Words About Video Games

Batman: Arkham Knight - How (not) to Build a Better Batman Game

Arkham Asylum is still the best--a tightly designed statement of intent with an unbeatable premise. What if Batman, shorn of most of his tools, is trapped, vulnerable, in an asylum being run by the Joker?

What Arkham City brought to the table were those fantastic movement mechanics. Gliding is limited range and a bit awkward in Asylum. In City, it's eye-opening. One of the most satisfying ways to traverse huge swathes of territory in all of videogames. Diving quickly to pick up speed and then climbing quickly upward, cape spread wide against the sky; using your grapple to propel yourself at high speed off a skyscraper and then soaring for endless minutes over an entire city.

The gliding remains impressive in Arkham Knight, and Gotham is the most gorgeous to view from above as it’s ever been, but the game is bored of it. It wants you on the ground, in the batmobile.

Yes, a game series that already had perfect locomotion mechanics adds a car. A tank-car. With rubber bullets and anti-drone rockets. And then, as if the designers suddenly asked themselves “How can we make this feel more like Batman?,” they added batmobile stealth sections, where you have to drive your building-smashing super car slowly behind ultra-destructive drones to remain in their blindspot and hit their weak point.

Stealth sections aside, I actually mostly had fun with the batmobile. But I still think it was a major misstep, for reasons other than whether it’s fun.

I remarked when I first played it that Arkham Knight very nearly has something to say about escalation, about the militarization of police equipment. Is the batmobile the antidote for or the cause of the Arkham Knight’s army of drone tanks?

I should have liked a finale that sees Batman stripped of his tools and his lightweight, flexible, bulletproof armor, a return to the vulnerable Batman whose cloth costume is increasingly shredded over the course of Arkham Asylum. I should have liked to see that Batman face the Arkham Knight and his drone tanks. The game does blow the batmobile up, only to immediately replace it with an identical one with a slightly different coat of paint. It flinches.

There’s a part of this game that very much seems to want to be that game. There’s a reflective heart here, an attempt to look inwardly and critically at the life and career of Batman, on what it means, on what he’s sacrificed, on whether had any right to make those choices for others and for Gotham. It’s something that goes deeper than “Am I any better than my enemies?” It asks “Have I actually made the world a better place for my friends?”

That and being the most stunningly beautiful Batman game to date could have also made it the best Batman game to date, but the batmobile wasn’t the innovation the Arkham series needed. It sits at odds with the aforementioned themes and even draws attention to a problem that has plagued the series since Arkham City: the series doesn’t know how to make Gotham a city worth saving. You can almost ignore that in Arkham City and even in Arkham Origins, where the absence of civilians gets a quick plot explanation and then you spend most of your time soaring far above the fray. There is a similar explanation here, but by grounding the player and sticking them in a car that literally knocks the brickwork out of buildings when it clips a corner, Arkham Knight forces a grounds-eye view that draws even greater attention to what’s missing: people, normal people, going about their daily lives, going to the store, playing with their children in the park, coming home from the theater.

I think I understand why they weren't included. Aside from the technical and design challenges, it wouldn’t offer an easy avenue to expanding Batman’s toolset in a series whose structure has, from the beginning, been about adding and upgrading gadgets in Batman’s arsenal and finding the right tool for the job. But I can’t help but think that the game would have been improved for being forced out of that structure a bit more, even as the presence of people to save would have injected Batman’s mission with fresh urgency.