Having just 15 minutes to explore the expanse that is Gotham City in Rocksteady’s final entry in its Batman Arkham trilogy is like being in a supermodel orgy: it’s hard to know where to start, and it’s all over before you can settle in and explore things properly anyway.
The story takes place 12 months after Arkham City. The power vacuum created by the Joker’s absence has been filled by Scarecrow, who has united a rogue’s gallery to take down the Batman once and for all (sound familiar?). Commissioner Gordon has evacuated Gotham following an attack by Scarecrow, leaving the Dark Knight a playground sans civilians in which to hunt his prey.
“Batman is at the peak of his powers so in theory it should be a cakewalk,” says Rocksteady marketing game manager Guy Perkins. “But then Scarecrow brings in the Arkham Knight, who is this super powerful dude with a huge militia army behind him. So you’ve got this punch and counter-punch of Batman and the Arkham Knight, and of the Batmobile and the Arkham Knight’s massed forces.”
Looking at the multitude of mission markers beckoning us on our minimap, we decide our first order of business is to foil a plot by the Penguin that involves a large bomb on the top floor of a warehouse. There’s an open door around the side, but it’s covered by two large sentry guns that would turn us into Bat-gibs, so we batarang a switch on the wall to open the building’s main garage door, then remote control the Batmobile around and reduce the turrets to smoking metal with its rocket launcher. That’s a neat new trick.
We grapnel up a lift shaft to press a button that opens the warehouse’s armoured roof exposing its skylights, then head back outside and up on to an adjacent roof. From here, the scale of Gotham becomes apparent. It’s not only five times bigger than Arkham City, but taller too. The lights of distant skyscrapers twinkle across the harbour. The level of detail is impressive.
Penguin’s bombs are defended by the largest gathering of thugs yet seen in an Arkham title. Some have bats, some have guns, some just have their mitts. It doesn't matter. We introduce ourselves with a dive kick through the exposed skylight, and are soon embroiled in a momentous scrap.
The signature Arkham combat that launched a thousand clones (“it’s very flattering” says Perkins) has been further refined. There are more moves including throw counters and the ability to use enemy’s weapons against them. Well-timed counters can one-shot rushing enemies. The environment also factors in, Sleeping Dogs-style, with Bats smushing enemy heads into walls and swinging from light fixtures to kick faces.
Probably the best part is the Dual Play mechanic, wherein you build a combo and then switch to Nightwing. The transition between characters involves the spectacular tag-teaming of a hapless thug, and is a showcase for the dramatically higher polygon count on all character models. Once we’re done wailing on enemies with their own bats, we shut the bombs behind a heavy safe door and detonate them with Bat-gel. One side mission down. To the Batmobile!
A Riddler challenge is up next, and this particular one is a time trial around a track in the sewer that features impossible jumps made possible by our ability to move platforms up ahead via radar as we drive. That, combined boosting around various traps makes the whole experience a bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly, but the Batmobile handles well and even the escalating difficulty of the course each lap can’t stop us.
Back up on Gotham’s streets, the iconic car is certainly a handy machine to have around. Look at the road from any ledge, press a button, and Batman plunges toward the tarmac knowing the Batmobile will slide into view and intercept his fall at the last second. It's the kind of touch that really sells Batman's badass persona. The Batmobile also gives gliding a run for its money in the fun stakes with a sweet rocket boost and the ability to drift around corners.
It can also transform into a tank of sorts thanks to its assault mode. Here, the left stick controls movement (it can strafe in any direction), and the right controls a turret equipped with a rocket launcher and machine guns. In the tank battle simulation we play, beams of light show where an enemy tank is aiming, and these turns red just as they are about to fire.
Assault mode is nimble but not super fast, so the battles here play out almost like strategic puzzles. We move between criss-crosses of beams and get shots off when we can. We stay out of the way of enemy fire long enough to earn a devastating auto-lock missile swarm, and the sim is a shallow but enjoyable distraction overall. Shredding actual enemies stands to be much more enjoyable. “The car has to feel an extension of Batman,” says Perkins. “We didn’t want it to feel like ‘This is the Batman bit and this is the driving bit’. We wanted it to feel seamless and very integrated, so we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the two work together.”
And just like that, this orgy is over. So too is Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise after this game, in spite of the money that leaves on the table and not in the studio’s pockets.
“After the success of Asylum, we proved we could deliver a great superhero experience,” says Perkins. “It felt like the story we started there had a natural middle and a natural end. All good things come to an end – it’s the epic conclusion. It’s the right time for us.”
He’s keeping a typically British stiff upper lip, but does admit to mixed emotions over leaving the franchise. “We’ve been so close to Batman for nearly 10 years now, so it feels a very difficult decision, but also it’s the right decision. The story naturally comes to an end at a certain point, and we feel we’re doing it justice. We wanna give players that ultimate Batman experience.” The studio has already done that with its last two games, but with a few more toys and increased fidelity, Knight could well wind up the best of the three. We'll find out next month.
◆ Matt traveled to LA to see Batman: Arkham Knight courtesy of Warner Bros.