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Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman: Arkham Knight brings an agile Batmobile to the mix

This was the question faced by development team members as they sought a way to bring this series to the next generation of consoles. Their answer is bigger, better, more. A bigger Gotham City. Better mechanics and visuals. More gadgets and gameplay diversions.

Central to this ethos is the Batmobile which, judging from the short pre-E3 demonstration I attended a few weeks ago, is going to be the centerpiece of Batman: Arkham Knight.

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Its function is threefold. First, it allows the player to zoom across a vastly larger playing area than we saw in 2011's Batman: Arkham City. Second, it expands Batman's bagful of tricks and gizmos, including the ability to control the car remotely, and have it scale the side of buildings. Finally, it becomes a weapon in its own right, opening up shooting sections of the game for third-person gunplay, something the melee combat-action focused series has only lightly played with in the past.

"In the first Batman game, Arkham Asylum, it was quite an intimate experience where you were the world's greatest detective," explained Guy Perkins, game marketing manager at Rocksteady Studios. "Then we transitioned that experience into the open environment of Arkham City where we gave you the grappling glide and it was all about navigation through the city. For the conclusion of our trilogy, we really wanted to give gamers that full Batman experience, and the Batmobile is this legendary vehicle that everyone knows about.

"It works in conjunction with Batman. It's not just a thing that you use to get from A to B. It helps you solve problems. I helps you in combat scenarios. It helps you displace thugs. It just completes the Batman experience."

During a staged demo attended by Polygon, (the game is now coming to next-gen consoles and Windows PC next year) Batman finds himself outnumbered by goons led by the eponymous villain, the Arkham Knight. The stand-off is set in a chemical factory, where hostages are being held, just the sort of scenario that has brought this series so many fans since its introduction back in 2009. The odds change dramatically when the Batmobile turns up to give the bad guys a nasty surprise.

The Batmobile, which can be summoned at any time by pressing L1, operates in two modes. First, it's a really fast car that can go just about anywhere, ideal for racing around the streets of Gotham. Batman games of the past have delved into the 'driving-and-chase' possibilities of this automobile for 25 years or more, but this is the first time Gotham City has been rendered in quite so much detail and scale.

Even so, no-one is going to buy this game purely to mooch around the city, even with a ride this spectacular. No, the real action begins when the Batmobile transforms into Battle Mode, featuring tank-like defenses, guns, cannons and 360 degree maneuverability.

In my short playable demo, I found myself skidding around on the smooth, flat surface of the factory, engaged in fast-paced third-person combat against aggressive unmanned drones. The Batmobile stops, turns and fires at a rapid rate, picking off enemies before dodging to a safe area and engaging a new foe.

In this respect, it is not unlike Batman himself, in combat mode, moving gracefully between targets and delivering his signature coup de grace with style. "When the transformation happens and the front and rear wings hinge outwards, wheels then become capable of almost independent movement," said Perkins. "That allows you to pivot on the spot, which gives you accuracy. It's easier to dodge, avoid fire from drone tanks. The vehicle handles in a strafing movement that's very precise and a turret you aim with."

He pointed out that the shooting sections are against unmanned drones, keeping to Batman's ethos of avoiding killing his enemies. The car, as shown in trailers previously released, is a throbbing, phallic beast, much in keeping with the oft-praised overall design of Batman and his toys.

Rocksteady's Batman games have averaged Metacritic scores in the 90s, amassing loyal fans due to their dark depiction of Gotham, outstanding writing and loyal cleaving to the franchise, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Although the games' central mechanic has been basically hand-to-hand combat against multiple foes, it has always freely distributed other gameplay chunks such as exploration and puzzle solving. Rather than hanging the Dark Knight on a single kind of game, Rocksteady has used him to explore many different angles on the third-person action adventure video game.

It's no great surprise then, that this last game will add driving and shooting to the mix. But, according to Perkins, the game is designed to allow players different options in any given crisis.

"In terms of taking on perps, you always have the hand-to-hand option," he said. "We have a dynamic fighting system. There might be a mass group of guys, it might be wise not to take all of them on individually at first, you might want to use the vehicle. We're not really forcing players to use the Batmobile in scenarios where they don't have to use it, so it's really up to them. If they want to grapple glide around the city, instead of using the car to drive, they can."

Bigger Batman Story

Batman's encounters with other characters and grotesque villains, along with stellar voice acting, has been a major part of the series' popularity. Now, with next-gen consoles, Rocksteady is seeking to build on that.

"There's a lot more storytelling and narrative in this game than we have had in the previous two Arkham games from Rocksteady," said Perkins. "We are really trying to build out the relationship between Batman and his allies.

"This is really a much more personal story we're trying to tell, so I think the dynamic between Batman and his allies like Barbara Gordon and Commissioner Gordon are very important. We want to make sure players feel that connection because there are consequences. So we want players to feel involved and engaged. It's what we've always done but I think we're going to make it a more personal experience this time."

The car changes from driving to fighting mode very quickly and smoothly so the player can make use of the strengths offered by both, where necessary. Roaring around the dank factory setting, I made use of various ramps and tricks to bounce the car from one level to another. It has that extremely heavy and powerful feel that I associate with the Batmobile, but also a nimble ability to dodge trouble once the fighting really begins.

"Bringing the car in was something that we have always wanted to do," said Perkins. "We just didn't have the time or the horsepower to deliver that before. But just being able to do justice to a big, open city is important. We couldn't have done it in Arkham City. Now we can."

Rocksteady's Gotham City has also seemed like a place that was actually populated by more than just costumed archetypes and goons. This came starkly into focus upon the release of Batman: Arkham Origins in 2013, developed by WB Games Montreal. It received a mixed reception, mainly for its linearity and a setting that felt sterile and empty.

"We're building this huge city, but it's not empty. There's loads of stuff to do in there," said Perkins. "There's lots of side missions and quests that you can go on that take you away from the main story path but you choose whether or not you want to do that. Players want to feel invested in the world around them. We are giving them the keys to the car, the cape and the cowl."

But like previous games, the world will unlock as the player progresses, as well as offering reasons to return to previous locations and look again at the possibilities, with added gadgets and puzzles. "You will get that opportunity to explore Gotham as a whole, but we want to make sure that we're not just throwing you into the deep end with hugely vast, open ended structure," said Perkins. "When new features are introduced, the game has to support them."

One of the nicest moves in the game, which will undoubtedly be much used by players, is how Batman leaps in and out of the Batmobile. I found myself jumping in and out of the car, just for the hell of it. In the middle of a major fight with amassed bad guys, making use of car and caped crusader simultaneously is going to be essential.

"The transformation never gets boring. The wheels pop open, it springs up, guns pop out and upward. But the combination of the two together is awesome," said Perkins. "I love driving around, ejecting out, taking on the low thugs, using my new combat moves. Mixing all of that for me is really where the game comes into its own."

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