The original Arkham game was an intimate affair. One night, one location, one man standing against his nemesis in a battle that was as much about wits as it was about brute strength. It teased the world outside the walls Amadeus Arkham built, but we never got to go there. The graphic novel from which the game took its name, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison, is a thoughtful, claustrophobic comic heavy on symbolism, psychological horror, and hard to read lettering. A couple of games on, however, and Arkham Knight feels more like the popular Jeph Loeb comic arc Hush; a flashy, Michael Bay-like explosion of set-pieces, secret identities, and a lengthy all-star line-up of both allies and antagonists. Bigger doesn't always equate to better, but this kind of build-up is unavoidable where a series of this magnitude is concerned, especially since key mechanics like the combat were pretty much nailed the first time around.
Franchise staple Scarecrow and the eponymous Arkham Knight, who may or may not be a character we already know, are certainly the game's central antagonists, but Warner Bros. and Rocksteady were keen to let us know during a recent hands-on of the game that the other villains in Batman's rogues gallery present a serious threat to Batman and Gotham too. Even more so now that they're putting on a united front under Scarecrow's leadership, a feat that wouldn't have been possible during Joker's chaotic regime in Arkham City. Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Riddler - Rocksteady's getting the band back together for one last night on the town.
So while the Arkham Knight assembles a formidable military force and the other villains collaborate in their efforts to take Gotham for themselves, Batman calls upon his extended Bat-family for back-up. The ever-loyal and long-suffering Alfred, along with Oracle and Lucius Fox provide support off the field, but Nightwing, Robin, Catwoman, and holy warrior Azrael join Batman on the streets. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman at least can also be called upon during combat in a new feature known as Dual-Play, which allows you tag in as other fighters besides Batman in main story missions.
From a vantage point somewhere high above Gotham City, I'm told to bring up the mission wheel and choose one of the side missions currently available - each marked with an icon representing a Batman villain. I could follow the question mark and have the Riddler literally drive me up the walls to test my prowess in manipulating the environment and driving fast in the Batmobile. Not the most Riddler-like challenge. I could track down Firefly, who is, surprise, burning up the streets of Gotham and has taken firefighters hostage to make sure they don't get in his way. Or, I could attempt to thin the Arkham Knight's ranks by taking on his tanks with the Batmobile's Battle mode and send them scattering like a pack of cards. Instead though, I opt to shut down a weapons cache owned by Penguin. Not because he's a particularly interesting villain - truth be told I wish he'd stop getting so much air time - but because this mission allows me to try out the Dual Play mechanic. So, waypoint set, off I glide to a secluded Sionis Industries warehouse.
The immediate entryway is blocked by two automated turrets, so I use the Cryptographic Sequencer to open a side door, and remotely call on the Batmobile to take them out. From there, I gain access to a switch that removes the shutters on the roof of the main vault. Not too taxing for the World's Greatest Detective. Heading up onto the roof, I smash straight through the glass in true Batman fashion, landing right in the middle of a crowd of Penguin's thugs and launching straight into combat. All of a sudden, it seems, Nightwing has joined the fray, Escrima sticks twirling and flashing.
The AI takes care of whatever character you aren't controlling and generally tends to keep them on the other side of the battle from you, but as soon as they've joined the melee you can switch back and forth between them and Batman instantly. Any combos that you begin to build will carry over between characters, as will any special moves that you've built up. Essentially, the freeflow combat remains the same as it was before - you can perform double and triple takedowns, you can utilise gadgets, leap over thugs, dazzle and daze them - but now you have the option of watching a different hero do the pummelling. And, there's a far greater number of enemies on screen, to account for the two heroes working side by side. Every punch landed will also build up a takedown meter that can be used to initiate a Super Combo Takedown; a catchy name for a move that's basically a flashy tag team takedown of opponents using both of your heroes. It's probable that, just like some previous enemies necessitated specific moves in order to neutralise, Arkham Knight will feature some foes that will require a double hero takedown to beat.
Having knocked out every last goon, control switches back to Batman, and Nightwing goes off to the side for a nice sit down. Approaching him, he'll make a comment about Robin, but it's clear his work here is done for now, so I decorate the vault with a Bat-shaped squirt of Explosive Gel and destroy the cache. It's pleasant to have other members of the Bat-family on call for Arkham Knight's main story, instead of being relegated to cameos, Challenge Rooms and DLC packs, but their inclusion does feel like another way in which Rocksteady is ramping up the action and expanding further away from the precise, methodical and lonely approach to both combat and story that made Arkham Asylum so special. Give us more heroes, more gadgets, more villains, more space to explore and a car to do it in, but don't forget that darling little madhouse where our adventures began. It's where Batman belongs, after all, and you can't say it didn't show you a good time.
This article was based on a press trip to Los Angeles. Warner Bros paid for travel and accommodation.