GDC Report – Eyes On ‘Batman: Arkham Knight’

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Along with this article, we also have a 14-minute interview with Dax Ginn, Game Marketing Producer at Rocksteady, on Episode 364 of the podcast, releasing on Thursday, March 27th.

It’s Tuesday at GDC, and in 30 minutes, the Sony crew will be onstage two blocks away to reveal what we now know as Project Morpheus. I’m the only representative for PS Nation at GDC though, and quite a few choices had to be made, and the choice I made was to instead attend a session to see Batman: Arkham Knight from Rocksteady and Warner Brothers Interactive. What we saw was an early PC build, but we were assured that it would be very close on both new consoles. The framerate stuttered, but that’s to be expected for a game that’s months away, and it didn’t even matter because this is Batman, and with Rocksteady at the helm again, I have total faith. Their track record in the first two games is pretty impeccable, and with the enormous undertaking in this third game in the Arkham trilogy, I can’t think of any other crew that could make this work.

“’Be the Batman’ lies at the heart of everything that we’ve ever done at Rocksteady for the last 10 years”. We’re told that the story picks-up around 12 months after the events in Batman: Arkham City. Crime in the city has actually begun to decrease, but there’s an undeniable feeling that something is brewing, and the return of the Scarecrow fills the void left by the events at the end of Arkham City. Where the Joker brought chaos, destruction, and disorder, Scarecrow is all about psychology and control of the power hierarchy of the criminal underworld and of the Rogue’s Gallery of “supervillains” in Gotham. He has united them all with the one goal of destroying the Batman.

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The Scarecrow threatens the city with a WMD-style weapon, and Commissioner Gordon has ordered a city-wide evacuation. Citizens that choose to evacuate are being loaded onto buses, and a voice that I didn’t expect appears. It’s gravelly, but not the voice that I’ve always associated with Batman in this series, and this puzzles me. “The only people left on the street are the sort that enjoy chaos”, we hear this as Two Face and the Penguin hover over unconscious police officers. The character designs haven’t changed except for the added details possible on the new consoles, and I still love them. The city, the lighting, the textures, the amount of characters on the streets, all taken well beyond what we’re used to. Perched high atop the city of Gotham, Batman slowly looks all around, and you see that this is all of Gotham and its surrounding areas. No fog, no end to the draw distance, and as you swoop down and across the cityscape, nothing ever pops in or out as we’re used to. Detail and lighting are always present, and scale flawlessly no matter how near or far. NPC’s never pop-in when you get closer to the streets, and everything is lit with accuracy and brilliance.

The first objective is to rendezvous with Commissioner Gordon at the Gotham PD (on the roof of course), which is represented by the bat signal up in the sky. The Batman leaps off of his perch, diving straight at the streets below, only to open his cape and begin gliding across the landscape. New this time though is the ability to “Grapple and Glide”, giving you the ability to use the grappling hook to slingshot the Batman during his glide. Think using the grappling hook and parachute in Just Cause 2, but a bit easier. This ability makes traversing the city so much easier, quicker, and more elegant than before, and you can pull some pretty cool stunts off too as you thread the needle with Arkham’s beautiful architecture. Again, the lighting really stands out here as the Batman glides through Chinatown. There’s so much depth to the visuals now, and the city really feels alive, yet gritty and “lived-in” at the same time. As you fly across the rooftops, you’ll be able to hear nearby conversations, and at any time, you can get closer to make sure no criminal activity is taking place. A surprise to me was the ability to shoot a wire in between buildings, allowing you to perch above the streets at any time. This makes things so much easier than having to find a rooftop that gives a good enough vantage point.

