This week I saw the new Batman game, at Warner Brothers' offices in London. The security guard thought I was there to see 'Computer...Batman?'. Well, yes I was, and that is now my new name for the game.
Along with some other game journos (and, bizarrely, the tween son of some WB bigwig who was wearing a watch that costs about the same as a slightly-used BMW and better have signed a NDA), I watched it being played on a cinema screen, purportedly on a PS4 but actually on a PC, while a man who looked and sounded like an Australian Louis CK shouted so hard it made my teeth hurt. It wasn't fun.
'Computer...Batman?' looked fun, though, but let's get the main 'facts' out of the way. The 'key issues', to use dreary marketing-talk.
1) It's the biggest 'Computer Batman?' game yet.
2) You can drive the 'Computer Batmobile'.
3) The Arkham Knight isn't 'Computer Batman', the Joker is dead, and Scarecrow is now the baddy.
So, let's go over these claims and see how they stack up.
Firstly, it is massive. Showing off the new tech, the man in charge of the demo hopped up onto one of Gotham's tallest buildings to take a look around, panning the camera slowly like his life depended on it. The draw distance is incredible, as you would expect, and although the texture res wasn't amazing, the amount of detail visible from up there was impressive. Cars, people, detritus shifting in the wind. Up close, small pools of rain formed on Batman's cowl before sliding off in a manner that made me think 'fuck, that looks like rain'. Which was probably the intention. On the whole, it was exactly what you'd expect from Rocksteady.
Is a bigger world a better one, though? One of my main problems with Arkham City was that it was too big. Or, more accurately, indistinct. It felt shapeless and uninviting, a big black mess with spatterings of dull colour in it, like the favourite t-shirt of a particularly sloppy goth. To fans of Arkham Asylum, with its many memorable locations and tightly-controlled pacing, it felt like a step down.
Arkham Knight looks to have remedied that, at this stage at least. The improved lighting and texture work now enables Rocksteady to make each area stand out from the rest, and that's before the actual districts are factored in. We saw Chinatown, which was as you would expect, except there's no tourists as Scarecrow (the main villain, allegedly) has had everyone but the gangs evacuated via WMD threat. Classic.
The world is now so big that you can essentially fly using your cape, and there's a lot more emphasis on getting shit done while darting around in mid-air. So now you can use your gadgets while gliding, such as the line launcher and other toys. You can also turn and jump at a 180 degree angle when grappling onto a building, shooting away in the opposite direction like a man attempting to outrun projectile vomit or, worse, the opinion of anyone that has read the Game of Thrones books. By putting all these things together essentially means that Rocksteady are playing a big game of 'the floor is lava.'
Claim 2: The Return: It's all about the Batmobile
Well, yes, it is. Even though I personally despise the vogue for making the Batmobile some sort of weird hybrid of tank and tiny penis compensation syndrome, here it makes some sort of sense. Mainly because Gotham is a warzone, so driving something that resembles a Rolls Royce Phantom is probably a wrong call, and because its main use is Fucking Shit Up. Trees, walls, gates, (but not people): most things that are in your way won't be for long.
Which is cool, and all. But it's the ability to eject out of the Batmobile - and call it in to pick you up at any time - that is likely to get most Batfans in a tizzy. Tying in to the aforementioned gliding/gadgeting, it's a great way to get around the city.
The Batmobile is also used in the new Riddler challenges. The example we saw had Batman drive into a lift to be taken down to a subterranean racecourse. After hacking Riddler's code, Batman has to navigate the track, manipulating the different traps doors and platforms, really) to get through. These traps increase in intensity and difficulty with each lap, and although it was fun to see Bats drive over a ceiling I couldn't help but feel that it was just a cheap way to shoehorn Nigma in. On the whole, however, it looked like it was a lot of fun to drive, and should help remove some of the frustration of navigating the world.
