super hero gaming experience? It certainly seems that way already, but time will tell. At the end of June we will all become the Batman for one last time, and Rocksteady’s final offering is shaping up to be the super hero experience we’ve dreamt of for many, many years.