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Batman reached the rooftop, and again I hear this unfamiliar voice. Goosebumps ensue though when in mid-sentence Gordon turns around, mouth moving, and I realize that it hasn’t been the Batman speaking this whole time, it was Jim. Then more goosebumps, and my hands shoot to the sky as I hear that familiar voice, Kevin Conroy, when the Batman begins to speak. Yup, it seems that all of the voices from the first two games are here, and this makes me extremely happy. Commissioner Gordon finishes a conversation with his daughter Barbara on the phone, then lets Batman know that the Scarecrow stole a military vehicle that’s been spotted in the city. Batman makes his way toward that vehicle, but first takes a detour to help a downed Police Officer. Here we get to see how Rocksteady’s revolutionary combat system has evolved in a very organic way. Gliding down upon the group of thugs that have attacked the cop, Batman targets three, firing batarangs while in flight to incapacitate them, and drops down to finish the job. The combat is incredibly familiar with that revolutionary counter system that many others have emulated since Arkham Asylum made its huge splash a few years ago. As the criminals are dispatched with sweet, sweet justice, the military vehicle that Batman has been tracking suddenly appears in the distance, bearing-down on the GCPD officer. Batman quickly grabs and pulls him to safety. Instead of a chase in the skies and over rooftops, we finally get to see the biggest addition to the game, the freakin’ Batmobile! Batman signals for it, and since it’s been tracking his every movement, it’s not too far away,

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The Batmobile’s design is all new, and feels like a wonderful blend of older versions. I’d say that the primary influences are the 1989 model, the Batmobile from the first two Arkham games, and the Tumbler from the latest movie trilogy. “It’s built to be a battering ram” says Dax from Rocksteady, and truly I’d say that’s an understatement. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I initially saw that the Batmobile would be usable in the new game, but with what we saw, I guess I’d best describe it as playing Burnout Paradise in Gotham City (minus the events etc). You can drive anywhere you want (within reason of course) and if something beside a building gets in your way, you can probably drive right through it. It’s built like a tank, but seemed pretty easy to drive (this was a hands-off demo though.) Set your waypoint and instead of a line or arrows appearing on the road, arrows appear vertically in the middle of the road, which I immediately liked. With all of the explosions and particle effects flying wildly, this idea to make the GPS more visible just works.

The enemy vehicle isn’t far away, and once Batman got behind it, we found out that the Batmobile isn’t just a fancy driving-around car, it’s got defensive weaponry that can be used to incapacitate even armored vehicles like this one. Lock-on to the enemy in question, and fire “immobilizer rockets” to damage it enough to stop it in its tracks, all while screaming through the streets of Gotham. The scene was breathtaking honestly. So much happening on the screen, yet they seemed to have done a nice job allowing you to still focus on the task at hand. After a “long, slow, walk of Justice” toward the driver, and a brutal interrogation, Batman finds out that the Riddler might be involved.

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Back to the Batmobile, because I can’t forget to mention a couple more points. You may be wondering that yes, it’s great that you can drive all over the city, but what if you need to get high up in a hurry? Well, Rocksteady took care of that with an EJECTOR SEAT! At any time, eject Batman out, and using the inertia from that, start gliding toward your intended location, seamlessly. Also, speaking of seamless, transitioning from gameplay to cutscene, there are no breaks, no fade to black moments, nothing. You go straight into them without any changes in visuals or the use of any pre rendered videos. It’s something that we’re starting to see with other games on the PS4, and Rockstar has done it very well. Another item that needs to be addressed is the fact that the Batmobile is always tracking your location, so at ANY time you can call it in for use. Sure, it’s a convenient way to explain how it’s always available to you, but who cares about that? I just want to drive it all over Gotham!

Back to Barbara Gordon, also known as Oracle. In the past, she’s simply been a voice in Batman’s ear, but now her role is much more front-facing, and at least in this demo, it almost seems as if the clock tower will act as a secondary Batcave. Jim believes that she’s left Gotham already, and of course, he doesn’t know that she’s Oracle. She hates lying to her father, but she believes that she needs to stay and help Batman take these criminals on. So now Batman has a choice, which they asked me to make! Go to the clock tower and have Oracle analyze a toxin that Batman found on the driver, or use the coordinates they found for the Riddler’s possible position. I chose the Riddler of course! So as Batman makes his way to the coordinates and taking some detours to run some criminals over, he finds a large elevator, which he drives into before it starts lowering.

