A storm has risen over Gotham City. No, not the one generated by Mr. Freeze's aptly titled Storm Engine. That'll be but a temporary nuisance for the Gotham Knights to deal with this time, in what is undoubtedly Warner Bros. Games Montreal's most ambitious game to date. When a super villain, hell bent on engulfing the city in sheets of ice, is the least of your problems, you just know things have taken a turn for the worse. Worse than usual, anyway.
Bruce Wayne is dead, and Batman's absence has cast a long shadow on the streets of Gotham. Out of it, The Court of Owls has emerged and The Talons – its breed of highly trained assassins – are finally free to fly. While The Court might rule Gotham from a shadowed perch, from behind the granite and lime of the city's foundations, criminal enterprises are crawling out from the woodwork to begin grappling for territorial control. Commissioner Gordon is gone and the Gotham City Police Department is divided; the citizens are scared and under siege; the blackest night engulfing what little of the light remains. To circumvent a full descent into chaos, the last heroes of Gotham must rise up as its new protectors.
Gotham City goes dark
"We wanted to shake up the status quo in Gotham City," says Patrick Redding, the creative director speaking from DC FanDome. "We wanted to see what happens when you take away the safety of Batman's presence, and then find out what happens what happens when these heroes, the Bat-Family – Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Robin – have to step up and take on the role of new protectors of Gotham."
Warner Bros. Games Montreal is creating a brand new adventure in DC's Batman universe. This is world's apart from the Arkhamverse; it's a version of Gotham City that you've only ever seen in panels and pages. Thankfully, we're going to have plenty of scope to explore it on our own terms in Gotham Knights. The studio has teased that we will be able to explore the streets of five distinct boroughs, an open-world Gotham City built to be dynamic, living, and interactive.
We only got but a small taste of it in the Gotham Knights gameplay reveal, with Batgirl swerving around destructive bolts of ice from the back of the Batcycle. Look beyond the dazzling next-gen particles filling the screen and you'll be able to spot the devastating effect this adverse weather is having on the city and its citizens in real-time. By the time Batgirl reaches the Elliot Center, a towering structure frozen in time, we get our first glimpse at the chaos that has been wrought in Batman's absence.
"We wanted to take away any certainty, any feeling of safety," Redding continued at the Legacy of the Bat panel. "So we could take a Gotham City where Bruce Wayne has been operating as Batman for 15 years – with all that history, his whole network of allies – and then take him out of the picture. It really demands players figure out, 'How would I step up, and how would I protect Gotham City?'"
15 years of bad blood spills over
15 years is a long time in Gotham City. In it, Batman has built himself a convincing, considerable gallery of rogues, each of which will relish the opportunity to seize control without fear of concussion. Barbara Gordon has suffered through the death of her father and suffered further at the hands of Batman's arch-nemesis – she's helped Bruce as Oracle in the past, and now after years of recovery and preparation she has a new role to play. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, has been transformed from young protege to a hero in his own right, taking on the mantle of Nightwing. Jason Todd, the second Robin, has already been murdered and resurrected in the Lazarus Pit, becoming Red Hood in the aftermath. Tim Drake has trained to become the third Robin, looking to become the type of hero Batman personified before Bruce's untimely death. This is a Gotham City with open wounds that need healing, and deep scars that can't be.
Each of these four characters will be playable in Gotham Knights. It's an action-RPG that appears to be a smart evolution of the combat systems introduced in the Batman Arkham games, that Warner Bros. Games Montreal had direct experience developing engineering in 2013's Batman: Arkham Origins. In the seven years since, the studio has been working to ensure each character feels distinct, and that its spaces are detailed enough to entice solo players and large enough to accommodate two-player, online co-op.
"We choose characters who resonate with players on a few different axes," says Fleur Marty, the senior producer speaking at DC FanDome. "We wanted heroes who embody different aspects of the Bat Family – the detective side, the fighter, the scourge of the underworld, and the urban legend. We looked for characters that offer players a unique starting point and then a long runway for growth. Ultimately we wanted heroes that could take on the forces that threaten Gotham City, with each bringing their own unique perspective."
That 'long runway for growth' is key here. Each hero comes equipped with unique abilities, weapons, and traversal, not to mention a customisable suit. It means you'll be able to shape and reinvent each throughout your adventure. While the studio is yet to detail how this will work in practice, there are resources to be collected and XP to be earned, with enemies apparently scaling alongside your growth to offer a consistent challenge as you tackle street-level encounters and go up against an array of iconic DC super villains.
"Gotham Knights is built to let each player approach each challenge with their own style and their own build," Redding teases. "An important element to Gotham Knights is that as the player increases in power and ability, their foes keep pace. Confronting a villain like Mr. Freeze can be a very different proposition at level five or at level 15. And not just in terms of stats, but in the types of attacks and defences they bring to bear."
The new faces of Gotham
The slice of gameplay we've seen is reportedly pre-alpha, and that means there's still a lot that's going to be tweaked on the road to Gotham Knights release date in 2021. The UI clearly has a lot to track, between co-op partner positions, XP earned, multiple resource collection, enemy levels and awareness, and even environmental damage modifiers, and could do with a little fine-tuning as a result. Mr. Freeze's health bar in the boss battle, for example, looks like it has been torn out of the pages of a budget newsstand comic book – it appears out of place in an otherwise grounded visual identity. There's also a few framerate hitches and stutters all throughout the demonstration, although you'd imagine stability will be a key area of focus for the studio moving forward.
At a basic level, however, each hero comes equipped with a core set of proficiencies. Nightwing uses his signature dual Escrima Sticks and mastery of acrobatics to effectively manage large groups of enemies. Red Hood's anti-hero status is reflected in his fighting styles, a brawler equipped with a proficiency in multiple combat techniques and weapons. Robin combines his intellect with his expertise with a collapsible quarterstaff, tapping into the Justice League satellite for short-range teleportation and stealth cloaking.
In the gameplay demo, we see a version of Batgirl a dozen hours into her progression. In it, she's able to utilise her training in kickboxing, capoeira and jiu-jitsu to quickly smack enemies around, alongside her strengths with a melee tonfa and more traditional Batman-esque abilities of obfuscation and misdirection. Seeing her and Robin spring into action, it would appear that play is faster than that of the Arkham games. Combat is still built around the same foundations of melee brawling and button-bash combos, albeit with a greater focus on speed and agility, reflecting the youth of the characters versus a grizzled, lumbering Bruce Wayne.
You'll also be able to employ a variety of character-specific abilities in combat. Barbara can, for example, summon a swarm of bats to confuse enemies and even utilise a swift dodge maneuver to gracefully avoid enemy fire. These abilities are tied to a segmented meter beneath the health bar, replenishment occurring gradually over time, or faster by pummelling foes into the ground. Thankfully, when Batgirl and Robin team-up to deliver a devastating co-op attack on an unsuspecting enemy, it doesn't cost a segment of the meter, which means co-op play is encouraged at a baseline, rather than deterred by expenditure.
Still, some very minor presentational concerns aside, Gotham Knights had one hell of a first showing. It appears to be a convincing and confident action-RPG. By deftly iterating upon the familiar Arkham combat, by building a bold new open world, and in promising to fill it with even bolder stories, Gotham Knights has quickly risen to become one of 2021's most anticipated games.
Gotham Knights is set to release in 2021 for PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One, and PC.