In defense of the Batmobile. A look back at one of Arkham Knight’s best features.

, | Games

It’s been five years since Rocksteady wrapped up the Batman series that began in Arkham Asylum, continued into Arkham City, took a brief pre-tour with another developer for Arkham Origins, and then crescendoed in Arkham Knight.  One of the finale’s most prominent features was also its most divisive: the Batmobile.  If you ask someone their opinion of Arkham Knight, you’re likely to also get their opinion of the Batmobile.  “Great game, but the Batmobile stuff sucked,” will be a common refrain.

As an observer of game design, driving game aficionado, and professional contrarian, I take issue with this conclusion.  It fails to appreciate one of Rocksteady’s best design decisions in an all-around excellent game.  So I am here in defense of one of Batman’s greatest toys and how well it was expressed in Rocksteady’s greatest game (although you’ll note my enthusiasm for the Batmobile hadn’t fully developed when I reviewed the game).

The first thing to understand about the Batmobile is that it’s not just transportation.  It’s not like your horse in Red Dead Redemption, or whatever you recently carjacked in Grand Theft Auto V, or one of the vehicles you never called up on your cell phone in Saints Row IV because you could pretty much just fly anywhere you wanted to go.  In fact, it’s barely transportation at all.  As it’s modeled in Arkham Knight, the Batmobile is only moderately useful for traversal because Gotham is better suited to Batman’s gliding and grapplehooking.  Its jigsaw puzzle arrangement of esoterically architected buildings means roads are rarely a direct path to anywhere. Gotham is a compact city.  Small, even.  Any given roof isn’t very far from any other roof, so why bother driving?

Plus, there’s a riot in progress.  Hardened criminals are running around in the streets, getting in the way.  Even if they deserve the business end of a hit-and-run, you’re Batman.  As dark-hearted and brooding as you may be, you shouldn’t be Carmaggedoning your way around town.  Sure, the game takes pains to show anyone you hit getting up and walking it off, but driving into crowds isn’t very superheroic.  In fact, these days, it’s downright uncomfortable even in a videogame.

And you’re probably going to hit people, because the Batmobile isn’t exactly nimble.  It’s a sloppy rocket.  A sled on a too steep hill.  A 1,000 horsepower bull in a 500 square-foot China shop.  And oh, the property damage!  You can’t pull into the Gotham City Police Department parking garage without crumbling a few concrete supports and gouging out chunks of the walls.  But I love this about the Batmobile.  I love its power.  The blinding speed, the jolt of the afterburners, the crazy out-of-control skid that passes for drifting.  It feels great, and it exists in a world where a punch that would crush a man’s jaw does no such thing, so who cares about the Gotham Police Department’s parking garage, or the outdoor seating around the neon-lit musical theaters, or the finely sculpted pillars in Chinatown, or that gas station in The Cauldron?  Look, I enjoy a nice quiet glide as much as the next guy, and it’s pretty sweet having a grappling hook that would make Spider-Man green with envy.  But there’s nothing quite like the barely controlled rush of the Batmobile roaring around the lawless streets of Gotham on Halloween night.  

But there’s a reason the Batmobile is suboptimal as transportation: that’s not what it’s for.  The Batmobile is a gadget, not a vehicle.  Even though it doesn’t hang from Batman’s belt, it’s one of his many wonderful toys, integrated into the gameplay in unique ways.  To dismiss it as a vehicle with poor handling is to miss its role in the design.

Consider how frequently the Batmobile is used for something other than driving somewhere.  Its electrical charge picks up where Batman’s handheld charger doesn’t have enough juice.  It pulls down, drives through, and shoots through different walls.  Its winch operates levers and elevators and pulleys.  Its weight is used in physics puzzles.  Remote control of the Batmobile figures prominently into a lot of the tactical challenges.  It’s the solution in several puzzles.  Almost like a pet, the Batmobile contributes one of the combo attacks in combat.  It can springboard Batman to fly higher and therefore further.  It’s necessary to chase down some Riddler informants.  In fact, I would argue the Batmobile has more diverse uses than anything else on Batman’s gadget wheel.  You cannot play Arkham Knight without frequently using the Batmobile for things other than getting you from point A to point B.

