We don’t give out scores for games here on Kotaku Australia, but if we did I would tell you that Gotham Knights is the most 7-out-of-10 game of the year.
There’s nothing disastrously wrong with Gotham Knights. I don’t think you could say outright that it’s a bad game — it isn’t — but neither is it a great one. Hamstrung by an insistence on cooperative play, and an inability to escape the shadow of the Arkham franchise of which it is not a part, it is a game with a hundred ideas and no space to flesh any of them out.
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The game opens with the twist that everyone has known about for months: Bruce Wayne is dead, and as Gotham’s criminal element rejoices, the remaining Bat Family must come together to keep the city from spiralling into chaos. As rumours of the Bat’s demise begin to spread, his emboldened rogue’s gallery set new plans in motion. The (relative) safety the city enjoyed on Batman’s watch is now balanced on a knife’s edge. Without the threat of an instant beatdown looming over anyone’s head, crime begins to spread. In the midst of the turmoil, a mysterious organisation with an immense amount of influence over the city’s future, the Court of Owls, emerges from the shadows.
That’s kind of as much as I can say without spoiling the particulars of the plot. I know how Batman fans feel about spoilers, so I’ll leave the synopsis there. If you’ve read the first arc of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s New 52-era Batman, I’m sure you’re already piecing the major elements of this story together.
I’m not going to lie — it’s got a good pitch. This is a great setup for a Batman game. The problem is that Gotham Knights doesn’t do enough with it. Its vision of Gotham is aesthetically striking — the roads permanently rain-slick, its jumble of towering gothic and art deco buildings wreathed in cloud and pollution smog by night. The city is broken out into several major islands containing various districts. On the ground, WB Games Montreal has succeeded in creating a Gotham that feels chaotic by its very nature. There is little sense of urban planning here, just aggressive sprawl. It gestures at a city ruled by a body politic with no vision, that grew rapidly in whatever direction promised the path of least resistance, never thinking too hard about the hassle of getting around.
But, for a city that’s supposed to be tumbling into chaos due to the power vacuum Batman’s death has created, everything on the ground seems remarkably chill. Gotham by night is quiet, the silence punctuated only sporadically by the distant popping of gunfire alerting you to a nearby crime in progress. The map is largely devoid of markers beyond those directly related to your most immediate quests, and each district rarely contains more than three random crimes in progress at any one time.
This has the effect of making it seem like Batman did perhaps too good of a job and the Family has shouldered the heavy responsibility of not doing much of anything at all.
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The four main characters in Gotham Knights will be familiar to Bat-fans. Players can choose between Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, and Red Hood, all of whom played an important part in Batman’s life at different stages. They are coached and advised by Bruce Wayne’s erstwhile butler Alfred Pennyworth who, in lieu of someone to serve, has decided to hang out with a bunch of 20-somethings. Because Bruce destroyed the Batcave and Wayne Manor at the time of his death, he has left the kids the keys to The Belfry, a spacious loft hidden behind a historic clocktower in central Gotham. Here, the Family prepares for nightly patrols, upgrade their gear, and compare notes as they unravel the mystery of the Court of Owls. Alfred is always on hand to dispense sage-like wisdom.
I’m going to break your immersion now, and point out something that, once I noticed it, couldn’t be un-noticed. In its version of the Bat Family, WB Games Montreal has accidentally recreated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nightwing, in blue, is Leonardo, the good student. Batgirl, in purple, is Donatello, the computer whiz. Red Hood, in, well, red, is Raphael, impulsive and hot headed. Robin, though he breaks with tradition and has a green palette, is Michaelangelo, young, brave, and skilful, but naive. Alfred, the sage-like elder, fulfils the role of Master Splinter.
I’m sorry to have done this to you. I wish I could unsee it.
Alright, back to the review.
The Belfry is the hub area you’ll use to put together cooperative games and upgrade your kit — because what is a third-person open-world action-adventure game in 2022 without a tacked-on RPG and loot system? And it really does feel tacked on. This is the Destiny-lite school of loot tables and RPG design — don’t worry about builds, it’s not that deep. Just Make Big Number Go Up and you’ll be fine. In a version of Gotham Knights that was actually interested in its RPG mechanics, various suits could have been turned into armour sets for the player to hunt down.
