As part of our visit to Warner Bros. Games Montreal, we got to see a lot of Gotham Knights being played, but we weren’t able to go hands-on with the game ourselves. That makes a traditional preview a little difficult – without having had a controller in our hands, it’s hard to say how combat, working through missions, or making gear choices feels.
With that in mind this preview will be a little more structural – with the help of the game’s developers, we’ll walk you through how the game is put together, revealing brand new information about the open world, how supervillains fold into the fabric of the wider game, the game’s neat approach to a day-night cycle, and more.
Gotham City and Its People
As we’ve spoken about previously this month, Gotham Knights’ world is aiming to feel like a real city, with centuries of history behind it. Part and parcel with that is how truly open it is – the developers ensured that almost the entirety of their Gotham is open from the very beginning, with each of its five boroughs offering different traversal opportunities, different threats, different activities, and different characters.
But the team also wanted to create the sense of a city reacting to the presence of new vigilantes hitting the streets. Partly, that comes in how villains can physically change the city (more on that later), but it primarily comes down to something we haven’t seen much in gaming takes on Gotham – regular citizens. While the streets aren’t packed, Gotham’s regular folk certainly outnumber its criminals here – but they don’t necessarily see you as much better in the opening stages.
“I would say we start off the game in a pretty cold version of Gotham,” says game director Geoff Ellenor. “The police don’t like you, the citizens don’t like you and there’s chaos in the city. And as a hero or the heroes that you’re playing are wounded, they’re missing Batman, they don’t totally get along with each other. And over time, the tone evolves because you identify major threats to the city. You find out to a certain extent what’s going on beneath the surface in Gotham and you gradually build the confidence of the citizens.”
Citizens react to the heroes they see and, based on the gameplay we saw, seem to reflect your crimefighting work back to you. Of course, some will always be on your side, and a group of citizens called The Watch act as an informant network for the Knights, offering up missions that will help stitch their parts of the city back together – all of which will see you head out into the darkness to help bring some light back to the city.
Night vs. Day
As it turns out, Dark Knights-in-training like to come out during, well, dark nights. Key to Gotham Knights is that it’s not a game with a shifting day-night cycle – rather the entire game is set over consecutive nights, with new crimes emerging every evening, and villain storylines progressing alongside your work to stop them. The only time you’ll see daylight in the main game is inside the Knights’ headquarters, the Belfry, where you’ll plan for what to do after the next sunset.
“The central loop of the game experience in Gotham Knights is what we call the Belfry Loop,” says creative director Patrick Redding. “And that experience is, when you exit the Belfry, it’s always nighttime. You don’t have to worry about when the sun’s going to come up, but in the course of that night, there are going to be some crimes and other activities that are happening in the streets of Gotham that are premeditated.”
“I would say we start off the game in a pretty cold version of Gotham. The police don’t like you, the citizens don’t like you and there’s chaos in the city.”
Redding continues, “The point is that we’re hitting the reset and re-rolling the state of affairs in Gotham City every time you go out. So when you complete a night of crime fighting, and it’s up to the player to decide when they’re done, it could be a case of them saying, ‘Well, I think I’ve hit most of the major crimes I needed to,’ or it could be the case of them saying, ‘I learned what I needed to learn and now I need to go back to the belfry to advance the story.’”
It makes for something of a unique structure, not just a way to sensibly repopulate the world with crimes to fight and goons to take down, but also a way to show how the Knights’ path to succeeding Batman takes time and training. Of course, as part of all this, you’ll be following major story paths and hunting down rogue supervillains, but the core of most nights on Gotham’s streets comes in the form of regular crimes.
Crimes and Clues
Crimes in Gotham Knights come in many forms. They can range from procedurally generated muggings, right up to entire gangs running complex operations – and the more you foil, the more you’ll learn about crimes to come. Head out into Gotham’s streets and you’ll always find crimes ready to stop – complete those crimes, or interrogate informants, and you’ll earn clues, an in-game currency that helps populate your next night’s map with the major crimes you can go and stop.