I don’t know of any other game that integrates a vehicle so thoroughly.  Plenty of games have cool vehicles, often with customization, with their own progression tracks, and even with distinct gameplay.  Kassandra’s ship in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey comes to mind, but the ships aren’t very well integrated with the rest of the game because, well, they’re ships.  There’s not a lot you can do with a ship when you’re not at sea.  You’re either playing the ship part of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, or you’re not.  It’s entirely binary.  I do appreciate how the ships can break out into hand-to-hand battles, but I would argue these aren’t integration so much as interludes.  Once you stop controlling the ship and get to slaughtering the crew of another vessel, you’re no longer playing the ship part of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

Of course, no one has integrated vehicles and gameplay like Avalanche Studios did in Mad Max.  But they kind of cheated, because I would argue Mad Max is a game about the vehicle.  It’s a love letter to a car called the Magnum Opus.  The on-foot parts of Mad Max are as discrete from the rest of the game as the ship gameplay is discrete from the rest of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.  So of course they integrated the vehicle with the gameplay, because it is the gameplay.  You might as well commend Forza for integrating vehicles with gameplay.  The difference is that Avalanche made a game about a vehicle that does more than just drive, and in that regard, it reminds me of Arkham Knight’s Batmobile.

Mounts in Guild Wars 2 also come to mind, but that’s a more limited form of integration.  Mounts were a late addition to the Guild Wars 2 design, but that makes it all the more admirable how well they’re integrated as more than just transportation.  Each mount has different abilities that are associated with different kinds of terrain, which figure prominently into the level design of later parts of the world.  As you progress in Guild Wars 2, as you unlock mounts and explore new areas, you’ll see some clever design work in terms of integrating vehicles into gameplay.  In a way, they serve as gadgets to get you through certain areas.

But let’s talk about the ten-ton tank in the room.  I imagine a lot of people who take issue with the Batmobile don’t like that it turns into a tank.  They don’t like having to play tank battles in a game that — they feel — should be about punching, Bataranging, and detective vision.  That’s a fair point, for two reasons.  The first is that the tank battles are an awkward addition to the lore and story.  I’m no Batman authority, but I don’t associate Batman with close-range shootouts in heavily armored vehicles.  And never mind the silly conceit that the enemy tanks are all remote-controlled, because otherwise Batman would be killing the crew inside the tank.  If only the Arkham Knight had put drivers in those tanks!  His plan would have been foolproof!

But the main reason complaints about the tank battles are fair is that they seem so different from the rest of the gameplay.  They seem like a break from the usual punching, Bataranging, and detective vision, without any analog in the earlier games.  And you can’t skip them.  For better or worse, Rocksteady had the confidence to integrate the Batmobile thoroughly with the rest of the game.  So if you don’t like tank battles, you’re going to feel like you have to play an awful lot of them.  When you lower the bridge to Miagani Island, your first task is to fight about 30 tanks.  If you don’t like fighting tanks, this is going to be a chore.  

And it’s going to be all the more of a chore if you haven’t figured out that fighting tanks isn’t like playing a rock-’em, sock-’em mech game.  Tank battles might feel different from the usual punching, but Rocksteady designed them as a counterpart to Batman’s crowd control combat and stalking missions.  There are two types of tank battles.  The first type is fought in a closed arena, such as when you’re defending the virus upload to a mine.  These are positioning battles, much like fistfights against varied enemies.  When Batman is facing different types of enemy soldiers or thugs, you have to be aware of where you are in relation to medics, to shock batons, to bladed weapons, to environmental assists, to shields, and so forth.  The tank battles are similar for how every tank broadcasts exactly when and where it’s going to shoot.  You have to be aware of where you are in relation to the red lines that represent enemy tank attacks.  The incoming missiles, which require a separate button press to counter, are like the counter indicators in fistfights.  It’s all about positioning and reacting to prompts.

(It’s also about aiming.  Which, granted, is unlike anything in the fistfights.  If it’s an issue, I’d recommend playing on the PC and using the mouse and keyboard for tank battles.  Your aiming woes will disappear.)

But the second type of tank battle is more akin to Batman’s stalking missions, and unfortunately, I don’t think Arkham Knight conveys this very well, even when it introduces the Cobra miniboss (the takeaway from that tutorial could just as easily be “shoot the boss in the glowing orange weak spot”).  This is probably why a lot of players reach that Miagani Island battle and decide they hate the Batmobile.  Driving around in tank mode and hunting down 30 tanks while your health is gradually depleted in each toe-to-toe shoot-out is not how this part of Arkham Knight is supposed to play out.  Your first clue should be the fact that the Batmobile’s tank mode is something you have to actively maintain by holding down the trigger.  It’s not a toggle.  It’s intentional that the Batmobile wants to be in sloppy rocket mode.  It wants to go fast, even during a tank battle.  It wants to move.  It wants to be able to get somewhere else quickly.

