Is Gotham safe?
Gotham Knights has been eagerly anticipated by Batman fans since its World Premier in August 2020.
There hasn’t been a Batman game since Arkham Knight’s 2015 release and the franchise has been sorely missed.
Will Gotham Knights deliver, though? The multitude of gameplay and story trailers do not give us that impression. Let’s see why.
A risky, yet genius concept
WB Games Montreal are not the developers people associate with Batman. The three mainline Arkham games were developed by Rocksteady Studios, but the Montreal team has already made a Batman before.
They released Arkham Origins in 2013 – a prequel to Arkham Asylum which is frequently considered the weaker of the series. A lot of the impressions around it was that it “got a lot right and it got a lot wrong.”
Yet, it was still a Batman Arkham game. It might’ve been weaker than the remaining three, especially when it was followed up by Arkham Knight, but the core concept of the series was there and still worked.
Running an entirely different direction with Gotham Knights is a big risk, but one worth taking.
No Batman means that you are missing the key component that brought most people to these games, but you open a world of possibilities in a pre-built and already beloved setting.
WB Montreal have approached this in the perfect way, utilising it as a way to freshen things up gameplay-wise. It is also a great opportunity to get the spotlight on lesser-known superheroes for most fans.
So what isn’t good about this?
The concept has not materialized as expected
Playing as multiple superheroes with widely different abilities in gadgets is a very enticing proposition, but also extremely demanding from a design point of view.
What WB Games decided was to make the entire game playable with every available character and turn it into a co-op experience that feels like a Marvel’s Avengers minus the ridiculous live-service approach.
Red-Hood and Nightwing are almost total opposites when it comes to combat. Nightwing is a talented ballerina with extremely quick movements and deadly nunchucks, while Red-Hood is a deadly shot with his two semi-automatic pistols.
How can you balance a single-player experience to allow both of these characters to complete fights alone?
The problematic combat
It feels like you can’t. Most gameplay trailers shown have felt sluggish and clunky.
The below trailer shows gameplay from both aforementioned characters, together and individually. They both look visually amazing and the traversal through Gotham feels great to watch.
When combat begins, though, it all goes South. Nightwing moves a lot and does a lot of jumps, but he feels too slow.
He isn’t snappy like Spiderman in Insomniac’s games – he just feels like what Nightwing would look like fighting underwater.
He also suffers from the classic Arkham fighting problem: the magnet effect. When enemies are too far away and he attacks, he’ll just awkwardly flow towards them as Batman did in the Arkham games.
Yet, the problem wasn’t so big back in 2015. Firstly, this design wasn’t that outdated 7 years ago.
Secondly, the combo system in Batman’s games made combat a lot more fun and incentivized good timings and less mistakes.
In 2022 this design just doesn’t cut it anymore, and the lack of a combo meter means that you will have to go out of your way to make combat better with no external incentives or rewards.
Red-Hood is described as their most ranged character, but why should he? He has a combat-sword in the comics and there is literally a blueprint on how to pull off Sword-Dual wielding pistol combat since Devil May Cry’s release in 2001.
It doesn’t look as bad when he is fighting with Nightwing in co-op, but his solo fight at around 3:30 in the video looks terrible.
He is clunky, sluggish, and just awkwardly hits people with his pistols.
The enemy behavior in most of these trailers is the rotten cherry on top of the flimsy cake.
I recently started an Arkham City playthrough for some nostalgia and to remind myself of how the Arkham combat felt. The trailer below is from the first minutes of the game, but that doesn’t excuse how useless the enemies are.
The Arkham games eased you into the fights by giving you small groups of unarmed enemies. They still acted the same way they would for the entirety of the game. Their danger was always in numbers and weapons.
Gotham Knights enemies feel like dumbed down versions of Joker’s goons in the Arkham games. In all gameplay trailers shown (with the exception of one we’ll touch on soon), it feels like enemies are just training dummies waiting to be hit.
If the player stands still for long enough, we might see an attack being charged, but even that is uncommon. At around 13:40 mins the first post-tutorials fight begins. Batgirl has to take down 4 freaks, 3 melee ones and a ranged enemy throwing Molotov cocktails.
Throughout the entirety of the fight, Batgirl seems to be fighting separate 1v1s with an infrequent red circle showing up at her feet.
Enemies only go for a hit when she’s knocked down another freak and the ranged goon takes so long to throw projectiles that I wonder if they’re creating the cocktails while fighting.
A small caveat, though. The difficulty of the gameplay trailers isn’t shown anywhere, so this problem might be reduced in higher difficulty settings.
Regardless, no game difficulty should make the game look as clunky as it does in these trailers.
Why it is so frustrating to watch
This slow, floaty and disappointing combat is made much worse by how good the game looks in most other regards.
Gotham has never looked better. It looks gritty and sad as if it itself is morning Batman’s death.
The multitude of costumes available (no microtransactions) is impressive and the visual design of the four protagonists is great. The vehicles and traversal gadgets look mostly unique and fit the rest of the game.
The stealth sequences look miles ahead of Batman’s Arkham games and the investigation sequences look even better than they did in Arkham Knight.
The progression looks well made and the fact that you can widely customize your characters to fit your play style is a big plus.
All these positive factors will be soured if the main gameplay loop isn’t up to par. Not all hope is lost, though.
The one good trailer
The most recent gameplay trailer released is the best one yet, by far.
It is the first and only boss fight shown and at its center is one of the best-designed Harley Quinns in any videogame. She looks dangerous and maniacal, but in a purely intimidating way.
The surprising aspect of this trailer is how good the boss fight looks. The tempo is much better than any other combat shown so far and it actually feels challenging. Harley cannot be spammed to submission and she fights back with decently long combos and unlockable hits.
She seems too tanky at first, but the multiple phases of the fight keep it fresh and interesting.
Even the interlude where Nightwing is fighting only Harley’s goons looks much more dangerous and interactive. Enemies are jumping onto the player and they’re forcing him to make some quick reactions.
What should we expect?
The thing is, is the Harley Quinn trailer the hope we all needed, or the exception that proves the rule?
Gotham Knights announced that it had gone gold on the 17th of August. The last full gameplay trailer was released on the 16th of August, so it’s safe to assume that essentially nothing was changed since.
The problems here seem to be the exact same as in every other trailer, and the “melee-focused” Red Hood still feels clunky and way too slow.
As with any game, temper your expectations. Gotham Knights has taken an excellent approach to a pre-release which I hope a lot of other developers follow. It has essentially shown us as much as it can without ruining the experience.
You have the information you need to decide if this is the product you want, but I can’t help but feel it could be so much more if the co-op “MMO-lite” approach was entirely removed.
I don’t think anyone has really figured out how to make a good super-hero game with multiple protagonists, but this doesn’t feel like the correct approach.
I truly hope I am wrong, though. Rocksteady is currently working on Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and the co-op 4 character approach seems to be identical, so I hope that the trailers were just a poor representation of what the game actually is.
October 21st will show us if Gotham will be in good hands now that Batman is gone.