Claims, The Third: The Joker is dead, long live the Joker
Remember all the build-up to Arkham City? When it came out that the Joker died? And then he came back and then this happened and that happened and...look, it was very tiresome, as most of these things tend to be. Anyway, Rocksteady is sticking to its guns and insisting that the Joker is dead, and won't be coming back. Scarecrow is taking over now, which seems a good thing as his psychological warfare was one of the most interesting parts of the first game.
Surely, though, the Joker, umm, will be back? I asked Dax Ginn, Rocksteady's Brand Marketing Producer whether he thought that the end of his trilogy would suffer the same fate as the end of Nolan's: that the absence of the Joker weakened it.
The reasons for his exclusion are about as different as you can get, of course. However, I don't buy that he won't be in it, not for a second:
"I think Scarecrow as a character is awesome, as he brings that psychological angle that Joker never had. Joker is just about chaos and carnage. I think it's Scarecrow's presence in Asylum, which gives the game such a unique flavour. And that's something that's really exciting to me about Arkham Knight...I love the way SC messes with Batman's head, and to be able to do that and unify the rogue's gallery against Batman, all working together to take him down and destroy him, having a psychological puppet master at the top of that is such an exciting thing in prospect."
If Rocksteady can build the Scarecrow psy-ops out into a whole city, maybe he won't be missed.
Then there's the Arkham Knight, which is a new creation in collaboration with DC. He only pops up at the end of the demo, taking Batman down and calling him "old man". Who is it? Is it Robin? Is it the Joker? Barbara Cartland? Superfly Jimmy Snuka? Liam Neeson?
Rocksteady is saying nothing, refusing to even deny that it was Harold Shipman.* That's how mum they're being. So far, however, all we really know is that he dresses like Batman and uses a [i]gun[/], the cad. He'll probably end up being Batman's dad or something, reanimated by pure rage because his son has pissed the inheritance up the wall on cars and other toys.
On such a subject, I asked Dax whether there would be room for a better look at Bruce Wayne's obviously strange mental state. There have been elements of this in previous games: Scarecrow boss battles, hallucinating his parents going into the light by the Lazarus pit.
For the most part, however, this Batman has been little more than a humourless, fascistic, PTSD-riddled enforcer of the status quo. Fuck the police, he thinks, as his billions enable him to circumvent the law and smash people's faces in like a cranked-up bouncer in Essex. 'But he doesn't kill anyone!' I hear you cry. Yes he does. Stop lying to yourself.
Anyway, let's hope that Bats is a bit more of a human this time around. According to Ginn, he will be.
"It's definitely the most emotional game we've ever made, and that emotion is all about Batman, the man, it's about his childhood, the decisions that he's made throughout the course of his life. The connection that he's made with Oracle, the connection he's made with Jim Gordon, the disparity in information they have about him and the tension that brings between father and daughter.
"These are all things we're exploring and playing with, because it draws out the emotional content that exists within him as a fairly conflicted, traumatised guy. As well as the experience he's had through AA and AC, that continues all the way through. So Arkham Knight really is a wrap-up of everything that has happened previously, as the ramifications of the decisions he's made start to bear fruit."
Bonus Final Claim
One thing that Dax was keen on reiterating was how this was the end of the Rocksteady Arkham trilogy (at one point he just said "Arkham trilogy", as if even his mind had deleted Origins from existence). This is it. THIS IS IT. The end. Fin. I believe them. After this, where else is there to go? Arkham World? Nah. This is probably it, unless the studio remembers the terrible power of money, and so far it's looking good.
"Even though we're still a young studio, we're still quite and experienced developer, that's what we do best. Third person single player action games, that's what we do best. What happens next...I don't think that anyone is thinking that far in advance, because we need to keep our eye on the ball, as we have so much work to do on Arkham Knight, rounding out the trilogy, that sense of completion comes with a great sense of pride that we've made really good quality stuff.
That's what we always wanted to do. So the realisation of the plan, the plan has gone to plan, that's pretty rare in development. It's incredibly complex, and to have it gone well so far and looks like it's going to continue, that's a really nice feeling."
*This conversation never happened.