Yesterday, Gotham Knights showed off a dozen minutes of gameplay and my excitement started to fizzle. Weird, floaty superpowers. Chunky Jason Todd. And a menu screen that looks ripped straight out of every failed live-service loot game. Gotham Knights may turn out to be great, but right now it’s just reminding me how ready I am for another normal-ass Batman Arkham game instead.
The extended trailer for Gotham Knights looked far from dazzling. Delayed once already, PC Gamer quipped that the action RPG could probably benefit from another slip. Even aside from how the finished product might look or feel, other aspects Warner Bros. showed off looked out of place in the down-to-earth detective sandbox of past Batman games. “Red Hood gained new abilities after being resurrected by an assassin cult,” the trailer voiceover reveals, as the second Robin turned anti-hero begins using green flashes of light to fly through the sky.
Clunky-looking co-op and Jason “cop” Todd aside, the most exhausting bit of footage was the deep dive into loot rarity, mod slots, and other mechanics designed to juice your brain chemistry and keep you playing long after you’ve stopped having fun. Look, I love a good skill tree and some gear stats. I’ve played thousands of hours of Destiny 2. But I’m also increasingly skeptical of seeing these features creep into other game genres just to prolong the experience. We all know how Marvel’s Avengers turned out, and how the best part about Guardians of the Galaxy was free of any games-as-a-service bloat.
WB Montreal, like many other studios, has been emphatic that Gotham Knights is not a live-service game. “This is very much not designed as a game-as-service,” producer Fleur Marty told IGN last year. “There is an ability tree, which is different for each of the characters, and then there’s gear that you craft–and so choices that you’re going to be making–but that does not mean that this is a game-as-service.” People Can Fly said the same thing about loot RPG Outriders and then proceeded to re-balance it to hell and is now preparing to ship its latest expansion (for the record I think Outriders is great at what it does, but I have no illusions about what that is).
In some ways it feels unfortunate that Gotham Knights is hitting right at what seems like the tail-end of people’s patience with the recent trend of adding an RPG grind to every gameplay loop. The wannabe Destinys, the endless battle passes, it’s all gotten a bit much and it’s not staying contained. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a fantastic open world game, and also one that had far too much stuff in it even before Ubisoft layered on a bunch of extra DLC. There is a reason the map littered with icons has become the go-to parody of modern big budget game design.
It’s a testament to just how far things have moved in that direction that the original Arkham games feel, to me at least, like a less bloated and more focused alternative. By Arkham Knight, those worlds were also full of checklists ranging from memorable sidequests to retrieving errant drones, but they were also laid out in a way that felt slightly less overwhelming. I have never been much on the series’ Riddler puzzles, but I’ll take solving a few of those over comparing mod slots between epic and legendary gear at this point.
Before Gotham Knights, WB Montreal made 2013’s Arkham Origins, an excellent spin-off so underappreciated it didn’t even make it into 2019’s Batman: Arkham Collection. For all its flaws, Origins feels in hindsight like an admirable compromise between Arkham Asylum’s modest beginnings and some of the open-world excess of where it ended up. Wedged in the middle of an Assassin’s Creed-style onslaught that saw a new Arkham arrive every two years, it’s easy to see why Origins wasn’t as warmly received by others when it first came out, nor why I still felt burned out on the series by the time Knight came out in 2015.
Seven years later, a new Arkham game doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. While WB Montreal has its hands full with calibrating loot drops, Rocksteady Studios is preparing to release a third-person co-op shooter in Suicide Squad. The DC comic book fan in me will ultimately welcome both games, but what I’d rather be doing is stealthily taking down peripherally vision impaired gangsters while grapple-hooking from one gargoyle to the next.
A decade later, Arkham’s metroidvania brawler formula is in short supply, while Diablo collectathons are a dime a dozen. Hopefully it doesn’t take another decade for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction, and WB Montreal and Rocksteady both survive the current merger and acquisition chaos long enough to be there for it.