The trailer for the upcoming Gotham Knights dropped last week. It leads off with a video of Bruce Wayne saying, “If you’re watching this, I’m dead.” As of this writing, there are about 11,000 comments on that video and the vast majority of them are some variation of, “Yeah suuure he is. I’ll believe it when we see the body.”
Batman isn’t Dead, ARKHAM is Dead.
Because of this, I’m going to spend the rest of this article pointlessly arguing with the world. I don’t expect anything to come of this. This column isn’t analysis, it’s catharsisI hope, anyway. We’ll see how I feel when I get to the end.. It’s driving me completely crazy to hear the masses cheering as Warner Brothers takes all of the mistakes of Batman: Arkham Knight and multiplies them a hundred fold.
But Shamus! This isn’t an Arkham game! It’s not made by Rocksteady and it’s not connected to the Arkham storyline!
Yes, I know. I don’t actually care what timeline we’re in or which convoluted parallel Earth this thing takes place on. Whatever. I’m here for the gameplay, and what Gotham Knights showed us is a mockery of everything the Arkham games were trying to do in a mechanical sense.
Moreover, it’s not like Warner Brothers is going to maintain two competing Batman franchises at the same time. If they’re making this, then nobody is making anything along the lines of Arkham.
Shamus, didn’t you hear? Rocksteady is making a suicide Squad game! That’s the team that made the original Arkham games. You should be happy!
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the Suicide Squad game could contain what I loved about Arkham. Based on the previews, Squad certainly looks more promising than Gotham Knights. But all we have to go on is a cinematic trailer, and all I learned from it is that it’s going to be a huge open world with tons of playable characters. One, I’m looking at how Marvel’s Avengers is shaping upI know it’s annoying when I link to a video. If I knew of a good reliable source for this sort of thing in prose, I’d link to that instead. If you have any suggestions for sites, please drop a link in the comments. to be an obnoxious, grasping, cynical, bland, lazy, duplicitousClaim: “New characters will be free!” Reality: New characters each have their OWN seasonal battlepass. That’s not “Free”. That’s ten bucks. Per character. Per season. This isn’t a consumer-friendly game for the fans, this is actually a new low., and repetitive. It’s a full-price AAA game with the monetization scheme of a lazy mobile title. Sure, it’s possible we’ll get a good game from Suicide Squad, but the exact opposite is also possible. Going by recent trends, the latter is more likely.
Also, I really despised what an unfocused, bloated mess Arkham Knight turned out to be. The world was too big, and covered in too many Ubisoft-style map markers. The huge cast of Suicide Squad is making me suspect that Rocksteady is going to be doubling down on all of their earlier mistakes.
But, ok. I grudgingly admit that there’s still a non-zero chance that Suicide could be great. But Gotham Knights? Barring some massive overhaul between now and release, this promises to be a grindy monstrosity.
Note that WB also released a gameplay demo with developer commentary:
I’ll be referring back to this later on.
This is Not the “Arkham Combat”.
What set me off is the sheer number of people – critics and gamers alike – who looked at the footage and said, “Yay! The Arkham combat is back!”
It is NOT back.
This has always bothered me about the perception of this series. People dismiss it as “just a brawler”. But the thing that makes the game special for me is that it had the combo counter. That gave the game an enormously high skill ceiling. Sure, you don’t need to gain tons of skill to beat the game, and it’s possible to clumsily button-mash your way to victory, but the system is there. It lets you know you could have done better, and it lets you appraise your progress. It recognizes and rewards perfect play.
On one extreme we have games like Dark Souls. There’s a stratospheric skill ceiling so you can get really, amazingly good at the game. On the other hand, it’s a pretty harsh teacher by modern standards and it can create a lot of frustration for the player.
At the other extreme we have the super-accessible games that have a low skill ceiling and don’t ask a lot of you. The game is eager to wipe away mistakes on a regular basis, so “barely getting by” is indistinguishable from “completely mastering the game”. You can get good if you want, but there’s no reward or even basic recognition for doing so.
Arkham kinda offered the best of both worlds. The game will give you a pat on the head for doing really well, but it’ll let you keep playing if you’re not. It’s like you’re playing on easy mode and hard mode at the same time, depending on what your goal is: Do you just want to survive? The game is very gentle. Do you want to master the combat systems and build huge combos using a large number of gadgets to dispatch a crowd of foes without anyone laying a hand on you? Now you’re playing hard mode.
Now, you could argue that the game didn’t do enough to draw attention to this system. Personally, I’d really like to see a post-fight grade that’ll encourage you to chase after S-ranks, with a little sound to let you know when you’ve performed really well. Sure it was understated, but that’s no reason to remove the feature entirely.
Now the critics are right. This Batman game IS just a button-mashing brawler.
Leveling Mechanics? Are You MAD?
The demo footage shows Batgirl attacking goons that have hit points bars and level indicators over their heads. When she hits them, little damage floaties pop up like this is Borderlands or something.
