The caped crusader has a nifty vehicle at his disposal, and it’s no gimmicky feature.
Update: Sarah LeBoeuf
I have to admit, I was a little worried about Batman: Arkham Knight going into E3. As a huge fan of the Arkham series who found Batman: Arkham Origins a bit lacking, I was happy to see original developer Rocksteady back on the franchise, but I was still wary. I was afraid the Batmobile would be too gimmicky, that it would make the game into Grand Theft Batman instead of a subtle, natural evolution of the first two games. As I discovered today, I was wrong. I’m here to echo Greg Tito’s opinion that the Batmobile is no gimmick; it appears to be incorporated into the game as naturally as the Dark Knight’s other tools.
I enjoyed wheeling around in the Batmobile, but that’s just one part of what made my half-hour hands-on play session with Arkham Knight enjoyable. There was also the presentation, which was just stunning, despite the game being pretty far out from its 2015 release date. Batman looks tougher than ever in his gear, but the mysterious, titular Arkham Knight is no slouch either.
Then there’s the combat, always a highlight of this series, and it feels as good as it ever has in Arkham Knight. In fact, I ignored Rocksteady animator Adam Vincent’s advice to approach a mission stealthily and immediately grappled up to a platform full of thugs so I could go in swinging. It’s immensely satisfying to punch one goon in the face, counter another, grab an object and toss it at a third, and finally finish off the lot of them with a series of punches and kicks. Even better, you can remotely access the Batmobile and use that in combat, adding another layer of strategy into the mix.
The Arkham Knight demo was a mix of the familiar and some new tricks, and one improvement I was glad to see was the Caped Crusader’s ability to quickly scale tall buildings by chaining together grapples. Vincent said that there was a lot of focus on the vertical space in this game, so being able to rise and fall quickly is key to getting around.
Sometimes it’s great to be wrong. In this case, I couldn’t be happier. Batman is back, or will be in 2015 when Arkham Knight launches. It’s a long wait, but if the extra time is what Rocksteady needs to go out on this series on the best possible note, it will definitely be worth it.
The Batman is a great protagonist for an open world video game. He has a bunch of gadgets to assist him with being the world’s greatest detective. He also can climb, glide or rappel just about anywhere. Now, in the new game from Rocksteady Arkham Knight, he has a badass car – the Batmobile – which not only helps him get around the ludicrously huge open spaces of Gotham City, but it also helps with puzzles, takes down thugs in concert with Batman with automated gunfire and even has a fancy tank mode to destroy enemy vehicles with gleeful cannon fire. It’s too bad Arkham Knight is delayed until 2015 on next-gen consoles, because it looks absolutely glorious in action right now.
Jumping from third-person action directly into the Batmobile is “absolutely seamless” as Dax Ginn from Rocksteady Games said emphatically during the presentation at the Pre-E3 event in May. I was as skeptical as you when the gameplay trailer was shown last week, but when I got my hands on the PS4 controller and actually played the game, I realized how good the animations looked. It’s not only seamless; it’s beautiful in its dark portrayal of the Ace Chemicals factory at night and in the rain. It doesn’t look like a comic book, a CGI trailer or a live action film – it is a gloriously rendered, honest-to-goodness video game.
I asked Guy Perkins, marketing game manager at Rocksteady, whether he thinks his studio’s games are the premier visualization of the DC Universe, given the attitude towards the property after the disappointment of Man of Steel. He balked, but it’s clear the team uses the comic books as their sole source, and not any film or animated series. “I can’t really comment on the strands of the DC Universe,” he said. “What I would say in a semi-answer to that question is that we just have a vision of where we want to take Batman and the Arkham-verse experience. Sefton Hill and the team draw influences from lots of places in the DC Universe. They have some core fiction that they love and they want to tap into, but fundamentally we have a vision as to what we want Batman to be, to look like and I think we’ve been very successful with that and we’ve been able to evolve it very slowly and introduce more and more things.”
The Batmobile is just one of the many things Arkham Knight introduces. The other is the antagonist – the titular Arkham Knight is a mysterious figure working with Scarecrow in developing a fear toxin. The Knight intensely wants to kill Batman, clearly blaming him for some transgression, possibly resulting in his disfigurement and need to wear a mask. You know, just going off of Batman’s M.O. The Arkham Knight has a military force at his command, though, so he makes a very formidable adversary for the Bat. “We’re talking infantry, we’re talking tank divisions, we’re talking airborne drones,” Ginn said. “This guy has got everything he needs to bring war to Gotham.”
