Arkham Knight’s Gotham And What It Could Learn From Other Open Worlds

Batman Arkham Knight is the final chapter of Rocksteady’s much praised Batman series. In it, you can (eventually) roam the largest version of Gotham yet. Yet, were I some sort of hack looking to generate clicks with a provocative headline, I might say that “all of the time they put into creating that city was wasted”.

To clarify, I’m not actually saying that, but I do think that the implementation of the world is strange. It doesn’t seem to fit with the game’s other mechanics and these issues become more apparent when you make comparisons with other open world games which I believe make better use of their environments.

This post was originally published in June 2017 on Medium.

Firstly there’s the subject of navigation. Realistically, you’ve two ways to move around the city: the newly added Batmobile and by gliding through the air. For whatever reason open world games are often based in cities and suffer from the problem of being set in environments that are essentially built for cars, so other forms of navigation feel slow, as is the case here. In addition, as I’ve discussed previously, running is Bat #Brand poison. In comparison, in the Witcher 3 the medieval city of Novigrad is big, but it’s ‘built’ primarily for pedestrians so it has a density to it. As a result, Geralt doesn’t spend quite a long time jaywalking à la GTA:SA and GTAV.

The car/tank hybrid that is the Batmobile is fun to drive, it’s loud, dramatic and wreaks everything in its path, but it is hard to control. Gotham’s narrow, winding roads require precise drifting and I suspect for most players total reliance on the waypoints and pathfinding. What this means in effect is that at street level, this finely rendered city is reduced to the areas immediately in front of you, those store fronts and in-joke laden buildings whizz by too fast to notice. When I think Batmobile, I think highways, Batman making a seat of the pants trip to Gotham and open roads, not awkward navigation in tight spaces and innumerable fender benders.

Maybe you decide to stop and smell the roses, but Rocksteady’s veiw of the Dark Knight is of a man who just gets hassled constantly. Stay still too long while out of the car and someone will try to run you down and even when you’re still behind the wheel, appearances by enemy tanks and the infamously frustrating tank combat mechanics are never too far away.

“Better to stay away from street level”, the game seems to be saying, directing the player to zipline up to the rooftops, and from there take to the skies! But the same issues persist up there as well. Altitude is a pressing concern when you’re in the air, so just as your focus in the Batmoblie is on the next turn coming and little else, in the air you’re constantly scanning for the next crane or suitably high ledge, or at the very least constantly hitting the grapple button, the serene sense of gliding through the air ruined by the “no target in range” chime.

In this video, there’s an account of the first game’s art team lamenting how they put all this time into the art-style, the pallet etc, but everyone just played in detective mode. Similarly here, all that effort mostly passes by unnoticed.

The attempt, in particular with the side missions and objectives which don’t have their own bespoke, one-off environments, to situate the game’s combat sections in the world can also undermine the tension, with only the Penguin and Firefly’s side missions really benefiting from the setting. The option to just jump off a building or to grapple to some nearby crane means that the only thing keeping you in situations in a fight or situation that has turned against you is pride.

(There’s also the question of why the militia base themselves and the computers that are needed to maintain their defenses on rooftops and out in the open, instead of indoors where Batman cannot literally drop out of the sky on top of them at any time)

Compare this to MGSV. Despite the fact that the map essentially boils down to a small number of bases connected by bland canyons, especially in Afghanistan, because of Snake’s abilities, or to be more exact his lack of abilities, he must move slowly and deliberately through the world. Snake’s option to bail out and fast travel to the next region is limited to fixed extraction points and even at that trying to leave while there are still enemies in the area carries the risk of your helicopter being destroyed. The “dead spaces” between bases can present a gameplay challenge. You could be spotted, attacked or ambushed or you might spot valuable resources. You’re there, rooted in the world, able to take in the environment. Shadow of Mordor, despite even more limited available mechanics also manages to place meaningful opportunities in its “in-between” areas.

Arkham Knight is to some extent an aggregate game, interspersed with small mini-games or segments (for example the not-how-science-works thing where Batman examines Man-bat’s DNA, the crime scene reconstruction section or chasing Firefly). However, the majority of the content chunks are combat sections, either straight up brawls or the predator sections where you go up against well armed enemies. The rhythm of the game, especially when you’re working through side-missions, is punch some lads, glide over to a different location and punch some more lads. It feels strange. No matter how the game tries to dress it up, the core gameplay is mostly the same, aside from the occasional simple diversions. Why not just have all the lads in the same place? What does this delay time really do? Could it be that constantly taking me out of the moment is why I’m so very bad at the game’s combat? Sure, let’s go with that!

It’s not like GTA, where there’s a sense of exploring a city, with things to do that feel genuinely different to the main tasks. While Geralt in the The Witcher 3 is somewhat limited in terms of the way he can interact with the world, he can still play Gwent, strike up conversation and trade with people. In Arkham Knight, when you have so few ways to interact with the environment outside of occasional, mostly mandatory one-off button prompts, what really is the point of being “put in” that environment?

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Now, a lot of this could be written off as me having missed the point. You could say that the lad-punching is the real core of the game and that everything else is just a bonus, and while I have some criticisms of that to I’d be inclined to agree with you. But that being said, the open world navigation sections do take up a sizeable amount of the total game time. Aside from being able to put “Be The Batman In An Open World Gotham City” in the promotional materials, I have to wonder what was the purpose of the countless hours that they clearly invested in creating the city. These components, when bolted onto a punchy-crunchy action game don’t really work, much like the PC version upon release (hiyo! Are we still doing these jokes?).

If this conclusion comes across as overly hesitant its because overly authoritative statements in game criticism are a bugbear of mine. If I were to venture a theory, it’s that most people might be inclined to agree with me, but for whatever reason, possibly the ubiquity of open world games (which for me are a relatively new genre) and the sense that “this is how it’s done”, didn’t really pick up on the fact that they perhaps weren’t actively engaged in or even enjoying the open world navigation sections.

(I am aware that a Batman game without open world elements already exists, it’s called Arkham Asylum, and that I should probably just buy the remaster and shut up)

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