Here's the thing about the Arkham series: Bruce Wayne is a complete psychopath, even by Batman's usual standards.
This wasn't all that clear in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the original game that combined fast-paced brawling with hidden object puzzles and endless gliding. But as soon as he got put into the open world of Arkham City, it became evident that the most fun thing to do was swoop around the city and drop down on unsuspecting groups of inmates complaining about how hungry and cold they were. "It's the freakin' Bat!" they would shout, as I goaded them into a fight and then threatened to torture them for information about Riddler trophies. The combat system was just so flowing, the flight so graceful, that closing myself into a standard mission was the last thing I wanted. For every person I rescued, there were probably about a dozen thugs I beat up for my own amusement. It turns out the more options you give Batman, the more terrible a person he'll become.
The Batmobile has about about as many weird secondary uses as you'd expect
By that metric, he's going to be completely unbearable in the latest installment, Batman: Arkham Knight, which could be fantastic or terrible news. Arkham Knight's gameplay is being shown for the first time here at E3, and I got to play a roughly 40-minute mission filled with new combat and puzzles and, for the first time, driving. The big addition is the Batmobile, a combination vehicle, weapon, and problem-solving tool. It can show up pretty much any time you like, switching as needed between "pursuit mode" (a normal car) and "battle mode" (a military-style armored car.) While most of pursuit mode requires no explanation, battle mode essentially gives you a hyper-mobile remote-controlled weapon that can roll across barriers, perform heavy lifting, and shoot bullets and missiles. In puzzles, you can move through a room, remotely maneuver the Batmobile towards an obstacle, and tear or shoot it down to progress. In vehicle fighting sequences, you can dodge tanks in the car while trying to take them down.
Is giving the notoriously non-lethal Batman heavy weapons weird? Oh, yes. So are the new brawling combos, which let him use the environment and non-firearm weapons against goons. "So, is this still technically non-lethal?" I asked my guide as I electrocuted a man's head in a fuse box. "Yes, it's all completely non-lethal." A few minutes later I non-lethally ran over three men through some process that supposedly involved an electrified grill on the front of the Batmobile. Then I non-lethally kicked some more men up in the air and let the Batmobile shoot them down with what I'm told are stun bullets. I'm just going to assume all the tanks I blew up with missiles were unmanned.
"Is this technically non-lethal?" I asked as I electrocuted a man's head in a fuse box
Arkham Knight has added an impressive number of new mechanics, but crunched into the tiny area of an E3 demo, it's impossible to tell whether they'll be interesting or annoying. These "vertical slices" are supposed to show off as much new stuff as possible, and most of the new stuff in Arkham Knight involves the Batmobile, which meant in practice that it was impossible to go more than a few feet without having to pull the car around to shoot a wall or pull up a ramp or drive over some thugs. The biggest promise of the Batmobile is the ability to launch yourself into the air, building speed before you even leave the ground. I only got to try this once, and without a city to traverse, there wasn't a lot to do. The Batmobile's presence made grappling — one of the most fun parts of the Arkham series — almost invisible.
Despite having new moves, combat doesn't seem to have become more complicated, just different and more ornate. Before, you could grab a box from an enemy and hit him with it; now, you can grab a crate from the ground and throw it at him too. I'm not being sarcastic when I say that this could genuinely make things more fun if done right. A "fear attack" lets you fly between enemies and instantly knock them out with the sheer power of the Batman mythos, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense but is cool when it works.
So what about the story? That's the thing a demo is least likely to speak to, and all that seems clear is that it's as over-the-top as its predecessors. Besides known characters like the Scarecrow, there's a "completely original" villain called the Arkham Knight, a muscle-bound anti-Batman in a high-tech helmet. His casual creepiness is a decent counterpoint to the arch faux-gentility and brute mutterings of most Batman nemeses, although the notion of him having no relation to the nearly infinite present-day rogues' gallery seems low. Either way, I hope he has a lot of thugs lined up.
Batman: Arkham Knight will be released in 2015 for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.