When it debuted in 2009, Batman: Arkham Asylum hit with nothing short of seismic impact. It applied Christopher Nolan-like gravitas to Batman games, one-upping the reactive combat mechanics of Assassin's Creed while simultaneously giving the Caped Crusader an arsenal of tricks that allowed him to win through fear and misdirection rather than sheer brute force.
Never before had a comic character been adapted into a video game so fittingly, so accurately. Rocksteady even remembered that Batman's main book under the DC imprint is "Detective Comics," not "Action Comics," and gave him a moderate amount of detective work to do. Sure, it was simplistic — hardly point-and-click adventure calibre — but it framed the narrative nicely and led players from one plot point to the next. While it suffered occasional missteps (like the laughable final battle with a 'roided-up Joker), it absolutely raised the bar not only for comic games but action games in general.
The downside to creating a game that changes everything, of course, is that the rest of the world quickly dissects your work and attempts to build on it. A few years later, you've suddenly created your own worst competition as everyone you left in the dust steals your best ideas and works to improve them. This, then, is the situation that Rocksteady finds itself in for the capper to its Arkham trilogy, Batman: Arkham Knight, due in just a few weeks for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Arkham Knight doesn't simply have to surpass its own predecessors, it also has to best countless other franchises whose creators have swiped Rocksteady's bag of tricks to use for themselves (including Batman's own WBIE stablemate, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor).
What's a developer to do? Admit defeat? Totally reinvent the entire game concept? Rocksteady doesn't seem the type to do the former and has entirely too many millions of dollars riding on the game to attempt the latter. So, instead, their approach for Arkham Knight appears to be throw in more of everything.
Now you're not just fighting crime as Batman; you can also play as Nightwing and Batgirl. You're no longer battling crime solely on foot; now the Batmobile plays a crucial role in the action. It's no longer enough to simply fight thugs and goons; now you engage in vehicular combat with enemy drones and tanks. Gotham is larger, the Rogues Gallery is more expansive — at every turn, Arkham Knight is about more, more, more.
After spending some time with the game's pre-E3 demo, though, I wonder if more is really for the best. If anything, the game seems needlessly drawn out in places — not padded, exactly, but the pacing leaves something to be desired. It's stuffed with features and tricks, too; at one point the demo representative tried to show off the game's seamless cinematic combat capabilities, but it never quite worked out for me. I had to be driving the Batmobile at just the right angle and just the right speed and take a flying leap at just the right time and move to attack at just the right spot... none of which was actually indicated within the game. No doubt it'll make for an impressive maneuver once I learn the ins and outs of the game, but trying to pull it off in a mid-game demo slice without having built up the requisite familiarity with the controls made my Batman look like an incompetent dimwit.
Those advanced maneuvers will surely grow more graceful with time and practice, but I'm less confident about how well Arkham Knight's protracted combat engagements will play out over the course of 20-odd hours. The demo tossed me into two compulsory scrums — one on foot, the other in the Batmobile — and in both cases the fights felt like they contained about 50% too many enemies for comfort. Sure, it's great that the new generation of consoles can pit Batman against larger mobs than was possible for the previous Arkham titles (and that the PC version is no longer hamstrung by the need to maintain parity with PS3 and Xbox 360), but I'm not convinced that bigger fights amount to better fights.
The demo's big brawl ideally was positioned as a demo of Nightwing's cooperative role in the game. He can fight on his own under A.I. control, or players can switch to take direct control of him once the requisite meter has filled, and the switchover animation creates an opportunity for a devastating team attack. In that sense, it works as an extension of standard Arkham combat, which revolves primarily of seizing openings to attack or counter-attack foes, while dodging the handful of enemies who can't be taken down with simple counters. Nightwing fits right in with the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, the cooperative warehouse brawl consisted of so many foes it became something of a mess. The camera's determination to zoom and spin for maximum cinematic effect didn't help, but for much of the fight a good half of the thugs Batman and Nightwing had to contend with were out of view of the camera. They were still sending off little attack signals and moving in for the kill, but when the bad guys' tells vanish out of view, the respond-and-retort combat mechanics fall flat. And the sheer number of foes means that, even if you stay on top of the major threats and take an aggressive approach to combat, the brawl drags on for entirely too long.
The Batmobile combat sequence felt similarly padded, though in a different sense. Because of the size and relatively constrained mobility of the Batmobile within the city's crowded alleys, Arkham Knight doles out vehicular opponents in smaller numbers than the brutes you face on foot — you generally only face three or four at once. But the machines just keep on coming, turning what begins as a tense combat scenario that sees you avoiding laser sights into a bit of a rote slog as you quickly learn the tricks and timing of your foes... yet they just keep on coming.
Neither of these encounters were game-breakers by any means, but they give the impression that Arkham Knight's designers have found themselves against something of a wall. They're catering to a mass audience (one with little patience for difficult games) with the Batman license, but at the same time also have a dedicated fanbase of diehards (who know all the tricks up the sleeve of the Arkham games and want a new challenge). How do you appease both groups? Based on the demo, it seems the answer is to throw more bad guys into the mix rather than making them cannier or giving them more complex behaviors. Other, non-compulsory fights I stumbled into while exploring portions of Gotham on my own seemed to bear out this approach as well: I spotted more groups of thugs, each consisting of more individual gang members, than I recall seeing in previous games.
Maybe this seems like unfair criticism based on such a limited demo — though as a demo, it's content the developer has specifically curated to make the best possible impression — but my remarks don't come from a place of cynicism but rather of concern. Arkham Knight is huge, polished, detailed, and seemingly quite ambitious in most respects. The integration of the Batmobile into both combat and traversal feels seamless and far from trivial in nature. The game absolutely looks to be impressive piece of work... but the frequency and duration of its fight sequences promise to bog down the pacing. I'm also concerned about the Firefly quest thread, which consists of running chases through Gotham — no one likes chase missions in other open-world games like Assassin's Creed and GTA, and yet here we are.
But that, I suppose, is the nature of the game: More content, more to do, more challenges to complete in order to come out on top. At what point does "more" become excessive, though? Does a sequel have to top its predecessor in terms of volume and variety? The ever-growing scope of the series parallels the structure and tone of the Nolan Batman films, which would position Arkham Knight as its equivalent The Dark Knight Rises, and I'm sure no one wants that. The grandiose scale, multiple playable characters, and dynamic vehicular mechanics of Arkham Knight promise something that seem certain to be an epic. Yet it also appears to lack the claustrophobic intensity of Arkham Asylum.
Fortunately, Rocksteady has shown off very little in the way of the game's deep cuts, the extended missions; hopefully the more compelling solo material will show up there. And hopefully Arkham Knight can capture the brooding isolation of the first game while still making interesting use of new additions like Batgirl and the Batmobile. Rocksteady has a lot to juggle and overcome with Arkham Knight — not just the heated competition, not just the series' own legacy, but the sheer amount of stuff in this game. While there's little doubt the conclusion to the Arkham trilogy will be every bit as polished and dynamic as its predecessors, the real test will come in how well everything holds together. Can there ever be such a thing as too much Batman? Arkham Knight seems determined to provide a definitive answer to that question, one way or the other.