Batman: Arkham Knight Hands-off Preview

Spoiler alert: This article contains major plot details for previous entries in the Arkham series.

The Batman: Arkham franchise has been one of the most successful and critically-acclaimed superhero games in recent memory, appealing to both hardcore comic fans and more casual gamers. Last year’s Batman: Arkham Origins, however, was a huge disappointment, with many blaming a lack of innovation and originality for its poor reception. It was with excitement and relief, then, that fans reacted to the news that original developers Rocksteady were planning to release a third and final game to complete the trilogy properly, titled Batman: Arkham Knight.

We were lucky enough to attend a packed-out panel with the creators at London’s MCM Expo this year, where we got several very exciting glimpses at the development of this particular title. Sadly, we’re unable to show you any pictures of the event, as any form of photography was strictly banned, but we can tell you about some of the more exciting revelations from the Q&A session.

Arkham Knight sees Bruce Wayne at the height of his Batmanning prowess; his armour, gadgets and skills have all been honed to perfection. His suit in particular is spectacular, with servos and motors fitting everything into place in a way eerily reminiscent of Marvel’s Iron Man armour in their mega-successful films. He’s also finally got access to one of his most iconic accessories, but more on that later.

The story is concerned primarily with Scarecrow’s plan to set off a fear-based chemical weapon over Gotham (that the creators heavily hinted would involve the Titan formula that an Easter egg shows Scarecrow recovering). In doing so, he enlists the aid of the titular Arkham Knight, a mysterious villain with his own private military force, and it’s this character that’s prompting the most speculation.

Co-created with DC’s Jeff Johns, Rocksteady have stated that he’s an original character. However, many fans have politely been calling bullshit on this, with one of the more prevalent theories being that he is at least tangentially linked to the Red Hood. A consistent fan favourite, the Red Hood is a vigilante that terrorises Gotham’s underworld using similar tactics to Batman – except with lethal efficiency. The Red Hood’s identity was eventually revealed to be Jason Todd, a former Robin that was presumed dead after a brutal beating at the hands of the Joker during the ‘Death in the Family’ arc.

The theory does seem to check out; the Arkham Knight bears a remarkable similarity to Batman in name, skills and even costume, right down to the pointy ears. This would appear to indicate some link between the two, which could be a past partnership. A further compelling piece of evidence is that alongside Harley Quinn, the Red Hood has also been announced by the developers as a playable character, presumably via DLC.

While Rocksteady could have simply reused Nightwing’s animations from the last game, it seems unlikely due to their different combat styles. Unless they decided to build new character models and animations from scratch, it would appear that they already had a character fairly similar to the Red Hood in terms of combat and movement. No prizes for guessing who that might be…

Granted, the Arkham Knight’s apparent partnership with Scarecrow throws a bat-spanner in the works of that particular theory, but we’re not ruling it out. The Red Hood’s a fantastic character, and we’d love to see the next game based around his relationship with the Caped Crusader. Rocksteady have a proven track record of dedication to the source material, so it’s a safe bet it’s not far from their minds either.

The other cast-based query on everyone’s lips is the status of the Joker. As such an integral part of the Batman mythos, fans are desperate to know whether or not the clown prince of crime will be making a return to the stage. Naturally, this came up during the panel (from an enthusiastic, dedicated, and still-in-character Joker cosplayer), and the developers were at great pains to make it very clear: Joker’s dead. Super, 100 percent, as-a-doornail dead.

However, notice how that almost deliberately doesn’t answer the question of whether or not he’ll be returning. The Joker’s climactic and surprisingly affecting demise at the end of Arkham City happened mere feet from one of the famous death-cheating Lazarus Pits, and comics virtually have a revolving-door policy on character deaths (see the ‘death’ of Jason Todd above). We’re officially calling bait-n-switch on the Joker’s expiration – Rocksteady insist they want to explore a world after the Joker’s fall, but wethinks the lady doth protest too much.

Dedication and faithfulness to the source are definitely the watchwords for this game, though. The irreplaceable Kevin Conroy has returned to his rightful place under the cowl, and has brought with him key members of the original cast, such as Troy Baker’s Two Face, Wally Wingert’s Riddler and Tara Strong’s continually fantastic Harley Quinn. Voice acting is an oft-overlooked aspect of making a good game, and we’re psyched to see our favourites back where they should be.

