Despite the fact that it went gold over a month ago, and releases in a couple of weeks, we've only just had our first opportunity to go hands-on with the upcoming action game from Warner Bros. Games Montreal, Gotham Knights. Set in a version of the DC universe where Batman has been killed, this story revolves around four of the Caped Crusader's proteges, as they step up to defend Gotham City from the villainous criminal overlords looking to take over the fictional metropolis, all while unravelling the actual mystery surrounding how the World's Greatest Detective met his untimely end.
For those not quite up to speed with this title, it isn't a continuation or a spinoff of the Arkham series of games developed by Rocksteady. Rather it's something completely new and fresh, although there are clearly only so many creative liberties you can take with Batman and DC, because a lot feels and looks familiar. Gotham City is still dark, wet, dreary, and grim, and the characters all have similar personalities and designs - even if they are unique still. And I bring this up because you could mistake this title as a part of the Arkham universe, as it really does feel like it belongs there.
At least it does until you actually look into the gameplay. In the similar Arkham games, Batman's combat and playstyle was almost superhuman and godly (even though Bruce Wayne is just a man). You can face hordes of enemies and take them all down in moments, using a combination of martial arts techniques that see Batman flinging himself around a fight, doing 720-spin roundhouse kicks perfectly onto the skulls of unlucky criminals. It was fun, but hardly seemed plausible for a mortal man. In Gotham Knights, the Knights feel more rooted and real, and fight like highly-trained individuals. The combat is slower, more methodical, and strategic, and you'll need to think about your actions and whether it's the right move to throw a punch or evade an attack. This does make combat feel a little more sluggish at times, but it also brings a level of fluidity that perfectly integrates into the Momentum system of abilities.
This is a new feature, where you are rewarded with landing attacks and perfectly evading assaults. Each action adds a tad to a bar on the lower right of your HUD, and when the bar's individual segments fill up, you can use one of many unlockable Momentum abilities that are essentially fancy attacks. For Batgirl, this could be doing a powerful stunning move, whereas for Nightwing you can leap onto a foe to knock them down. And of course, this is all on top of the regular light and heavy attacks, dodges, and ranged attacks, which you can even aim by entering an over-the-shoulder perspective for each character (even if this does suit Red Hood and his dual-pistols best).
But one of the main points about Gotham Knights is how you can approach combat in the way that suits you and the Knight you are playing. If you fancy running head-first into danger and letting your fists do the talking, you can, although it'd be best to do such a thing as the well-equipped Batgirl or the brawler-type Red Hood. If you fancy a stealthier approach, and want to use the shadows to your advantage, that's also an option, one of which Robin excels at. The combination of stealth and brawler gameplay is still here, once again like it was in the Arkham series.
And for those wondering how the multiple protagonist design works for Gotham Knights, it's simple and quite effective. Essentially, each of the four characters, while unique in a variety of ways, all play similarly, meaning you can swap between them at The Belfry hub location and still feel comfortable tackling the objectives of a mission. There's no real differentiating factor to the way that one character changes a mission either, it's just small dialogue and story beats that make a cutscene or a moment unique to one character, as the rest all remains the same. And this is also a similar story for the progression, as every character shares Ability Points, which are earned by defeating enemies in combat and completing world activities. You can, in theory, play the entire game as Robin, and then switch at the final moment to Batgirl, and have tons of Ability Points to spend and specialise the character as you see fit. It's all very intuitive and straightforward.
What I will say is that the exploration and open world nature of Gotham City has yet to wow me. It feels very large and broad, but also quite empty and barren. Sure there are criminals to find and beat up, and crimes to prevent (which are basic activities that task you with defeating waves of enemies and so on), and there are clearly side quests and collectibles to acquire as well. But I can't help but feel this version of the metropolis will lack some of the gravity and character that made Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Gotham City so fun to explore, especially since the Knights aren't as capable of travelling around the open world as Batman was in the Arkham games. You do still have a grapple gun and gliding mechanics, but this is slower and more grounded (like combat), meaning you can't just zoom up the side of a building at Mach 10 and then fly off into the night like a cruise missile. No. Now you have to rely on the Batcycle to get around, and while it does the trick, it's a slower form of travel, and I can see fast travelling becoming a highly used feature.
Yet still even though I have my doubts about the open world, I like the way that WB Montreal has served up its protagonists. This is a conflicted and rather dysfunctional family that have been forced to work together, and you can feel the friction between the heroes at times, and yet still see how they care for and rely on each other. I was worried that having so many lead characters would convolute the narrative and make it trip up on itself, but it seems like WB Montreal has figured it out here. And this is a similar story with the villains, as you could worry that having so many threatening foes in one game could be too much to swallow, but the story seems to tackle each major villain one at a time (at least from what I saw). I faced off with Harley Quinn, and while I will say that she feels very familiar to the Arkham version (and pretty much every version of the character I've ever seen), she was a captivating and entertaining threat, one that even posed a decent challenge come the boss fight where the Knights brought her down and foiled her plot.
Looking back at my time with Gotham Knights, I can't quite say it will blow players away and serve up something truly unique and beyond what we've already seen in the action-brawler genre. But, if you like the Arkham games, if you're fan of DC, and are looking for a chance to return to Gotham City, there's a lot to look forward to here. And this is all without talking about the striking graphics or how the suit customisation suite works, because I didn't quite get to explore this in full. This is shaping up to be a fun and entertaining title, and one where you can even team up with a friend to face the underbelly of Gotham City, and for that reason, I will remain excited and raring for launch day come October 21.