“We wanted this concept of information scarcity, because you are taking on the role of the world’s greatest detective to protect Gotham,” explains Ellenor. “So you need to find stuff out about the city night after night and that takes a number of different forms inside the game. There’s the investigation board inside the Belfry, where it tracks the unwinding threads of the story that you’re getting on the trail of a villain or searching out secrets about the Court of Owls. And in the open world, it’s about clues – because clues reveal crimes.”
Redding adds, “You already have an activity queue that you can be tracking and deciding, ‘Okay. I think that’s going to be more important for me to take on. Maybe this is more interesting to me because it maps better to one of the challenges that I’m trying to complete, or maybe this has direct impact on me finding that next chapter in the larger mystery.’ So there’s a lot of different reasons why a player might choose to go after one particular crime or another, but those are a feature of that particular night.”
Unlike the game’s checkpointed story missions, if you fail a crime, there’s no opportunity to replay that exact situation again – it’s all part of the superhero learning process. Once you end a night, crimes are reset. Redding makes clear that, while it’s possible to clear all of the premeditated crimes in a single night, you’ll always have generated smaller crimes to go after should you want to keep playing. Once you do finish a night, you always return to the Belfry to assess.
“So that night is over,” Redding continues, “the crimes that you didn’t solve continued unabated, and now you’re in a situation where you can look at what’s coming up for the next night. So maybe you’ve collected enough clues that you’re going to know in advance, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a heist at the bank, or there’s going to be am armored car robbery, or someone’s going to try to break somebody out of prison, or there’s a known criminal that’s going to be in hiding here. I’m going to go try to hit those locations.’
“But then when we generate that night, in addition to that, there’s a bunch of things you don’t know about. There’s all of the other crimes that haven’t been revealed, and you can find out about them through patrolling. You can find out about them because you grabbed a mugger in the midst of some random street crime and interrogated them, and they gave up a piece of information that revealed the presence of one of those crimes. But those crimes were already planned and were already a feature that night.”
It’s a system designed to keep offering new ideas (we saw multiple versions of the same base crime type in our time watching), without feeling inauthentic to how a real city might work. But of course, in a comic book city, not all crimes are created equal. Sometimes in your nightly patrols you’ll stumble across information that points to a much bigger, more recognisable threat.
We were shown precisely nothing of the game’s main story campaign after its tutorial – the team clearly wants to keep its take on the beloved Court of Owls storyline as clandestine as the group itself – but the game’s villain storylines aren’t necessarily a part of that darker conspiracy. Like any good comic book world, multiple supervillains are running riot across Gotham simultaneously, each with their own agendas. In Gotham Knights that means that supervillain arcs are optional side stories, taking place over multiple nights, and made part of the open world itself, not just ‘story dungeons’.
“The way content is structured in our game is we have tried to integrate all of the story-driven missions into the open world experience as much as possible,” says Redding. “The villain arcs, or villain storylines we sometimes call them, are a perfect example of that, where maybe initially you were caught by surprise. You found out about Mr. Freeze being back in town and what he’s up to because there were activities going on in the streets. And you might need to do a fair bit of footwork of tracking down his accomplices and doing some interrogations and disrupting some of their crimes inside Gotham in order to get that key piece of information that will ultimately point you to what he’s going to do next.”
So far, we know that Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn and Clayface will be three of those villains, each with their own plans, seemingly totally divorced from the main storyline. As you learn more about them, taking on specific missions along the way, your Belfry evidence board will begin to grow, connecting clues to evidence and, eventually, letting you trigger what the team calls a Villain Night.
These special events will see portions of the city completely altered by the effects of the villains involved – in Mr. Freeze’s case, he freezes the gigantic Elliot Center building, while Harley will overtake the Gotham City Hospital. You won’t be fighting regular crime on these nights, as the threat is quite so obvious.