You know how The Witcher 3 had specific armour sets based on the different Witcher schools, and they all had different base stats that helped you construct a bit of a build for Geralt? And you could collect them all, or just the ones you liked, or even mix-and-match them depending on the stats you were after? And it required undertaking a bit of risk and exploration to get them? That’s the kind of thing I would have liked to see here. Hidden caches of premium Bat gear that require breaking through whatever security measures Bruce had left in place. That could have been really cool! Instead, you unlock new suits by crafting them, and doing time-attack platform puzzles in the open world to gain crafting supplies. If the Big Number on the new armour is higher than your last set of gear, put it on. Don’t like the suit that’s bound to that set? Transmog it to look like something else, free of charge.
Biff, bam, pow
As stated, Gotham Knights is not a part of the established Arkham franchise created by Rocksteady. However, the Arkham series cut such a striking template for what superhero games should look and play like, that we’re still seeing riffs on it to this day. Gotham Knights can’t escape its shadow any more than Marvel’s Spider-Man could.
The combat in Gotham Knights recalls a lot of the Arkham series’ touchstones. You are typically surrounded by a small gaggle of crooks or guards in one of three flavours (small, big, gun), and they take turns swinging at you. This creates the opportunity to dodge their attacks, putting them off balance, and punishing their mistakes. However, where Batman’s punches in Arkham felt like unleashing a large hydraulic piston at chest height, Gotham Knights feels a bit more like hitting people about the head with a foam baseball bat. Even Red Hood, who is supposed to be a heavy hitter, and does become a bit of a melee specialist by the time you hit the upper branches on the skill tree, doesn’t feel all that powerful.
It also doesn’t have the kind of active combat camera that the Arkham games had. In fact, the camera in Gotham Knights has more in common with something like Ghost of Tsushima, where a clear design choice was made to eschew enemy lock-on and force manual turning of the camera as a way to make the player take control of their spatial awareness. I don’t think it works here, narratively or mechanically, because these characters would have an answer for it. They’re all dressed in Bat-gear, bristling with high-end tech. You’re telling me Batman didn’t build all the suits with a targeting system or sensor arrays that can detect an incoming punch? Or something? I don’t know. It feels like Batgirl should have a solve for this.
This is made worse by all the level gating. Gotham Knights‘ RPG system is driven by an incremental level system. If certain thugs are of a higher level than you, they’ll take far more punishment before going down. If they’re lower level, even though your hits don’t feel particularly hard, you’ll wipe the floor with them. This will be nothing new to anyone that’s played the more recent Assassin’s Creed games — level gating is a blight, designed to pad out total play time by making you grind up to higher levels through side quests and miscellaneous content. It’s the video game equivalent of forcing you to eat your vegetables. And it feels out of place here, because, outside of the cooperative component, Gotham Knights doesn’t offer the kind of persistent online play that would warrant so much gating.
I will say that all four characters do become more mechanically interesting the higher up the skill tree you get because their different abilities begin to carve them out as individuals. But until you start getting those crucial unlocks, they don’t play terribly differently. On top of that, the game does a bad job of telling you what kind of mission you’re about to embark on. On numerous occasions during the campaign, I took the wrong hero for the job, winding up stuck as Red Hood or Nightwing in a mission where Robin’s stealth or Batgirl’s hacking abilities would have been far more powerful.
This is just one example of how Gotham Knights pushes cooperative play over a traditional single-player experience. “If you’d been playing with a friend,” these sections scream, “maybe they would have picked the right character.”
In fairness, the game does work a lot better when you play with friends. Its environment and level design make more sense. The placement of enemies and the options you have at your disposal are greatly increased. It’s not Splinter Cell multiplayer by any stretch, you’re not rewarded for tactical genius. But it is fun to set the guards up and knock ’em down.
I just wish it was that much fun when playing on your own. Because it’s geared around cooperative play, many sneaking sections become a fiddly, frustrating experience. Guards don’t ever seem to walk close enough to overhead perches to get a cheap pick-off. They often work in teams of two, because the game expects you to have a friend as well, and that you’ll tackle them together. And if you do want to go for the kind of dive-in, dive-out play that Arkham excelled at, you’ll find that difficult to manage too. This is partly down to the design I’m talking about above, but also UI factors like not being able to see a confirmed grapple point until you’re literally staring at it. It’s a lot of little things that contribute to a larger sense of frustration.
Arkham City never did this any of this to me, that’s all I’m saying.
Gotham by Gaslight
While we’re talking about design, let’s go back to the open world for a minute.
Gotham is a large city. If you would like to get across town in a hurry, there are several options available to you. All four heroes can move across the city’s rooftops using a grappling hook, which is the slowest method but lets you hunt around for collectible Bat-themed gift shop trinkets. You can also take the Batcycle, which is this game’s stand-in for the Batmobile. The bike is technically faster than the grapple, but also makes what should be a really cool method of traversal shockingly dull.