The panel also revealed some heartening news for female gamers, as players will finally get a chance to meet Oracle, Batman’s resident tech support genius and long-time ally. Not only that, but the the developers also dropped some giant hints that we’d be seeing some more female characters brought in rather than mainstays like Catwoman and Poison Ivy. They were tight-lipped as to any identity, but we’d say that the smart money’s on Huntress, Talia Al Ghul and maybe even Zattana.

One of the main features of the presentation was the developers proudly showing off the gameplay trailers that have been floating around the Internet for a few months, and they are unarguably impressive. However, they also showed us something we hadn’t seen before: an exclusive gameplay segment from inside an Arkham Knight-controlled Ace Chemicals. It included a whole bunch of stuff that made us absolutely drool. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, and the devs promise that it’s all in-engine, with the only modifications being detaching the camera for better framing on certain shots. If that’s true, then this is going to be the best-looking game we’ve ever seen, Arkham or otherwise. The game is stunningly detailed and beautifully rendered, and looks indescribably pretty.

The expanded map for Gotham also looks huge – the developers boast that it’s five times bigger than the Arkham City map, and like The Rock’s diet, it seems organic and densely packed. One of the best things about City was how much fun the gliding system was, and we happily spent hours simply soaring around the city on leather wings. Gotham seems to have had a growth spurt this time around and the verticality appears to have increased dramatically, something that should make flying around the environment even more satisfying.

Flying is only half the fun, though. This time around, Rocksteady have finally completed Batman’s arsenal with a ride worthy of his awesomeness; that’s right folks, we get to tool about in the goddamn Batmobile. This version takes its design cues from the Nolanverse Batman and looks pretty much identical, although if they don’t offer reskins of the classic Tim Burton and Adam West models, we’ll eat our own legs. It’s as fast as hell, and is a huge, imposing sonofabitch. The trailer shows it barreling through scenery and obstacles as if they were papier mâché, and the devs have promised the inclusion of numerous opportunities for environmental destructibility, which sounds super cool.

However, as any bat-fan will tell you, this isn’t a coooaaaaarrr. Or rather, it’s not just a car. With the press of a button, the Batmobile will shift controls, sprout weaponry and transform into a tank. In ‘battle mode’, the Batmobile can deal out massive offensive damage which is primarily used to combat the Arkham Knight’s unmanned drone tanks, a neat way of adding vehicle combat while still getting around Batman’s ‘no killing’ rule. Similarly, if you target an actual person, the car will automatically switch to non-lethal rounds. Try to run over thugs, and they’ll jump out the way or bounce off the electrocuted crowd-control exterior. Try as you might, you will not be able to cheat your way to a bodycount, even with all that new ordnance.

One of the things we were really impressed with in the demo was the transitions in and out of the Batmobile. All it takes is a button press to hit the ejector, launching Batman into the air for instant gliding or a dive kick to the face. Another press will bring it screeching back, and it only takes a matter of seconds in-game to swap between the two. The switch is seamless and organic, and it looks like it’ll help make the Batmobile a proper extension of its driver, rather than just another cumbersome mode of transport. Of course, it also looks like more fun than a barrel of monkeys on speed, which helps.

Another new string to Batman’s bow is the ‘fear takedown’, which basically involves pouncing on up to thee hapless goons and making them crap their pants in sheer Batman-induced terror, allowing you to put together a blistering slow-mo combo until they’re curled up in the fetal position weeping mentally scarred tears. It’s pure Batman down to its bones, and fans of the character are going to love it.

Other than that, the combat and stealth mechanics look basically identical, but what did you expect? Rocksteady pretty much nailed this in the first game, and they’ve just been polishing it up ever since. Having said that, the increased range of environmental takedowns should add some variety to the occasionally repetitive pattern of ‘attack-attack-counter-gadget-finisher’ that these games can sometimes fall victim to.

Batman: Arkham Knight looks like it’s going to be a hell of a game, with gorgeous visuals, fluid movement mechanics and brutal, unflinching combat. It’s a labour of love from an exceptional developer, and it’s a final chapter to the trilogy that’s a damn sight more fitting than Batman: Arkham Origins – it’s the game we deserve, *and* the game we need.

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