So when you consider that enemy tanks are like enemy dudes in that they have facing, awareness, and alertness levels — all clearly visible on your radar display — it should occur to you that it would be easy to take advantage of these facts by letting up on the trigger.  Now the Batmobile can get somewhere else quickly.  Remove yourself from their awareness.  Better yet, draw their attention by taking out a couple of tanks, let up on the trigger to drop back into Batmobile mode, zoom around the block, and come up behind the tanks trundling over to where they last saw you.  Now your shots are like backstabs.  You’re stalking these guys just like when you’re swinging between gargoyle busts, tip-toeing around rooftops, and duck-walking along ducts. Tank battles are supposed to be shoot-and-scoot encounters and not slugfests.  Maybe the tank battles aren’t as different from the punching, after all.

Finally, this particular Batmobile is a wonderful piece of art design and speculative engineering.  The cockpit is pushed forward because its massive engine is hogging the rest of the fuselage.  The raised canopy gives Batman the same kind of visibility he would have in a Formula One car.  The Six Flags roller coaster passenger seats retract into a rear compartment, conspicuously armored for precious cargo.  Discreet fins sweep towards the back, very nearly spikes for how they come to a point.  The electroshock anti-thievery countermeasures keep curious criminals at bay.  The remote operations option brings the Batmobile to life as if it were Christine, or The Car, or a member of the Maximum Overdrive cast.  Those monster tires refuse to be constrained by the size of the vehicle itself, because the Batmobile demands traction.  And it’s got the badass winch to apply that traction.  This Batmobile would be right at home in Spintires.  I especially like how it’s structured like an Italian sports car, with all that engine taking up the bulk of the car, but with none of the delicate aerodynamics or elegant streamlining.  Instead, it’s got serious upfront bulk.  The fenders hunch over the front tires like cobras.  Its generous open grill — there’s a harpoon lurking in there! — is flanked by massive tires, bowed out like gorilla arms.  It looks like it’s lunging, like it’s in the process of throwing forward some serious muscle, like there’s something right in front of it that’s about to get rolled over and chewed up.  This Batmobile looks hungry.

The Batmobile deserves a prominent place in a Batman game.  It’s part of Batman’s identity in the superhero lore.  Like Thor’s hammer, or Spider-Man’s webs, or Iron Man’s suit.  But Batman is different from those guys because having a car is something everyone understands.  I can’t really identify with having a magic hammer, or infinite string that lets me fly, or an outfit that turns me into a killer robot.  But I have a car.  I therefore understand the appeal of having a totally cool car more than I understand the appeal of having a magic hammer.  Batman having a car is part of his identity as a superhero, and it’s part of his identity that makes him appealing.

Yet Batman games before Arkham Knight had to give the Batmobile short-shrift because it’s no easy feat to make a game with both meaningful punching and meaningful driving.  In Rocksteady’s earlier games, the Batmobile was just a trunk where Batman went to get stuff he’d stowed until it was ready to be unlocked in the game.  It was a storage locker.  What a terrible thing to do to a cool car.

If you’re a Batmobile hater, I invite you to reconsider.  You can get past it.  You like the Need for Speed games, right?  Do some of the Batmobile races and think of them as if you were playing Need for Speed, with the added challenge of toggling the state of the race course.  Need for Speed: Obstacle Heat!

Then reconsider the tank battles as fights about evading and timing your attacks, about building up multipliers to use for specials, about sneaking away.  The interface and pace is, of course, different from when Batman punches, but the structure is similar.  The basic framework is modeled after the gameplay of Batman himself.  Give yourself over to the similarities rather than chafing at the differences.  And finally, go to the showcase option from the main menu and just load up the Batmobile model.  Consider it from different angles.  Zoom in.  Zoom out.  Let its dark brooding bulk mesmerize you.  It is Batman himself made machine.

I’m disappointed the reaction to the Batmobile was widely negative, because Rocksteady tried something new.  They took an iconic element of the lore and they boldly introduced a new twist on gameplay, and they furthermore insinuated that twist throughout the entire design.  This should have inspired other developers to similar ambitions, to more hybrid gameplay, to expanding the usual formulas.  But instead, I suspect the Batmobile has been treated as a design dead-end that should be written off a mistake.  If that’s the case, we’re only ever going to get the Batmobiles we deserve.

Up next: In defense of the Riddler trophies.  All 243 of them!

(Tom Chick is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.  He drives a 2008 Honda Fit.  You can support him on Patreon here.)