The Riddler appears on the walls of the elevator, thinking that he’s trapped the Dark Knight. As he pontificates about his success, Batman and Oracle hack his systems, and Batman is able to take over what the Riddler has built, a huge race track of sorts, filled with traps. Now that it’s been hacked though, Batman can move these traps, in the case of playing a game, by clicking the Left stick. This is a time trial of sorts, as the objective is to finish 3 laps, each with its own time limit. The visuals once again are gorgeous, and we even get to drive the Batmobile not only along the sides of the wall, but even over the ceiling. This is the one aspect of what we saw that while really cool, I’m not completely convinced I’d enjoy playing while in the game. To me, it seems like a distraction build to possibly break some monotony up, but these feelings are coming from someone who doesn’t usually indulge in many side-quests etc. The action was great though, and this isn’t a criticism of what the mode entails, rather if for me it really fits into the overall game well. The intention for these “trials” according to the Riddler, is to get a read on the Batmobile, so that further events can be made more difficult. Again, I kind-of hope that these won’t be necessary to get through the game, but I suspect they will. I’d totally play this as a separate mode or downloadable game though.

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Another comment on the combat system and its evolution. There will now be certain circumstances where you’ll need to not incapacitate an enemy so that he/she can be interrogated. In these instances, you can counter that enemy’s moves by throwing him/her while you eliminate the rest of the crew. Combat really doesn’t change from a mechanics standpoint, and it seems that these special counters are contextual, keeping the core gameplay pretty even across different types of engagement. A final addition to Batman’s arsenal is the Fear Takedown. Slip into a grating in the floor, and now you have the ability to surprise up to three enemies with a quick strike, and with surprise comes fear, which is quite powerful. What we saw was Batman quickly attacking from below, and as he took care of the first two thugs, you could see the third freaking out in the background, firing his machine gun wildly in the air, immobilizing him long enough for the Batman to dispatch him with no resistance.

That seemed like the end of the demo, and as Batman walked slowly toward where he left the Batmobile, gunshots rang out as bullets strike metal close to his feet. As he turns to see where they came from, a masked individual, dressed all in black, stomped on the Batman’s chest. He pointed a pistol at his head, fade to black, then we hear “this ends tonight”, followed by a single gunshot. Who is this character?! As I searched my brain database of the DC universe, I couldn’t place him, and then we found out. This, is the Arkham Knight. A brand new character created in conjunction with DC. That, unfortunately, is all we know so far. He didn’t have a cape, but rather it looked as if he wore a tight jacket, and the helmet had a full front to it, like a modern version of what an actual knight would have worn in medieval times, and obviously, unlike the Dark Knight, he has no aversion to using guns.

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It’s the best game I’ve seen for PS4 so far, and I don’t state that lightly. The scope is truly immense, and the narrative seems to be much more integrated this time around, with the possibility of two or three storylines happening at the same time in parts of the game. The mere notion that Rocksteady is able to finish the series, and they’re doing so on PS4, makes me smile. The design of the Batmobile is pretty fantastic, and even seeing the lighting off of the armored scales on the rear of it is such a small detail, but oh so impressive. I didn’t see anything that seemed like a cheat here, and I tried to pay attention to the little details when I could, and with the reveal of an all new foe that we’ve never seen before, I can’t help but get excited. We can’t have any preconceived notions about the Arkham Knight because we’ve never seen him before. We know nothing about who he/she is, any intentions or any motivations. My biggest takeaway though is how much better traversal across the city will be now with this Grapple and Glide and with the Batmobile. This has quickly placed itself high on my “most wanted” list of 2014, and I can’t wait to see even more, let alone to actually play it.

Thanks to Dax Ginn and Gaz Deaves from Rocksteady for one of the most spirited game demos that I’ve ever been a part of. Their excitement was infectious, and it made me enjoy the session that much more.

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Written by Glenn Percival

Glenn Percival

Just a guy that loves games, movies, Golf, Football, and Baseball.

Podcast Co-Host, Editor-in-Chief, Video Producer, and whipping-boy

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  • Mickey F

    Great job. Thanks for writing such an in depth article. So excited for this game now !