“We have tried to integrate all of the story-driven missions into the open world experience as much as possible.”
“When we talk about Villain Nights, we sometimes refer to them as epic villain crime, and it’s because we always wanted the villains to be menacing Gotham City. We didn’t want it to be a case of, ‘Oh, I’m going to go into this sort of bubble dungeon universe somewhere else, and I’m just engaging with them here.’ That means we do some fundamentally big changes. We encase Elliot Center in ice, or in the case of one of the later missions in the Harley Quinn arc, we know that the Gotham City Hospital is going to be invaded and is going to be thrown into chaos. That is a location that you’ve seen a hundred times before at that point, so you have this sense of, ‘Okay, there are special conditions that are unique to this part of the storyline,’ and so we want to be able to set the stage for that.”
While it’s very possible that these optional arcs could illuminate the main storyline somehow, the impression we got is that standalone villains are there to enrich the sense of Gotham as a true comic book city, with multiple threats to stave off at one time. That applies to the town’s gangs too.
As we’ve talked about before, Gotham Knights’ factions aren’t just goons for a supervillain (although they certainly can be). Instead, they populate the city themselves, causing various flavors of mayhem depending on their affiliation. So far, we’ve seen the Freaks (who will occasionally team up with Harley), and the Regulators (who favor Mr. Freeze), and some of our footage has made mention of Red Hood’s hatred for the Mob.
This feeling of criminal elements spreading across the city is intended to get across the endlessness of the superhero’s job. You’re not able to wipe out a faction from the map, you’re simply stymying their work:
“You can clean Gotham of crime for a night, but you can never stop it,” says Ellenor. “Even Batman wasn’t capable of that, and neither are you. So all of the factions continue to exist in the city, no matter what you do. The player has ways of becoming more and more efficient at shutting down crime, which means the neighborhoods will get quieter in the evening as a result, but I can never say take the Regulators gang and completely flush them out of the city. They’re always there.”
Practically, it means there will always be crimes to fight, and combat to be had. But factions also provide another service – each one is tied to specific gear, crafting materials, and other unlocks, which you’ll use to beef up your heroes.
Gear and Elemental Attacks
We’ve covered Gotham Knights’ many, many superhero suits previously, but that was very much from the cosmetic angle. From a more gameplay-driven angle, players will be able to craft gear that alters their hero’s armor, melee and ranged items, offering stat boosts and elemental damage changes. Crafting that gear comes down to two things – having the blueprint for the gear, and the materials to make it.
“All of the gear is created through crafting,” explains Redding. “So when you’re out in the open world, part of the loot drop that you’re getting as you’re fighting crime is you’re getting a hold of crafting materials, and crafting materials have varying degrees of rarity. And in some cases, there are materials that are associated with particular enemy types, particular factions. When you have the materials and you have the blueprint, then effectively, you can go to the crafting bench in the Belfry and you can produce that, and it becomes added to your inventory. Once it’s in your inventory, you can swap it out any time you want to, out in the world. Once you have a blueprint and the material, you can even order it to be made for you at the Belfry.”
From what we’ve seen gear doesn’t appear to come with ability changing effects, but elemental damage can change how you fight significantly. “There are flavors of gear and it applies in slightly different ways to suits, and melee weapons, and ranged weapons,” says Redding.” But what they have in common is this focus on these elemental damage types, and the elemental damage types that we talk about are freezing damage, thermal damage, electrical damage, poison, stun, these kinds of things.”
While those effects can make a difference in and of themselves, the team points to the fact that it’s the heroes’ skills and momentum abilities (which we spoke about extensively in an earlier IGN First piece) that can really bring them into their own.
“What Gear has in common is this focus on these elemental damage types – freezing damage, thermal damage, electrical damage, poison, stun, these kinds of things.”
