The Batmobile in Batman: Arkham Knight

Okay so a lot of people hated the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, and I’m not going to try and defend it. People said that it was unnecessary and nobody really wanted it, and also that it turned the game into the next GTA. Personally I really hated the Riddler racing tracks. But setting those criticisms aside, today I wanted to focus on one tiny part of what the Batmobile brings to the game, in terms of some of the structural changes it creates. 

I’ll mainly focus on Arkham City as a point of comparison. In Arkham City, there were three main levels that people tended to move between: walking on the streets, gliding at around roof height, and gliding between the higher towers or water tanks or whatever. We’ll call them low gliding and high gliding. Obviously these terms aren’t bulletproof, but I think they do some useful work for us. If you’re high gliding, you’re usually trying to get from A to B as fast as possible. You get lots of height to keep you going, and you aim for the cranes or the high-rise buildings for that grapple-speed-boost thing. Usually you specifically don’t want to be low gliding, at around roof height, because then you potentially start getting constrained – bumping into buildings, having to follow the street layout instead of moving as the crow flies, and so on.

Low gliding, as I’ve suggested, is more about moving roughly around roof level. There’s lots of lamp-posts and so on to grapple-boost off, and you’re able to get a good view of the street without having to wade through rioters. The third option is walking or running along the street, and I think that’s probably the least common approach for players. There’s thugs everywhere, so you’re almost constantly in combat. In my experience, players really only go on foot if they’re trying to get through a door – like the entrance into the museum, Penguin’s hideout – or if they’re trying to reach a riddle or take out a Riddler informant or something. There’s usually something specific on the ground that they’re trying to reach – it’s not a fast travel option.

In Arkham Knight, by contrast, the introduction of the Batmobile makes ground travel a more viable option. You can run thugs over instead of fighting them – technically they’re, uh, rendered unconscious by an electromagnetic field, but you basically just run them over and they go flying. There’s also a little bit of trouble with enemy drone tanks and so on, but you can usually knock those out in about thirty seconds or so, and then they’re gone until the next major story event. So all in all, road travel becomes much more viable – certainly more so than in Arkham City, even with the drones.

There’s a bunch of little interesting tweaks that come with this emphasis on road travel. Arkham Knight is much more invested in the verticality of the road-environment – so there’s more split-level roads, it’s possible to make stunt jumps and so on off the overpass onto a lower level – you could compare it to DOOM and the vertical emphasis there. Obviously it’s not that similar, but there is a vertical component that’s brought into the roads. However, as a trade-off, there seem to be less random baddies mooking about on rooftops. In the other Arkham games, there’s bad guys on at least every second roof. Here, not so much – and even when they are on the rooftops, they’re usually more set events – Azrael, the watchtower missions, that sort of thing. So focus is pulled from the mid level down to the bottom, where the Batmobile is.

Let’s chat briefly about that mid level. It’s the rooftop area, and in some ways it’s one of the more interesting spaces to traverse. The buildings are usually all slightly different heights, meaning you’re often grappling up the side or gliding down to a lower building – generally picking your way through the environment. The road area, by contrast, is pretty consistently flat – almost by definition. Obviously there are exceptions with these bridges and jumps and so on, but by and large, the moment to moment gameplay isn’t as diverse. There’s a road, and you drive on it. On the rooftops, you’re switching between gliding and grappling, you’re leapfrogging between islands. It’s a bit like an obstacle course. On the road, you’re just driving forwards. There’s none of the geographical resistance that’s presented to you on the rooftops. So by pulling focus down to the roads, and largely eliminating the mid-level combat, players potentially spend less time in this level that’s really got a lot to offer in terms of interesting traversal.

There’s more I want to say, but I’m not sure I have the vocabulary at the moment to say it. I’ll go and think some more – so it’s a bit of a shorter post today, but it’s starting to think about this question of navigation in games.

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