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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Gotham Knights – New gameplay: It’s just not enough yet

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Opinion: Gotham Knights has a fantastic starting point, but the gameplay so far is pretty much flying against the wall.

A while back, I accidentally jammed the knife into my finger so hard while modelling that my dome looked like those glassblower balls that always dangle from the end of glassblower rods afterwards (I don’t know anything about glassblowing). But hey, I’m smiling because nasty wounds always mean one thing: a plaster is needed! And not just any plaster, no, because I own super fierce Star Wars plasters! So … normal plasters, but with Darth Vader, Jar Jar, Obi-Wan and BB-8 on them. Yay.

Now of course you can interject: Daniel, you brand victim, that’s just money-making. And you’re absolutely right, but if I can stick a Star Wars variant on the gaping wound instead of the normal booger brown plaster, then R2D2 on the fingertip makes the pain just that little bit more bearable.

Licensed games are often like Star Wars plasters. If you remove the Star Wars licence from a Battlefront 2, then you have a solid multiplayer shooter at best that looks like a no-frills plaster: it fits (hopefully), does its job, but doesn’t tempt anyone behind the stove. And then there are games like Batman: Arkham City or Arkham Knight. Take away the Bat’s ears, take away the Batman logo, strip away the manic Joker laugh and you’d still end up with a groundbreaking open-world spectacle that could hold technical college courses to this day on what a masterful action combat system should look like.

And that’s the problem with Gotham Knights. The gameplay so far doesn’t feel like a legacy of the grandiose Arkham games, it feels like a band-aid with Batman license.

What happened?

Almost out of nowhere, 13 minutes of new gameplay for Gotham Knights was recently released. In case you haven’t heard about the game and the discussion around it: Gotham Knight will be a kind of successor to Batman: Arkham Knight and then somehow not. It offers an open world in Gotham City, an action combat system with attacks, counter-attacks, parries, the choice between sneaking, knocking, swinging over the rooftops … in other words, everything that Arkham Knight has to offer. in fact, everything that makes up the Arkham games:

Unlike the new Suicide Squad, however, it’s not set in the Arkham universe, nor does it come from developer Rocksteady. Nevertheless: the thing is aimed at Arkham fans through and through and must therefore be measured against its standards. By the way, it could also tie in with Arkham Knight in terms of story: Batman has hung up his job, but because he has raised more protégés in his career than the Kelly Family, plenty of candidates are following in his footsteps.

Nightwing (i.e. the first Robin), Red Hood (i.e. the second Robin, who was actually murdered by the Joker but then came back because comics), the acting Robin and Batgirl all want to continue Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal legacy. And I’ll tell you: For a comic fan like me, being able to play the entire Batman cast (and not just in DLCs or side chapters this time) is really a dream come true! Especially because I’m fighting the Council of Owls in Gotham and it’s from the only viable Batman story in the last 10 years.

But Gotham Knights does generate discussion, even with the new gameplay. And for all my constructive goodwill, I share many criticisms: Yes, the gameplay presentation obviously doesn’t represent the finished game yet, yes, there’s still plenty of time until the October 2022 release, but the current state just illustrates very clearly how darn difficult it is to develop a spiritual heir to the Arkham games.

What’s the problem with Gotham Knights?

Gotham Knights currently stumbles in the very areas where, ironically, the Arkham games excel: open-world design and brawling. Let’s run through it.

1.The open-world design

The Arkham games didn’t shape Open Worlds as significantly as, say, Assassin’s Creed 2 or GTA, but they still always had a very distinct, cool rhythm. Of course, 200 Riddler puzzles eventually feel like occupational therapy, but Arkham has a very tight progression system: I unlock new manoeuvres, gadgets and suits for Batman to get to unreachable places and beat up the enemies better and better.

Gotham Knights is more modern here and when I say modern, I mean loot. When the game was first unveiled in January 2021, fans were so hard on the game that even Killer Croc’s ears were ringing. The developers promised back then that Gotham Knights would definitely not be an overloaded loot-crafting dump like Marvel’s Avengers. And then I see in the current gameplay something like this:


A whopping 15 resources that Nightwing stuffs into his pockets in a hundredfold quantity with no guarantee that there won’t be more. I’m so tired of collecting some abstract nano-polymer junk in games just to unlock some shoulder pads that then magically give me +5 attack.

A real loot system needs weight. Of course, it can be cool to work towards a new armour in a game but with such resource overkill, I can already see myself ploughing through the same tasks over and over again to craft some lame mod with the materials to increase my resistance to ice damage or something.

The 13 minutes of gameplay do show some alternative armour for Nightwing and Red Hood, but none of it really makes me want to collect 15 resources. Marvel’s Spider-Man and Arkham Knight beautifully exemplify how rewarding new costumes can feel.

So what does crafting have to do with the open world? It’s simple: Gotham Knights doesn’t yet get to the heart of where the highlights of the game world are hidden and why I should bother with it. Gotham City still looks as empty as it did six years ago in Arkham Knight and even then people rolled their eyes at it.

2. The fights don’t click yet

Now, of course, you can interject: It’s obvious why I’m supposed to be hopping through the canyons of Gotham at night to beat up bad guys. And that’s where my concern lies. The fights in Gotham Knights still feel really, really rough. The punches lack punch and even Red Hood’s pistol bullets seem to fly through some enemies.

The Arkham brawls have always felt incredibly massive. When Batman counters someone, I feel for the ruffian who just suffers fractures in six places at once. That’s the only reason the Arkham saga has been able to hold its own so confidently in a gaming world where most games rely on deadly violence. When Batman deals out, it doesn’t matter that the enemies might be okay after six weeks in hospital.

Gotham Knights doesn’t get that right at all yet. In the gameplay finale, when Red Hood sends the mighty Talon Overwarrior crashing to the ground, the guy slumps like a ragdoll flounder. Nightwing, meanwhile, twirls around the landscape doing pointless flips like this Ghost-in-the-Shell meme:

And hey, of course this can be the showcase effect I like to sing a song about that too, because if I want to record good gameplay of Hunt: Showdown for a YouTube video, for example, I’m guaranteed not a single match will go that day. But Gotham Knights doesn’t just stumble over the fact that many of the characters’ punches go nowhere; they just don’t click. As silly as this quasi-magnetic pulling towards new opponents may sometimes look in the Arkham games, once Batman, Red Hood and co. are on the man, every punch conveys an uncanny physicality. Or to put it less academically: it really rumbles. Here you can see the comparison nicely:

Why so serious?

And I hear you interject: Daniel, why are you painting Ra’s al Ghul on the wall here, the game can still be good. Yes, it can. And I hope for it so much! But whether Gotham Knights wants it or not: the game has to compete with Arkham. If, at the end of the day, fans still acknowledge that Red Hood played better in the tiny DLC chapter of Arkham Knight 2015 than in his own game seven (!) years later, then no Yes will save the sales figures, but we’re not a real Arkham game.

Gotham Knights doesn’t need 15 resources and grind spirals for 200 hours of gameplay. It needs a fantastic combat system and an atmospheric open world where I’m happy to follow in Batman’s footsteps. That’s anything but an easy task and that’s why WB Games Montreal mustn’t be distracted by the same trends that doomed Marvel’s Avengers.

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