Batman: Arkham Knight Preview

Go beyond the Bat.

We went eyes-on with the latest Batman adventure from WB Games during GDC. As the demo started, Gotham’s citizens clamored for a ticket out of a city threatened by Scarecrow and his WMD of fear toxin, conveniently setting up another scenario for the Dark Knight to explore a city filled with thugs and a few new toys (without any of those pesky pedestrians). 6.3 million people used to reside in Gotham City, but Arkham Knight hopes to conclude Batman's console-spanning incarceration system struggle.

While our hands-off presentation lasted about 40 minutes, I left our meeting at GDC with more questions than answers. Warner Bros. showed an expansive next-gen slice of Batman: Arkham Knight’s open-world running on a PC approximating PS4 hardware, with DualShock 4 inputs displayed on screen. The title is headed to Xbox One and PC as well, but marketing manager Dax Gin summed up next-gen graphics power with two key elements.

“It’s always nighttime and it’s always raining!” Dax shouted as another developer dropped Batman into a glide towards the GCPD building. “Imagine the challenge for our engine team and our visual effects guys to make this look as good as it does.” Arkham Knight did look beautiful in its own right, featuring large gobs of rain and a slick shine on nearly every surface. This is still just the beginning of next-gen console graphics technology, but PC fanboys would probably lament the dropped frames we saw in this early build.

At the beginning of the demo, Batman has a quick rendezvous with Commissioner Gordon who explains that the city, including his daughter Barbara, has been evacuated, allowing the police department to hunt down supervillains praying on what few public resources haven’t been shut off in the state of emergency. I’d hate to be the thug responsible for Cobblepot’s chamber pot without running water in Gotham.

Nevertheless, a peace officer needed help, so Batman did his disappearance schtick to leave Gordon. If you’ve played the previous Arkham games, you know that Rocksteady’s animation team ensures Batman’s acrobatics come through even though players only pound on the X or square button. Batman can now use gadgets in the air, so Batman tossed a few batarangs as he swooped into battle. Standard double takedowns, triple counters, and beat-downs return, but it seems like hand-to-hand combat has taken a back seat to the Batmobile in development.

Batman can steal a baseball bat in combat and use it for a few moves, but it’s all driven automatically by the animation system based on counters and the inputs that follow. Why mess with hand-to-hand combat when it's proven the best system in 3D brawlers to date (ignoring Arkham Origins)? Next, Dax paused the demo to call out the Batmobile, a “legendary vehicle” that the team worked with DC Comics to create exclusively for the Arkham universe. Immediately afterward, Batman launched into hot pursuit of a stolen military vehicle. Batman could fire rockets on the enemy to disable the vehicle. “Booooom, sweet hit!”

After a big crash, the developer playing the game walked over to interrogate the disabled driver about Scarecrow’s whereabouts. Here, Batman defends against an injection gun and analyzes the weapon for a new strain of fear toxin, and Batman uploads the toxin to Oracle for further analysis. Later, Batman actually meets with Oracle in a Gotham high-rise, confirming that Gordon's daughter hadn't left the city at all.

All of Gotham is “about twenty times bigger than what [Rocksteady] did in Arkham Asylum” and taking on the role of the caped crusader is the “philosophy at the heart of everything” the studio does. To that end Rocksteady has tried to meld Batman with the Batmobile. This comes to fruition in gameplay as Batman can call the Batmobile with the press of a button and launch out of it for a massive boost into the air. With cape open, Batman can swoop over a wide body of water and still come to land on top of a skyscraper.

This transformation between destructive brute-force on the city streets and delicate, flittering cape tails seems really cool, but I can't identify what it truly adds to the Batman experience. Rocksteady’s desire to meld the dark knight with the monstrous and gothic-looking Batmobile kind of betrays the ethereal disappear-into-nothing effect that players got hold of so easily in Arkham City. You can double-jump off a rooftop just as easily as you can glide-kick a thug standing on top of it, and the same is still true in Arkham Knight, but I won’t know exactly how it works in the open-world until I can play for myself.

The mechanic looks visually very satisfying, but this is a hands-off demo nonetheless. The Batmobile makes a ton of noise and completely wrecks other cars and assorted street-deco and even enters Riddler races by discovering hidden tracks throughout the city. The demo featured one track where Batman has to control switches throughout the track in order to activate jumps, remove walls, and even scream towards the finish line by driving on the ceiling. I hope Batman doesn't jump over any sharks in the full game.

The Batmobile also seems a little difficult to steer, perhaps as a result of dropped frames or the early technology rendered on-screen at GDC. Rocksteady’s Batman games have always delivered polished, transportive experiences so these things will probably be fixed in time for a playable build at E3. This is all in addition to new grapple-and-glide enhancements that launch Batman higher than ever, meaning Rocksteady have done everything they can to add another layer to Batman’s pursuit of justice.

Still, a major mystery surrounds Batman: Arkham Knight and that’s the role a brand-new character will play in Batman’s struggle to free Gotham City of evil. The Arkham Knight doesn’t, in fact, refer to Batman, but to another would-be hero that wants Batman brought to justice to end the war of escalation. We have no further details about the Arkham Knight aside from the fact that he was created and developed as a totally original character in the Arkham universe. [My guess is that it's Red Robin. ~Ed. Nick Tan]

Further complicating this mystery is that Batman is trapped between Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, Barbara, or as she’s known in Batman’s ear, Oracle. If Batman’s enemies find out, it could certainly put pressure on the Caped Crusader in his fight to end Scarecrow’s reign of terror. It’s certainly a potentially explosive mystery that fans will hungrily unravel as the world’s greatest detective later this year.

Batman: Arkham Knight is slated for release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on October 14th, 2014. We’ll have more on the game as we near release.