And that’s where the new function of the Batmobile comes in; the thing is a goddamned Transformer. With the push of a shoulder button, the car goes from pursuit mode to battle mode. In battle mode, you have much greater mobility and maneuverability. You’re able to dodge with a quick button tap, as well as move laterally left and right, while laying down machine gun fire peppered with the occasional high-powered cannon shot. The cannon is on a cooldown, so you’ll have to dodge enemy fire as you wait for it to recharge. Playing as a Batmobile tank takes a bit of time to figure out – during the demo, they insisted I play through a short tutorial scenario before starting the demo proper – but once you do, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
It is very easy to transition between driving the Batmobile and wading into a fist fight with Batman – you can even time Batman’s arrival so that he jumps out of the car and immediately starts comboing off punching the bad guys. One of the cinematic takedowns the series is known for involves tossing thugs into the air so that the Batmobile can shoot them with its guns. That’s because the Batmobile can be controlled remotely. Yeah, the gadget wheel has a remote control that you can basically use drive the vehicle even when Batman is busy somewhere else. This was also useful when infiltrating Ace Chemicals and trying to get past the many puzzles. The Batmobile can shoot a tether cable, and pull objects like stuck doors, or in one memorable sequence, the counterweight to an elevator system so that Batman can get further into the plant to rescue Ace Chemical workers.
The Batmobile’s Pursuit is also really fun to control, basically acting as a souped up driving game experience. You’ll have to use the afterburner control to hit jumps at just the right time in order to access certain areas – there was a moment in the demo where it took a few tries and when I nailed the landing, I felt like I was in the Dukes of Hazard. I asked Guy Perkins how much the car fits in with the huge open world of Gotham that’s five times the size of Arkham City.
“It was really important that if we’re going to introduce the Batmobile it isn’t just a car or a fast-travel system – it isn’t a fast travel system – but it has to be the best car that it could possibly be,” he said. “It has to do more than just drive, it has to do more than just look cool. It’s gotta be something that supports the game design, that makes it interesting to play with.”
Will the car be available from the start of the open world experience or will it be restricted? “We’re not restricting you in any way. If you want to [explore] on foot, or grapple and glide, you can do that. If you want to do it in a vehicle you can go and do that. We don’t want to force you play in a certain way,” Perkins continued. “Obviously, there are instances where it makes more sense to use the Batmobile. For example, you wouldn’t walk into a tank battle as Batman because you’re just going to get destroyed. Using the Batmobile makes more sense there. But it’s very much this partnership of man and machine. We’re not trying to create these niches where this is just a little bit Batmobile, this is a little bit Batman.”
The Batmobile even has a containment unit that can be used to transport both friendlies and hostiles without endangering them too much. In the demo, we were able to get through the Ace Chemical factory and save a handful of workers left alive by the Arkham Knights forces. The last one, we pushed into the containment unit just as the Knight himself showed up to fight. After a brutal series of combos, upper cuts and Bam/Pows, Batman prevailed, but the Arkham Knight withdrew. The demo ended with Batman driving the Batmobile out of the factory to meet up with Commissioner Gordon.
So if there’s a Batombile, will we see a Batplane? A Bat-submarine? Guy Perkins dodged the question, but I might have detected a nod and a wink there.
Another addition in Arkham Knight is the ability to chain grappling shots to “hit that epic verticality” as Dax Ginn put it during the presentation. There’s also a new device called the Bat Scanner. It’s shaped like a bat, predictably, but when you toss it out like a boomerang it can detect all kinds of signals including radio transmissions and life sign locations. Pretty handy for an open world game – the Bat Scanner seems to act like a synchronization point in Assassin’s Creed, only you don’t have to jump in any dang pile of hay.
Rocksteady has said that this is the last Arkham game they will make. It certainly feels exquisitely modern in its presentation. The meld between attractive visuals and new and expanded features like the Batmobile and the open world experience in Gotham City looked truly wonderful on PlayStation 4 I played it on. But why are they giving up? Perkins said that part of it is going out on a high note, but it’s also the natural progression that Sefton hill always envisioned. “We gave gamers that ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ experience with Arkham Asylum, that kind of intimate, very closed in setting. Blowing that out into the open world, [in Arkham City] we gave you the ability to be the Caped Crusader,” he said. “Sefton’s vision has always been, ‘I need the Batmobile. Gotta have the Batmobile in my game.'”
And now, he’s able to deliver that promise. Not only will we get the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, but we’ll also get the chance to see the design of the car in the flesh at E3 2014 next week in Los Angeles. “In collaboration with West Coast Customs, we’ve built this thing,” Dax Ginn said. “Full scale, full size. It is red hot. Well, it’s not finished yet but it will be red hot.”
Is all that worth the news that Arkham Knight has been delayed to release some time in 2015 on the PS4, the Xbox One and PCs? Probably not. But if you take anything away from this preview, know this: the Batmobile is a joy to drive.