Gotham Knights Review – Batfamily’s Competent, But No Batman

Oct 20, 2022 07:01 AM EDT
Gotham Knights

Nearly nine years to the day have passed between the release of WB Games Montréal's last game, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Gotham Knights. As far as we know, it's the longest span any triple-A developer has been without releasing a new title.

While there is no official word on what WB Games Montréal has been doing all these years, rumors have spread through the grapevine. The Canadian studio suffered not one but two consecutive cancellations. The first project was a Suicide Squad co-op game reportedly in development between 2014 and late 2016 when it was axed after failing to impress higher-ups at Warner Bros. Games. Interestingly, a similar project is now being seen to completion by fellow studio Rocksteady, with a targeted early 2023 release window.

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When they failed to get the green light for their Suicide Squad project, WB Games Montréal moved on to make another Batman game, albeit with Bruce Wayne's son Damian as the protagonist. The rumor suggested an old Bruce would be tutoring Damian so that he may become the new protector of Gotham. However, even that project didn't pan out, so we finally have Gotham Knights.

In this game, Batman (Bruce Wayne) has just died, leaving his protegees from the Batfamily to uphold his legacy and protect the city from any foes, whether from within or without. While the list of Batman's supporting characters is fairly long, the developers picked the four most recognizable ones: Nightwing (Dick Grayson), Robin (Tim Drake), Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), and Red Hood (Jason Todd).

All of them are playable (mostly because of the co-op feature, which we'll address later in the article). In fact, you can switch between them at any time whenever you are at the Belfry, the group's base of operations during the game. As the developers had stated before release, Gotham Knights was designed around the so-called Belfry loop: after a night of patrolling the streets, stopping crimes, and gathering clues, the hero goes back to the base, gets a detailed report screen on how well the night patrol went, and the sun rises.

It's a more structured approach compared to the Batman: Arkham games. Additionally, it has the benefit of allowing players to see the Batfamily in plain clothes, doing the investigative work that's nearly as important to Batman and his trainees as the actual crimefighting. The Belfry has an evidence board that is constantly updated with the latest gathered information on the main villains featured in Gotham Knights. While you're out on patrol, you also gather information on premeditated crimes that the various criminal factions in the game are planning to carry out on the following night. The clues are automatically gathered by defeating foes, but you can speed up the process by interrogating certain informants. Do note that this happens right in the middle of combat, and the interrogation (which only lasts a few seconds) could be interrupted by another enemy's attack. Should that happen, you'll have to deal with that enemy first and then go back to interrogating the previous one.

Each time you go back to the base, the game loads all of the evidence and unlocks the unveiled premeditated crimes on the map. However, those crimes will only stay on the map for one night and be removed should you head back to the Belfry without stopping them.

Premeditated crimes are usually among the most complex open world activities in Gotham Knights. They can involve a range of mission types, such as hostage situations, bank robberies, organ trafficking, assaults on GCPD officers, protecting witnesses, prisoner transport attacks, and other similar affairs. By the way, even if you haven't managed to get the info on said crimes on the previous night, you can still stumble upon them while roaming Gotham.

Of course, there's plenty more to do while out and about. Smaller crimes are happening here and there; Batman allies will ask for specific tasks to be completed; several collectibles can be found scattered throughout the city; and there are time trials for the Batcycle and heroic movement options such as Nightwing's Trapeze Glider. Completing these activities can yield a variety of rewards, including new Momentum abilities, which we'll discuss as part of the combat.

Gotham Knights developers certainly weren't kidding when they said the rendition of Gotham City was by far the biggest ever seen in a game. It's not the largest open world, granted, but it's vast and varied enough to make it look like a proper place. More importantly, it is the first time Gotham City feels truly alive, thanks to the many NPCs populating it. Previous Batman Arkham games always had to come up with some kind of excuse for the sudden vanishing of the entire population, but that negatively affected the player's immersion. This time, you get to see the people you're saving, and they also comment on the heroes as they pass by. Their opinions will vary, but that's understandable.

Moving across Gotham can be done in three ways (well, other than simply walking, which is hardly convenient). There is the Batcycle, immediately available to all heroes and summonable at will as long as you're near or on an open road. The Batcycle looks pretty cool but is a bit underwhelming. For one thing, even at maximum acceleration and with motion blur activated, it's hard to feel a sense of speed. The driving model is also extremely basic; there is a button to drift, but it is completely unnecessary as there is no benefit in doing so, given that the regular brake can slow down the bike more than enough in all cases. You can also do wheelies, but that's only cool until you notice that your hero can stay up in that position forever without any penalty whatsoever. While driving the Batcycle, you can also perform very basic ranged combat, though it is far handier to just step off the bike and have the full moveset at your disposal.

The other main method of transportation, the grappling hook, is also shared by the whole Batfamily. You can zip up to almost any building or street light and then follow up with a jump that sets you on the way to the next grappling hook point. It feels great and not unlike Spider-Man's web-slinging in the Insomniac games, where the developers may well have gotten the inspiration. Designing an entire city to be crossable by grappling hook and jumping likely was no easy feat, anyway, so hats off to them for succeeding.

Later in Gotham Knights, you can unlock heroic movement options that are unique to each hero (Nightwing has the aforementioned Trapeze Glider, while Red Hood uses the Mystic Jump), though these are really grappling hook complements rather than separate traveling methods. Lastly, Lucius Fox can unlock fast travel options in each neighborhood once you've taken down the surveillance drones set up by the GCPD. Fast travel occurs with the Batwing, though it's a bit sad that you can't fly the thing yourself.

