Neon green and red lights flash as Batman maneuvers the Batmobile through loop de loops in a gaudy underground racetrack. On the streets of Gotham, giant, bulbous tanks strafe around each other shooting at the speeding Bat-vehicle as it tries to escape. Onscreen, a computer-animated Alfred appears and gets snippy with master Bruce.
This is a description of the things I did in a demo of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Knight, due out this June on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. And if any of the above sounds a whole hell of a lot like the camp film Batman & Robin, well, that's because it's eerily similar. If you were a fan of that Joel Schumacher-directed 1997 nipple fest or the open-world distractions of the 2011 video game Arkham City, then that gameplay might sound pretty awesome. But for a fan of Batman: Arkham Asylum like myself, however, this sample of Arkham Knight was disconcerting.
For its new entry in the series, Arkham Knight, developer Rocksteady chose to double down on the open-world exploration of predecessor Arkham City, giving players an expanded metropolis and a souped-up Bat-vehicle to explore it with. The face-lift that open world's received on the new PlayStation 4 hardware is truly impressive. The streets, thugs and heroes of Arkham Knight glisten with detail and reflected light. Batman's dank, wet world is gloriously represented even if it feels like you've been on these streets before. In fact, if Gotham seems overwhelmingly familiar when you start playing, that's because the city, though significantly bigger, does indeed borrow architecture from the last game.
That familiarity isn't a bad thing, though, as continuity between Batman's video game adventures should enhance the fantasy that you actually are the Caped Crusader. This is his city and while it should change -- especially after the middle of town was converted into a freaky prison colony in the last outing -- it shouldn't be wildly different every time.
The Batmobile, which has both destructive and acrobatic panache, lends a perspective absent from the previous games. Where most of Arkham City had players using grappling hooks to swing around and glide through the city's rooftops, Arkham Knight keeps players grounded in the Batmobile. Unfortunately, that decision to constrain Batman to the streets also seems to have opened the door to some truly Schumacherian missions (sadly devoid of sexual innuendo) for Batman to complete while joyriding.
I got to indulge in three Batmobile-centric mission types in the demo: bomb disposal, Riddler racing (seriously) and a chase sequence where I tried to catch the jetpack-rocking villain Firefly. To Rocksteady's credit, all three were pretty entertaining.
In the first mission, the Arkham Knight (as the game's villain is called) has sprinkled bombs throughout the city that Batman must diffuse by attaching a wire to them (with the Batmobile) and uploading a virus. He then has to defend that secured bomb from neon red-tinged robot tanks while the virus uploads. The whole thing feels more like a version of Battlezone, the 1980 arcade game, if it were made by Daft Punk. The Riddler races, meanwhile, feel like Mario Kart built by an insane person and set in a city sewer system. Which is more or less precisely what's happened here: The Riddler has you try to beat a course time while you drive up walls and make tricky jumps underground.
Are these Batmobile-specific diversions entertaining? Sure! But when you're riding the elevator back up from the Riddler's subterranean fun times, it's hard not to wonder what the hell any of that has to do with being Batman. Is Rocksteady attempting to ape the goofy Batman of the '50s comics? If that's the case, then why is everything all neon counterpointed with shadows and grit? Why have a tank fight at all?
The Firefly chases at least feel more true to Batman's spirit. Those missions have players driving up to a burning building and then chasing the high-tech arsonist as he tries to escape. Trying to drive around tight city corners so you can get close enough to launch yourself out of the Batmobile, tackle Firefly and beat the crap out of him feels absolutely awesome. It's also irritatingly open-world-game-specific, though. Since it's a type of mission, players have to chase Firefly multiple times to complete that side story.
The Riddler races feel like Mario Kart built by an insane person and set in a city sewer system.
Therein lies the greatest problem with Arkham Knight's shift from the tightly wound exploration of the original to the now Grand Theft Auto-esque open world: The game rarely feels momentous. Every one of these missions feels like so much filler; distractions to give you something to do as you Bat around town. The Firefly mission would be so much more exciting if it was just one specific incident; one big showdown rather than a chore that needs to be repeated over and over again. Batman: Arkham Knight's story may deliver the big, enunciated moments I crave, but unfortunately it was off-limits in the demo.
The series' signature chunky fighting, at least, still feels great in Arkham Knight. Characters like Nightwing can be accessed on the fly by tapping the controller's shoulder button. (note: Nightwing takes off after the fight, though, so these team-ups are temporary.) As in Arkham City, however, the whole of Gotham's littered with random henchmen looking for a fight. So while you'll always have something to do, keep in mind the brawling will be revisited ad nauseam, meaning more repetition of similar goals, as well as fewer distinctive set pieces and special places to explore.
It bears repeating that everything I did in this demo was fun. The races, the bomb disposal: They were perfectly entertaining. The production quality's not what eats away at Batman's latest video game adventure. Everything in Arkham Knight feels like it's expertly made, but also indistinct.
I'd just rather have a flawed Arkham Asylum than a high-quality open world of distractions any day of the week.[Images credit: WBIE]