Gotham Knights Isn’t a Live-service Game, so Why Does It Look Like One?

Continuing the Arkham legacy, for better or worse.

I’ve been looking forward to Gotham Knights for years. As a huge fan of the Arkham series, I’ve always wanted a video game to give us a closer look at Batman’s colorful line-up of sidekicks. I was pretty optimistic… until the 13-minute gameplay demo on Tuesday. Halfway through the showcase, viewers were greeted with this image:

Nightwing stands in the pause menu of Gotham Knights. The right side of the image has various suits he can equip, each with stats associated with them.

 …gear. Ugh. It even feels gross to type.

I’m not saying gear doesn’t belong in a video game, but in one so clearly inspired by the Arkham series, it feels out of place. The Arkham combat system is already excellent, so why complicate it with RPG mechanics? It’s reminiscent of Crystal Dynamics’ Avengers, a game where the grindy loot system overshadowed a shockingly effective campaign. Gotham Knights is not a live service game, but aspects of it feel awfully reminiscent of one. Players are encouraged to grind to find loot which is used to craft or modify stat-filled gear. And while there’s no roadmap for Gotham Knights, there are clear avenues that can easily be expanded, such as adding more playable characters to the supporting cast.

WB Games Montreal is taking a trendy mechanic and plugging it into a popular franchise, hoping to multiply those factors into a success. It’s upsetting, but not without precedent. Every time the Arkham series has incorporated gaming’s latest trend, the series suffered for it.

In 2009, Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham Asylum, a third-person action-adventure game where Batman faces off against the Joker. Blending action, stealth, and puzzle solving, the multi-faceted experience became one the of the greatest superhero games of all time without feeling bloated or disjointed. The combat is so intuitive and satisfying that it spawned an entire generation of copycat combat systems. Arkham Asylum isn’t just popular because it’s a good Batman game. It’s a good game, full stop.

When its sequel Arkham City came out in 2011, it aimed to be bigger and better, and largely delivered. The refined combat, the expanded gadget selection, and the story all benefitted from a broader scope. Batman as a character is far more interesting this time around, and the game’s ending actually matches its overall tone, unlike the goofy, roided-out Titan Joker from Asylum. Despite being my personal favorite in the series, it started the trend that would eventually lead to Gotham Knights.

The game’s selling point was the titular “Arkham City,” a closed off section of Gotham populated by inmates from Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum. In practice, it’s an open-world environment with a map five times the size of the original. There are collectibles to find, enemies to fight, and side quests to do, but in retrospect, it feels like expansion for the sake of expansion. Because it’s only populated by the city’s prisoners, the streets are cold and empty. It’s fun to glide around in between missions, but it’s a far cry from the simple, elegant overworld design from the first game. Bigger didn’t turn out to be better, but it was a mistake many other titles were making at the time. In 2011, open worlds were the hot new craze, and Arkham City jumped right onto the bandwagon. It was the start of a troubling pattern; a pattern of adding mechanics the series didn’t need.

Arkham Origins, a prequel to Asylum, is the worst example of this. Instead of Rocksteady, the game was developed by WB Games Montreal (the studio that would go on to develop Gotham Knights), and they did a… passable job. The combat is mostly the same, but the story is weaker and unfocused. The open world returned to be even bigger than before, but it feels emptier. These issues are common in disappointing sequels, but the misstep that really stood out was its lackluster multiplayer.

In 2013, multiplayer modes found themselves shoehorned into all sorts of single-player games, like Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed IV, and The Last of Us. Origins’ multiplayer is a 3v3 third-person shooter, where you play as gang members loyal to Bane or Joker. The twist is that there are two other players playing as Batman and Robin, hunting the shooters from the rafters above. It sounds super cool in theory, but the execution is clumsy at best. The shooting mechanics feel off, and the servers around launch were so bad that I only ever played once or twice out of the dozen times I attempted. Arkham Origins jumped at the chance to chase a trend, and became worse because of it.

Batgirl rides the bat-cycle towards a tower shrouded in blue electricity.

For the final game in the Arkham series, Rocksteady was back in control. Arkham Knight was the series’ chance to focus on what made the franchise popular in the first place, but instead they fell into the same traps as before. 2015 saw the release of massive games like The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid 5, so Arkham Knight competed by getting as big as possible. The biggest open world yet. More villains, side quests, and playable characters. And notoriously, the introduction of the Batmobile. It has car and tank forms that you can swap between, and it can be summoned around the city. It’s not a terrible mechanic, and its inclusion makes a lot of sense for the story, but every time I took control of the Batmobile it just felt like I was playing a different, worse game. The tank was especially frustrating, partially because of its sluggish movement, and partially because of how often the player is forced into it. I don’t want to play a tank game. I’m here to play Batman!

Games should innovate and experiment, but never just because a mechanic is popular. The bottom line should be to improve the game as a whole. Gotham Knights doesn’t have the Arkham name, but it’s a clear successor, and I fear it’s fated to make the same mistakes. Watching this week’s gameplay demo, it seems like they’ve kept the series’ combat largely intact, but added the gear system on top of it. I haven’t personally played any of it yet, but it’s hard to imagine gear improving one of the best combat systems in gaming history. I’d love for WB Games Montreal to surprise me, but with the trajectory the series has gone on, it’s hard to imagine they will.