Unlike any of the Batman Arkham games, Gotham Knights is an action RPG. That means you will level up as you complete the main and side activities. Most missions include bonus objectives, such as performing specific takedowns or not alerting enemies to your presence, which provide bonus experience points. Each time you level up, you receive an Ability Point that can be used in one of four skill trees available to each hero. However, those unlocks are mostly for complementary moves, such as an evade chain that allows Nightwing to keep dodging until he is ready to smash the ground with an area-of-effect attack. The real game changers are the Momentum abilities that can only be unlocked by completing specific challenges. Momentum abilities include powerful moves able to turn the tide of combat; except for the Ultimate-like ability, which is on a long cooldown, they are activated by expending Momentum gained during combat.

A key part of any action RPG is improving your character's equipment, and Gotham Knights is no exception to that. Unlike most games in the genre, however, you do not simply drop equipment from defeated enemies. That's entirely understandable since it would make no sense in the setting. You instead gather materials and designs for suits, melee weapons, and ranged weapons upgrades. The equipment has various quality tiers, and the upper tiers also come with mod slots where you can stick mods to improve certain character stats. The choice is relatively limited (for melee weapons, it's mostly between improving elemental effects or increasing critical chance and critical damage), and Gotham Knights is hardly the action RPG featuring the most advanced character progression, but it works for the purposes of the game. Eventually, near the end of the game, you'll start getting equipment that also includes bonuses of its own, such as increasing Momentum gains after performing certain moves.

Given the switch to the action RPG formula, the combat of Gotham Knights also feels a bit different from the Batman Arkham titles. Those games focused entirely on stringing along nearly endless combos, while Gotham Knights is far less reliant on combos. You have a basic melee attack, a strong melee attack, a basic ranged attack, and a strong ranged attack. You can also grab enemies once you've dealt them enough suffering or knocked them down. The key component of the combat system is arguably Timed Strikes, where you hit the attack button again just before your previous attack lands on the opponent for a damage boost. The rest is mostly up to the skills and Momentum abilities unlocked above.

In practice, it's quite fun to play, although people seeking a challenge will probably want to change the difficulty setting to Hard as the Medium difficulty is hardly an issue once you've upgraded your character enough. It's a good idea to switch between the various members of the Batfamily every once in a while, as you can dig into their e-mails, unlock new abilities, and even experience different cutscenes. Gameplay-wise, playing as Nightwing does feel a bit different than Red Hood or the others, though they all largely share Batman's combat style, having been trained by the same man. By the way, you won't need to level them up individually. The developers rightly opted for auto-leveling so no one hero falls behind.

Gotham Knights also adds the co-op feature, where two users (even using the same hero) can play together without any tethers to each other. You can take a look at some co-op footage below. Playing in co-op is very much the same with few differences, such as the option for a team-up attack that pops up once you've grabbed an enemy. Overall, it is a nice addition but one that hardly feels like it'll majorly improve the game's longevity. That could change with the Heroic Assault mode for up to four players due to be introduced with a post-launch patch.

The story of Gotham Knights, while decent, is not one of the game's strengths. It is too predictable and there is too little character development, with the brief scenes at the Belfry between the Knights hardly succeeding in building up the relationships to something really meaningful.

There's also a degree of cognitive dissonance in that during actual gameplay you will never see one of the other heroes at your side when you're not in co-op. At one point, after a key main mission, the characters mention something that happened to 'them' during the mission. But it didn't; the others were all back at the Belfry, providing remote support, which really doesn't make sense when you consider that these characters would never stay back idling when such threats are scouring through their city. It would have been far better if there was at least one AI companion to your side, at least in key moments.

Lastly, we get the real thorn in Gotham Knights' side: its performance. Worries began circulating even ahead of its launch after it became known that there would be no Performance Mode, limiting frame rate to 30FPS on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S|X. We reviewed the game on PC, where the performance was greatly hampered by stuttering, especially when moving quickly through the city with the grappling hook or the Batcycle.

Even with DLSS (2.0) set to Performance Mode and ray tracing turned off (by the way, you cannot turn on lighting, shadows, or reflections, it's either all disabled or enabled), the gameplay experience was far from smooth on a powerful hardware equipped with an RTX 3090 GPU and an i7 12700KF CPU. When trying to activate ray tracing, the experience got worse even with DLSS on Ultra Performance mode (at 4K, that means rendering from a base of 720p).

The Unreal Engine 4 powered visuals are more than satisfying even without ray tracing, but it's nonetheless disappointing that such a configuration would suffer similar struggles.

Regarding the display and graphics options, Gotham Knights includes a field of view slider, which is an unexpected bonus in a third-person game. However, it's yet another game to forget full screen mode and proper HDR display setup settings. Other upscaling options include Intel XeSS, AMD FSR 2, and the UE4's TAAU.

Beyond the performance, the game also crashed a lot, mostly when loading from the open world to the Belfry and vice-versa. When it comes to bugs, we only noticed one when the last enemy of a premeditated crime glitched and started floating, immune to any attack. However, as far as open world games go, that's more than acceptable.

On the subject of longevity, you can expect Gotham Knights to last around the same amount of time as Batman: Arkham Knight, which is to say 30-35 hours to complete all the content.

Reviewed on PC (code provided by the publisher).