A Bat vehicle should feel in some way dangerous. Take the Batmobile in Arkham Knight for instance — it wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it moved like lightning and it ripped shit through everything it touched. Cars, signs, criminals, garbage on the side of the road — it tore through everything. It felt like a monster that had grudgingly agreed to let you pilot it. The Batcycle, by contrast, is neither fast nor dangerous. Gotham Knights does everything it can to make you think the bike is fast, but it isn’t. It’s also curiously weightless and doesn’t interact with anything in the world. If I miss an apex as I drift the bike through a turn, and ram a car at full speed, the bike stops dead. Neither the bike nor the car I hit is damaged. Whichever hero is perched on the bike at the time remains firmly planted on the seat in defiance of physics, rather than going arse over tea kettle the way they should. The struck car will emit a single aggressive honk and, having communicated its displeasure, will then drive away into the night. As I said, this version of Gotham is weirdly chill.
The third and final traversal method is a rocket-powered glider that is only used for fast travel. Indeed, the game makes a huge noise about revealing this device to the player, only to reveal in the same breath you can’t actually fly it. Instead, you watch about eight seconds of your character enjoying the experience as a cutscene, and then they assure you it was awesome.
I don’t know why the game doesn’t let me fly the rocket-powered glider around. That would be super fun. I would much rather do that than ever ride the Boring Cycle again.
And now, a moment of wild and baseless theorising
This flat approach to combat and RPG mechanics raises a question of intent. In a game where you’re often playing with friends, should there not be an element of flexing your gear on your mates? Even Marvel’s Avengers, a game that properly bungled its own RPG systems, understood this.
I actually want to talk a little bit about Marvel’s Avengers here because it feels like it had a part to play in the game that Gotham Knights has become.
I think — and I have no proof of this, I have nothing beyond a gut feeling — that WB Games saw what Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics were doing with Marvel’s Avengers — a squad-based, cooperative RPG with persistent online elements — and wanted Gotham Knights to be its version of that idea. And then of course, Marvel’s Avengers flopped, and Gotham Knights might have pivoted away from that model mid-stream to give it the best chance of still making some money. In production terms, such a change would have been less of an agile juke to the left, and something more akin to getting an oil tanker to do a handbrake turn. It would have meant working with what the team already had and beating it into a different shape.
Again, I have no proof of this. But it feels to me like there’s a body of vestigial evidence to suggest a recalibration has taken place. The focus on cooperative play when a single-player-first approach would be of greater benefit. The pared-back RPG, skill tree and crafting mechanics. The lavishly designed, but ultimately rather empty open world. It all feels like evidence of a game that, at some point, had very different ambitions.
It’s real pretty though
A final note on graphics before I wrap this review up. Gotham Knights is an extremely beautiful video game. The art team are to be commended for their work at every level. From character designs that comply with the myriad suit designs available in the game, to the effects team that has found a way to make rain bead and stream delicately across kevlar, there is so much artistry at work here. It’s beautiful and detailed in a way that a place like Gotham deserves. Even if the streets themselves are empty, its buildings help it feel grimy and crowded. Its streets are menacingly lit, and the shadows deepen to the kind of stygian tones perfect for a mugger to hide in.
This of course feeds into the much-reported story this week that Gotham Knights has no 60-frames-per-second performance mode. I can confirm that this is true. The game runs at a locked 30 frames for its duration. For some of you, this will be a big deal, maybe even enough that you won’t want to play it anymore. For others, and I count myself among their number, it couldn’t matter less. I love a silky smooth frame rate as much as the next person, but I also love it when a game allows the artwork to pop. By settling on a hard 30 fps lock, Gotham Knights helps its artwork shine. I think it was the right call. I’ve knocked them around a lot in this review, but a genuine shout-out to WB Games Montreal on this point. I’m sure it was a hard decision to make but, I believe, it was the right one.
And if the frame rate thing really is a problem for you, there’s always the PC version.
Gotham Knights is a game with a fistful of threads it is never quite able to knit into a sweater. Despite its strong premise and gorgeous art design, the game’s insistence on coop play feels like WB Games Montreal making things harder for itself than is strictly necessary. It isn’t the game that Arkham fans want, and it isn’t the game Marvel’s Avengers fans had wished for either. Instead, it’s caught somewhere between the two, struggling to carve out an identity for itself to keep from being engulfed by the shadow of its beloved predecessor. Much like Gotham itself, the house of Arkham looms over it all the same.
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