Rocksteady Studios' return to the Batman franchise leaves the previous generation of game consoles behind. And unlike last year's Batman game, Batman: Arkham Origins, which felt like a stopgap, Arkham Knight feels like a franchise — and a developer — at its peak.
In a hands-off demonstration of Batman: Arkham Knight at last week's Game Developers Conference, Rocksteady gave us a tour of Batman's new playground and some of his new toys, including the all-new Batmobile.
One of the biggest, most obvious changes in this year's game is the scope and size of Gotham City. Dax Ginn, brand marketing producer at Rocksteady, boasted that the city of Arkham Knight is some 20 times larger than that of Arkham Asylum's playable area. What that really means is a Gotham stuffed with taller skyscrapers ("epic verticality," Rocksteady says), greater visual detail and more diverse areas. Gotham will have visually distinct districts, like a neon-lit Chinatown, that will help players better identify what part of town they're in.
Dax said Arkham Knight's Gotham packs in both an "insane scale, but with that intimate detail we've provided in other games."
That detail comes through in the game's hugely impressive Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics. It's the best-looking Batman to date, thanks to some gorgeous lighting, slick reflective surfaces throughout and grand vistas that offer wide views of the city's gothic industrial architecture. Arkham Knight impresses technically in other ways; transitioning seamlessly between open-world exploration and interior settings or one-on-one conversations. There were no visible loading times in Arkham Knight.
"We wanted the Batmobile to feel like this wrecking ball as you're driving through the city."
Gotham City itself has been adapted to accommodate Arkham Knight's most prominent new feature: the addition of a drivable Batmobile. The city's streets are wider and its buildings are highly destructible, two features that show off the powerful, "wrecking ball" design of Batman's heavily armored ride.
"That was one of the key factors in designing Gotham City," Ginn said. "It needed to be a playground that fulfills that fantasy of driving that iconic vehicle.
"[After Arkham City,] we were thinking about, 'Where do we go next? How do we fulfill that ultimate Batman power fantasy?'" he explained. "For us, the Batmobile was the final piece of the puzzle. We've been wanting to do it for a long time, but really needed next-gen horsepower to pull that off."
"It changes Batman's abilities in every conceivable way," Ginn said. "We didn't want the Batmobile to feel like a bolted-on driving section, we wanted it to feel completely integrated into Batman's move set in every single way. It augments his ability to move through the city, his navigational abilities, his offensive abilities, his defensive abilities. Every feature of the Batmobile has been designed to integrate with Batman's move set in a very particular way."
Using the Batmobile, Batman can move through the city at previously unseen speeds. He can engage in car-to-car combat, taking out enemy vehicles with "immobilizer missiles" and powerful sideswipes. The Batmobile is also at the core of new driving-based Riddler challenges, a blend of high-speed obstacle courses and driving puzzles.
Rocksteady appears cognizant of the Batmobile's tricky integration into the Arkham series' tried and true, freeform movement. They're making the Batmobile a thing of convenience. Simply call the car in with the press of the left shoulder button and it will come to meet you. Batman will simply hop into the driver's seat, making getting in and out pretty seamless.
Batman's car also augments his more familiar method of traversal: flying through Gotham City using a combination of gliding and grapple gun slingshotting. When driving the Batmobile, players have the option to launch Batman from the driver's seat quickly into the air, using his inertia to propel him high into the sky. Batman's grapple gun has gotten an extra boost as well, allowing him to latch onto buildings from greater distances. One of the gun's best new features adds a reversal move; with it, Batman can perform a quick, 180 degree turnaround while maintaining his flight speed.
"Batman is at the peak of his powers" in Arkham Knight
Arkham Knight introduces another concept that makes Batman an even more formidable vigilante: gadgets while gliding. As he flies through Gotham City, he can deploy certain gadgets mid-flight. Rocksteady demonstrated how Batman could use his line launcher — the tightrope-firing gadget that provides him with an instant perch — in mid-glide. Ginn said Rocksteady is keeping some "gadgets while gliding" features secret for now, but confirmed that Batman will be now able to toss batarangs from the air.
Batman has a handful of new tricks in hand-to-hand combat, one of the Arkham series' most lauded components. He can perform throw counters, tossing an enemy into another enemy, and disarm foes, then snatch their melee weapons for his own use. Environmental counters are also in play. Batman can, for example, smash a thug's head into a nearby electrical panel to quickly disable him.
Rocksteady also showed off a new move, the "fear takedown." The takedown can be used in stealth situations to incapacitate multiple enemies — particularly heavily armed thugs — in the span of a second, reducing the amount of laborious one-by-one takedowns required when players aimed for stealthiness in previous games.
Batman: Arkham Knight's other major addition to the franchise comes in the form of an all-new enemy. While the Scarecrow appears to play a major role in the game's conflict, it's the eponymous Arkham Knight who will serve as Batman's mysterious new adversary. Ginn called the Arkham Knight, an original character created for the game, "very significant," but chose to keep his identity and importance secret for now.
Whatever the Arkham Knight's role, he'll close out what the game's developer refers to as the "Arkham Rocksteady trilogy."
"This is it. We are closing the book on Arkham and using the power of next-gen," Ginn said. Rocksteady's "epic conclusion" comes to PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One sometime later this year.