Batman: Arkham Knight E3 hands-on: high-fiving the Batmobile

A few months ago I wondered if the Batmobile was just a flashy addition to the Arkham canon: pretty when it tore through barriers and raced down Gotham's Blade Runner-like rain-covered neon streets, but maybe built for spectacle rather than nuance. Today, I sampled the Batmobile's Pursuit and Battle modes at E3 and my opinion on its inclusion is more fully formed. While action giggles are certainly part of the Batmobile's appeal in Arkham Knight, the finale of Rocksteady's trilogy, the car actually supplements all of Batman's existing skills well, and acts more like an AI companion who helps me get shit done. I'd even go as far to call it...a buddy. Don't stare, there's nothing weird about it.

My demo is set in one isolated part of the gigantic, five-times-bigger-than Arkham City map at the Ace Chemical plant (the Joker was created in a vat of acid here, it was a whole thing). Batman is here to rescue some workmen from the enigmatic Arkham Knight's militia. Upon the Dark Knight's arrival, the Arkham Knight is livid about the situation, for some reason wanting to take revenge on Batman, presumably over a past altercation. He's in league with the Scarecrow, who claims the role of primary villain this time around.

This level is just open enough to illustrate the advantages of the Batmobile in covering large amounts of space while also being a typical Arkham environment, with grimy, run-down industrial design. Batman uses a special batarang to scope out the survivors he's looking for by following sound signals and zoning in on them, basically a drone. It lets you figure out the objective, which is more Batman than having it telegraphed explicitly, I suppose.

After I figure out their locations, the search allows for a number of Batmobile-related capers that demonstrate the vehicle's varied capabilities. It has a cable hook that I can use to pull down walls, or create ramps out of bits of broken road. The Pursuit and Battle modes can be switched between at any time: Pursuit is basically high-speed driving, and Battle is when the car's arsenal rolls out and you have more precision in driving and shooting. You can even strafe in this form on some fancy wheels, and by hitting A on a controller, dodge attacks from enemies like the robot tanks I scrap with in my playthrough. Battle Mode also has a combo bonus that lets you pelt every NPC you can lock onto with rockets. It's enjoyable, but the less initially obvious uses of the Batmobile are the most exciting.

Later in the demo, I discover a new component of environmental puzzles that involves remote controlling the Batmobile to remove obstacles, like blowing up steam pipes from exterior locations, or using the cable to drag up a lift that Batman can then climb into to reach a lower level. It's like having a second playable character that you're in control of, but there's a little bit of personality in the way it moves when you automatically summon it with the left bumper, or use it to help you beat up goons. I felt like there was a tiny bit of Dog from Half-Life 2 in there, too, just a little personality in the way it's animated that makes a subtle difference.

By far my favourite part of this demo was realising that when the Batmobile is nearby, one combo option lets you lob a dude in the air and have the car shoot him back to the ground. It's pretty awesome: I feel like I'm high-fiving Batman's car, in one moment punching a guy in the face as part of a freeflow combo, and at the last second letting the car land the knockout blow. It's really empowering, and shows Rocksteady is on the right track in exploring every way the car can be compatible with what we understand Arkham to be. Gliding in or out of the thing looks very cool, and I keep enjoying watching it turn up from around a corner in seconds, no matter how far I've lobbed it with a failed nitrous boost.

But Batman's new moves aren't just limited to the Batmobile. I try the Fear Takedown, which lets you point the camera at enemies and hit B to make Batman sprint between armed guards. It's something that can speed up predator sections, which is useful, without necessarily upsetting the balance of systems that already exist. Bats' new counter throw is theatrical and violent. The old move set isn't seemingly affected, and with a new sword-carrying enemy type that has masterful fighting skills, the extra options are welcome. This demo was mainly about the car, but the rest of the Arkham design isn't on hold, in case you were worried.

Here's a question someone posed to me that's perhaps worth addressing, being a Bat-nerd: if Batman doesn't like guns, why does he have an enormous one strapped to the top of his car? Well, he's only using the main gun on automated drone tanks in this demo, while blank bullets are used to incapacitate human beings. I agree, Batman vs robot tanks is a bit of a fanciful way to justify its inclusion (relatively speaking, in a game about a man dressed as a bat fighting a man who dresses as a thing that frightens birds), but I think you need that destructive feedback to complete the feeling of the Batmobile, even if it does initially seem a bit violent. So, Bruce Wayne gets away with that one, as far as I'm concerned. Batman does have a comic book history of simply turning up in an audacious vehicle and scaring bastards off by tossing projectiles about. Comics told me it was a thing: my method is sound.

The contextual fight moves also push the boundaries of Batman's moral code. These work like the Batmobile combo finishers, in that being near to an object lets you pull off a more elaborate takedown. After shattering through a skylight using a careful glide move, I shove a guy into a load of fuses on a wall and electrocute him before launching into an unbroken fleeflow combo. There's also a light fitting you can tear off the ceiling using the same prompt and squash a guy with. Oh, Batman. Your moral ambiguity takes many forms.

Just experimenting with the combinations of Batman's skills with the advantages presented by the Batmobile shows how much promise and ambition there is in this final Rocksteady Arkham instalment. Considering this is just one isolated element of the city, it will be interesting to see how these strategic options open up in the gigantic, gorgeous cityscape that I saw during the game's unveiling in March.

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Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.