“The elemental effects might live with the gear,” continues Redding, “but it’s your ability to then project them in slightly different ways, aside from just punching people or hitting them with heavy or light attacks, or applying them and using your quick fire. So imagine someone like Nightwing doing his Sweeping Element Strike. Yes, he’s inheriting that damage type from his gear, but he’s projecting it in a slightly different way because of an ability that he’s unlocked. So there’s these interesting interactions that we’ve tried to keep very, very clear so the players can understand them and predict them.”
Those interactions should become doubly interesting by introducing another player into the mix.
From day one, the Gotham Knights team has made clear that its take on two-player co-op is completely untethered, meaning one player can theoretically explore another’s world without ever having to meet them.
“Anytime you’re playing in Gotham City – as opposed to inside a story dungeon as part of one of the beats of the main mystery of the storyline – you’re untethered,” says Ellenor. “[That] means that you can be in North Gotham stopping a mugging while your co-op buddy is way, way at the end of Southside, not supporting you in your cooperative desires at all, fighting some other crime.”
It’s quite a feat for what’s apparently the biggest gaming Gotham ever created, and watching the system in action live reveals no stutters or oddities caused by heading far from the host player. The team’s thinking here was first and foremost about giving players the freedom to play how they want (also reflected in allowing two versions of the same hero to play co-op) – but it was also in the hope that it would create authentically comic book moments.
“It provides the most organic superhero meet-up opportunity” enthuses Ellenor, “where you think your buddy is with you and then he disappears for a while because he got distracted by something and then a second later, you look up on a rooftop and a batarang comes out of nowhere and here’s Batgirl, and she’s here to help you stop a crime. We just wanted that really organic feeling of you’re on patrol in Gotham City with a friend together and you can do whatever you want.”
Of course, this could throw up issues of how progression works for players, and how players at different parts of the story can interact. The solution is elegantly unfussy – characters of different levels will scale so that they somewhat match, enemies will also scale to the players’ levels and, most importantly, progression matters to the host and the guest player:
“When you’re in Gotham, the host is their story, but 100% of your hero progression is your own. It’s almost like you stepped through a dimensional portal into somebody else’s version of the universe, but you gain all of the experience points, blueprints, crafting materials that you would when you’re playing with that, you bring all that progression back into your game. And then, once you return to your own Gotham, time essentially restarts in your own story.”
This freedom-first approach goes all the way to major story moments. If you want to play a mission with a friend far earlier than you’d be able to in your story, that’s OK – and the game will recognise that in your own version of Gotham:
“If you completed a major story beat, a villain arc, or a dungeon while playing with a friend, when you get to that part in your own story, the game will ask you, ‘Do you want to play it again? Or do you want to just say you did this part in some other universe and we’ll just fast forward you through it?’”
What We Don’t Know
Despite watching hours of the game being played live, there was a lot we weren’t allowed to see. The game’s main story missions are still a mystery to us, even down to how they’re unlocked or displayed on the map. Its remaining named villains, too, aren’t clear – although the team has repeatedly made clear that Joker will not be making an appearance.
More intriguing, the team repeatedly made reference to an endgame for Gotham Knights, but steadfastly refused to talk about it. Given the game’s action-RPG structure, it wouldn’t be hugely surprising to find that it included an MMO style raid of some kind or – with a focus on the open world as an evolving space – if Gotham itself was materially transformed by the effects of the Court of Owls.
But the biggest outlier for us right now is in how the game feels to play for an extended period of time. Combat certainly looks interesting – perhaps a tad heavier than the Arkham series it will be compared to, and with a much bigger focus on using special abilities you’ve earned along the way. Getting around the city – whether by parkour, grappling hook, bike, fast travel para-drops, or the heroes’ unlockable abilities – feels like a genuinely fun-first affair, too.
But Gotham Knights will live and die on how these things string together, and how those smaller moments make its larger structure – those nights of patrols, crimefighting, and clue gathering – feel as compulsive as the team hopes for. There’s no doubting the enthusiasm and belief at the studio, but this game will be made by how it feels once it’s finally allowed to be in our hands.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to [email protected].