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Arkham Knight and the Art of Arming Batman to the Teeth

Batman's next adventure arms him with high-caliber assault weapons. But it's cool, he still totally hates guns.

Comic books have very few hard and fast rules. One of them used to be that Bucky was dead, but, well, we all know how that turned out. The Parkers and Gwen Stacy resurfaced into Spider-man's life at various points. The Doctor Doom that Squirrel Girl defeated wasn't a Doombot after all. Yes, it's all gone to pot... but at least Batman never uses guns, right?

Alas, no; that's not true, either. Batman hates guns and never kills, and these facts are absolute comic book laws... until they're not. You know: "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." Sorry, Bruce, that's actually the same thing as killing someone. And plenty of authors have placed a gun in Batman's hands as a way to make their own mark on the character's legacy — sometimes good, sometimes bad.

All of these things allow for a fair amount of wiggle room in interpretation, but the whole "no guns" thing completely breaks down as soon as the Batmobile enters the picture (or the Batwing, or the Batcycle, or whatever). More often than not, Batman's rides come equipped with high-caliber armaments: Machine guns, chain-fed mounted weapons, and even massively powerful explosive devices that technically observe the "no guns" rule by virtue of effectively being missiles. This is all well and good in the movies, because careful writing, camera framing, and editing means those weapons only come into play as utilities, tools to employ against non-living objects, and Batman can at least hold fast to the "no killing" rules.

Does this look like the vehicle of a man who's vowed to eradicate guns and uphold the sanctity of life? I propose that it does not.

It becomes much trickier with video games, though, because a developer has very little control over a toy like the Batmobile once they place it in players' hands. Let's face it, players are dicks who completely lack Batman's compunctions against guns and murder. Give a video gamer a tool and a majority will try to figure out how to use it to kill little pretend-people. The unpredictability of the game outcome holds doubly true for a sandbox-style adventure like Rocksteady's Arkham trilogy, in which much of the experience hinges on freedom and player agency. And yet there I was a few weeks ago, playing a little slice of Batman: Arkham Knight, the finale to Rocksteady due out next year, and much of it revolved around the use of the Batmobile — a Batmobile absolutely loaded for bear.

Arkham Knight's take on the Batmobile presents it as a vehicle capable of shifting instantly between driving and combat modes with the press of a button: A heavily armored and heavily armed war wagon that players can take into a huge number of exterior spaces in the game's massive, free-roaming rendition of Gotham City. Convert the machine into battle mode and it reveals a massive gatling gun that, once fully charged, can fire devastating explosive blasts capable of shredding the armor on enemy machines. Of course, the spaces into which the Batmobile can roam will inevitably contain any number of thugs as well — tough guys to be sure, but essentially little more than wet bags of meat against a steel behemoth like the Batmobile.

Rocksteady hasn't lost sight of Batman's essence, though. While the Batmobile could theoretically pulp the hired muscle working for the reinvigorated Scarecrow and his obsessive lieutenant the Arkham Knight, the developers have taken special care to ensure that won't happen. The bad guys appear to have segregated themselves neatly into groups of weak, fleshy types on foot and heavily armored drones cruising about without the direct input of humans, and when Batman enters into combat he arms himself appropriately: High-impact armaments for mechanical foes, stun rounds for humans. And should you contemplate resorting to mundane vehicular manslaughter, be aware that Rocksteady is a step ahead of you there, too. When enemies approach the Batmobile on foot, they'll be flung away by the ring of tasers that line the vehicle's perimeter. All the bases are covered. Batman may be driving around with a minigun on the roof, but he's still a peacenik at heart.

Granted, it probably wouldn't do for Batman to bring a knife to a gunfight of this scale.

