How do you improve on the foundation established by the first two games in Rocksteady's Arkham series while still retaining the things that players have come to associate with those games? Batman: Arkham Knight offers up many answers to this question, but there was one that brand marketing producer Dax Ginn focused on at a demo during last week's Game Developers Conference: the batmobile.
Batman: Arkham Knight is set 12 months after the events of Arkham City. In the wake of the Joker's demise, the level of crime in the city has fallen, but Batman has suspected for some time that something big was brewing in the criminal underworld. It turns out he was right, and in Batman: Arkham Knight, Gotham has been evacuated on Commissioner Gordon's orders following a threat issued by Scarecrow. So, no, the Gotham of Arkham Knight won't be a Grand Theft Auto-like playground filled with citizens going about their business. It is still a moody, lonely place, inhabited only by the police and by those unsavory criminal elements hoping to stake their claim to the empty city, those who enjoy the chaos. Batman intends to spoil their fun. And with that nifty car of his, he's bound to have some fun of his own.
The batmobile is more than just a way to get from point A to point B. During the demo, the car appeared to live up to the fantasy--if you've ever daydreamed about the things you think that vehicle should be able to do, there's a good chance that the batmobile of Arkham Knight will do them. As you grapple and glide your way around the city, you can summon the batmobile, and it will stylishly swerve down the streets below to meet up with you. You can dive right into the vehicle's cockpit and switch seamlessly from gliding to driving, or reverse the process using the batmobile's ejector seat, which instantly launches you to gliding altitude. And it appears to handle like a dream. While speeding along a subterranean obstacle course the Riddler had devised for the batmobile, Rocksteady's Gaz Deaves drove along the wall for a moment, and in one cylindrical tunnel, he rotated all the way around the passage's surface, clinging to the ceiling briefly before circling back down to the ground.
The city through which the batmobile weaves appeared vast and diverse; at one point, Batman swooped through Chinatown, in which buildings were cluttered with neon signs, and later he made his way to Oracle's headquarters in Gotham's stately clock tower. Oracle is a physical presence in the game this time, not just a voice in Batman's ear, and like all the characters in the game, she looks more real and world-weary than characters have looked in earlier Arkham games. If Rocksteady hopes to give the narrative of Arkham Knight a human dimension, the expressive character models could help. At one point, Oracle said to Batman that she thinks her father might still blame himself for the injury that has left her confined to a wheelchair, a gunshot fired by the Joker, and I was curious as to how the tension between father and daughter might play out over the rest of the story. Ginn emphasized that this game will be the conclusion to Rocksteady's Arkham trilogy and tie up threads that have existed in the series from the beginning (conspicuously, no mention was made of the WB-developed Arkham Origins), but the finer points of the narrative went largely unexplored during the demo.
The additions to the series' signature combat and stealth systems were put through their paces, though, as Ginn pointed out that Batman can now use gadgets while gliding, and can use enemies' weapons against them. As Batman swooped toward a group of thugs, he flung a few batarangs, and when he was on the ground, he grabbed one thug's baseball bat and used it to strike another. He also made use of an environmental counter, smashing an enemy's face into a power panel in a move that seemed lifted from the combat of Sleeping Dogs. Later, a new type of stealth takedown was demonstrated: the fear takedown, which let Batman take advantage of the element of surprise to chain together the takedowns of three guards.
Ginn stated that this game could only have been pulled off with next-gen technology, and at least in visual terms, that's certainly true. Particularly impressive to me was the way that as Batman plummeted through the air, individual raindrops falling alongside him were clearly visible. The game also hitched up significantly at times, with the frame rate falling into the single digits on occasion, but of course there's still plenty of time for the game's performance to be tweaked before it's released later this year for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
The demo may have shed light on some of Arkham Knight's gameplay surprises, but it also raised one tremendous question: who is the Arkham Knight? As the demo came to a close, Batman was attacked by a figure whose identity was unclear, but who seemed to be a formidable warrior capable of going toe-to-toe with the caped crusader. This, Ginn said, was the Arkham Knight, a new character created by Rocksteady in collaboration with DC, and a character of tremendous importance in the game's story. My suspicion is that, like the character of Red Hood in the Batman comics, the Arkham Knight will end up being a character we already know; perhaps it will be the Joker, making one final appearance, revealing that his apparent demise in Arkham City was one big, elaborate joke. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the joke's on me.