In Borderlands this makes sense because the mechanics are built around you overcoming the leveling by acquiring better loot. Is Batgirl going to be finding random drops of Bat-gauntlets or Bat-nunchucks or whatever?
If this game is driven by random loot drops, then that’s both nonsensical and thematically inappropriate for a game about heroes that overcome their adversaries through rigorous lifelong training and one-of-a-kind technology upgrades. Batman’s strength comes from his training and his personal inventions, not because he got some +5 Batarangs from Penguin goon #547.
If this game is not driven by loot drops, then all of this stuff is just visual clutter. At no point did I ever look at Batman Arkham Whatever and think, “Man, this would be so much better with a bunch of World of Warcraft style interface noise”.
In the Arkham games you didn’t need hitpoint bars, because all foes went down in a few hits. The trick was that you couldn’t just focus down a single enemy, because then all the other mooks would get in behind you and punch you in the back. So you needed to bounce from one foe to the next to keep everyone stunned / knocked down until you could thin the crowd. Individual foes weren’t a challenge, because WHY WOULD A LONE MOOK BE A CHALLENGE FOR THE BATMAN? Instead, the challenge comes from the sheer number of foes. As a bonus, the result is that the fight ends up looking like a cool choreographed movie fight.
But no. In Gotham Knights your foes are obnoxious damage sponges that (judging by the footage) require so many punches that you need the progress bar over their heads to assure you that yes, this guy will EVENTUALLY fall over.
And now the crowd control aspect is gone, and you just need to focus people down one at a time. Yawn.
The one tiny silver lining is that maybe it’ll be interesting to mess around with the leveling mechanics. Can I slip back to the starting area and one-shot the goons? Can I take my level 5 Robin and sneak into a level 10 zone to see how far I can get? I mean, that doesn’t make any damn sense in a Batman game, but a least it’ll be sort of amusing.
Auto-Leveling? Are you serious?!?
Near the end of the presentation, the designer assures us that the foes will adjust to match your current level.
Don’t worry kids! We’ve saved you from the ravages of needing to think for yourself. Don’t worry about figuring out what challenge level you’re interested in. We’ve already decided what you like, and what everyone else likes, and we figure everyone has the same skill and likes exactly the same thing. So we’ve deliberately engineered the game to make sure you never escape the “intended experience”.
So they put in an obnoxious and wrongheaded leveling system, and then they implemented auto-leveling so we have all of the downsides and none of the advantages.
I hate this. I hate everything about it. Every single design decision seems to be precision-engineered to cause a mixture of boredom and annoyance. And we don’t even know if they’re going to turn this into some grasping live-service nightmare yet. As horrible as this is, it still has lots of room to get way worse.
Other Dumb Bullshit
You know what I really love about the Batman of the Arkham games? He didn’t feel the need to engage in banter. It’s going to be really grating to hear Batgirl yell “NO PRECISION!” at a bad guy for the infinityth time.
At one point the developer is talking about the gameplay footage we’re seeing when he says, “This mission takes place about halfway through the Mister Freeze storyline, and we’re about a dozen hours into Batgirl’s character progression”. Oh, we’re A DOZEN hours into the progression of one of the FOUR characters in the game? It sounds like this is a Witcher 3 sized game. Do they actually have Witcher 3 amounts of content, or are these dozens of hours filled with repetitive Ubisoft-style map markers to soak up the hours of your life?
The dev also adds, “Robin has learned how to access the Justice League satellite for short-range teleportation.” I kinda just hate this idea because it feels too magical for my tastes. I realize that technology levels are all over the place in the comic book world, but teleportation feels wrong for the versions of these characters I’m familiar with.
Like I said above, it looks like Gotham Knights is embracing the horrendous Ubisoft formula of grindy open-world collect-a-thon time-hole. Those things sell really well for whatever reason, which means we’ll get a ton of sequels and the Arkham formula will be forgotten. Eventually people will dismiss it as “antiquated” because nobody makes them anymore.
In conclusion, fuck this game, its mechanics, and everything it represents.
But Shamus! This was just a preview. It’s not fair to judge it so harshly. You have no idea how it’ll turn out.
This is a preview. It’s specifically designed to get reactions from people and get us talking about it. Right now there are thousands of comments to the effect of, “Oh boy! The Arkham combat is back! TAKE MY MONEY!” If those people are allowed to praise the game without playing it first, then I’m allowed to crap all over it. Fair’s fair.
I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong, but the prevailing industry trends do not favor the optimists right now.
 I hope, anyway. We’ll see how I feel when I get to the end.
 I know it’s annoying when I link to a video. If I knew of a good reliable source for this sort of thing in prose, I’d link to that instead. If you have any suggestions for sites, please drop a link in the comments.
 Claim: “New characters will be free!” Reality: New characters each have their OWN seasonal battlepass. That’s not “Free”. That’s ten bucks. Per character. Per season. This isn’t a consumer-friendly game for the fans, this is actually a new low.
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