In this situation, Batman's reliance on heavy artillery has some narrative justification. The Arkham saga has grown in scope with each entry — from the musty confines of an asylum to a walled-off portion of the city to the entirety of Gotham — and so too has the threat level escalated alongside the scale of the scenario. The beefy enforcers who posed such a devastating threat in Arkham Asylum feel almost laughable next to the militarized forces under the command of the Arkham Knight, and for all its firepower the Batmobile is just one vehicle against an army. Rocksteady seems to have drawn on The Dark Knight Rises and No Man's Land for inspiration here, and the Arkham series does seem to be drawing to a natural conclusion: With the entirety of Gotham sprawling before you and the Batmobile under your control, this is about as big as the Batman saga can get without drifting into Superfriends territory.

Even with the game's newfound emphasis on large-scale exploration and vehicular combat, Rocksteady hasn't lost sight of the spirit of Batman, which the first two games captured so effectively. Yeah, you're zipping around in a massive four-wheel-drive war machine that alternates between standard race car-style driving and free lateral movement with an instant mode change, but you're still the Dark Knight and the World's Greatest Detective. The fluid combat mechanics of the previous Arkham titles returns with minor improvements, stealth and terror factor into Batman's bag of tricks just as heavily as his car's grenade launcher, and the emphasis on simplistic environmental puzzles (resolved by toggling into "detective mode") remains.

Despite the duality between driving around in the Batmobile and close-quarters combat in building interiors, the slice of Arkham Knight I played didn't suffer from a split personality in the least. Rather, it demonstrated a careful emphasis on integrating the various play mechanics into a cohesive whole; the demo largely revolved around Batman rescuing a handful of civilians from a hazardous industrial area, and the Batmobile's arrestor cable doubled as a makeshift winch for lifting and lowering a damaged elevator necessary for reaching the site's lower portion.

He flies through air with the greatest of ease, without a trapeze... in his BVDs.

When separated from his ride, Batman can summon it with the press of a button. Alternately, he can backtrack to the Batmobile in order to control it, or he can simply maneuver it via remote. In the case of the ersatz elevator ride, the remote manipulation proves necessary since you actually need to be in the elevator car as the Batmobile lowers it to the underground level. The Batmobile also meshes neatly with the Dark Knight's standard bag of tricks; he can easily drop from an aerial glide directly into the vehicle cockpit, and conversely his ejector seat can launch him into the air as he drives around to give him the high ground instantly. In short, the Batmobile is meant to function as an extension of Batman himself, and generally speaking it works. Although the vehicular combat sequences feel more a typical third-person shooter than a fluid extension of the balletic melee combat that's become a trademark of the Arkham titles, it doesn't feel so radically different or out of place in the context of the game as to be jarring. The demo I played gave a small taste of Batmobile combat as a preface to the elevator puzzle, sending Batman against roughly half a dozen unmanned tanks in the industrial complex's exterior.

And of course there's the eponymous Knight himself, whose appeared in the demo long enough to reveal a clever plan to capture Batman by luring him into a trap with the aforementioned civilians hostages and just as quickly bail out once the Dark Knight summoned the Batmobile via remote. Despite resembling a lithe, tactically armored mirror image of Batman himself, the Arkham Knight is less of a lone wolf and more like the commander of a private militia, happily bringing his private army to bear in his crusade against the Caped Crusader. (He's not, however, above spouting hoary dialogue about revenge and wanting to be the one to personally humble Batman. Hey, it's a video game based on a comic book. What do you want?)

By all appearances, Arkham Knight brings Rocksteady's trademark excellence to bear on a much larger and more ambitious take on the Batman saga than ever seen to date. Warner Bros. has allowed the game to slip to 2015 in order to give Rocksteady the time necessary to make sure that Arkham Knight's many moving parts fit together smoothly — undoubtedly a fact that will disappoint many fans, but which certainly beats being left with a rushed, unfinished game this fall.

After all, Batman may tote around a heavy assault cannon even if he "never" uses guns, but in the end there really is one true constant in comics, and a genuinely immutable one at that: Batman always wins. Even if it means Warner's holiday 2014 profits end up looking a little anemic as a result.

Tags: arkhamknight e3 Preview rocksteady vr

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