Thoughts on the reveals of GOTHAM KNIGHTS and SUICIDE SQUAD: KILL THE JUSTICE LEAGUE

So, as part of DC’s “FanDome” online event this past weekend, we finally got our first look at what Warner Bros Games Montreal and Rocksteady have been working on for the past several years, something I’d been looking forward to for a long time. I feel like I’d expected to see Rocksteady’s game for a couple of E3’s at this point, and with WBGM quite conspicuously teasing their game just before E3 2019, by this point its unveiling had started to feel overdue. With the cat(s) finally out of the bag, I sure have some thoughts.

WB Montreal’s game was something I’d been very anxious to see since it was first teased over a year ago. With their previous game BATMAN: ARKHAM ORIGINS being my all-time favourite Bat-game, and with five years passed since the kind of underwhelming ARKHAM KNIGHT, I was really excited about another WB Montreal-helmed ARKHAM style adventure. The teasers all seemed to point towards the “Court of Owls” storyline – which I know nothing about, but is apparently very well regarded, so sure, cool.

However, what we’re getting seems to be, uh… not that.

GOTHAM KNIGHTS was unveiled via the industry-standard pre-rendered CG cinematic trailer, but thankfully supplemented by a couple of minutes of gameplay footage. The basic premise: Batman is dead, and it’s now up to the rest of the Bat-family – Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing and Red Hood – to pick up the slack. So far, I was fully on board; the multiple playable characters was an aspect of ARKHAM KNIGHT I’d quite enjoyed, and the character designs look pretty great! But as the trailer transitioned to a gameplay demo, my excitement in turn started to transition into confusion, concern, and even worry.

The very first thing we see is Batgirl on her motorcycle. OK, so while the Batmobile was pretty much the single worst aspect of ARKHAM KNIGHT, a lot of that had to do with the overreliance on the tedious car combat – the presence of a vehicle isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. (Besides, motorcycles are way cooler than cars, even Batmobiles) But the literal second thing we see, is a text pop-up indicating that a second player has joined the game as Robin. Hmm. Well, uh, it’s a little difficult to picture an ARKHAM-style game with drop-in co-op multiplayer, but again, ARKHAM KNIGHT had some sections where you swap between two characters, so maybe it could be a kind of extension of that? Still, at this point it started to sink in that the thing I was watching was not what I’d expected to see.

This fully hit home once Batgirl and Robin start attacking a group of thugs. The core traversal and combat mechanics look similar to the ARKHAM games, but a few vital differences immediately stand out: there are a lot more UI elements. Specifically, a lot more numbers. There are on-screen character level and XP indicators, enemies now have levels and life bars above their head, and punching dudes makes damage numbers pop out of them. Defeating enemies makes icons and numbers appear, seemingly indicating the collecting of currencies and/or crafting materials. Oooof.

So, yep, GOTHAM KNIGHTS appears to have some vestigial ARKHAM series DNA, but even so, it is apparently an online co-op action RPG. I was too busy fearing that WBGM’s next game would repeat too many of ARKHAM KNIGHT’s mistakes, that it truthfully didn’t occur to me that it might instead go down the path of ever-ongoing, microtransaction-laden Games-as-a-Service.

The reveal feels somewhat amusing (or perhaps “unfortunate”) as we’re approaching the release of Crystal Dynamics’ AVENGERS game; another blockbuster superhero game focusing on online multiplier and grinding for loot. I’m sure tons of market research point to a big audience for these types of games, but the few hours I spent with the AVENGERS open beta were fairly dreadful, and I’ve heard many people echo my sentiments. Unveiling GOTHAM KNIGHT in the midst of AVENGERS’ tepid reception has probably not helped WB’s cause, and at least personally speaking, I can say that floating damage numbers and crafting materials are probably the absolute last things I was hoping to see from this game.

Obviously, it remains to be seen how GOTHAM KNIGHTS is going to turn out. At the very least, the character designs are a lot better than in AVENGERS, combat looks more engaging, and it appears to have actual level design. But I do find it hard to imagine any of these new features or changes to the formula being an improvement. Of course, many questions remain, especially about the game’s structure. Even with the developers’ insistence that the game is designed to be played solo, the multiplayer aspect would naturally impact the game in a pretty fundamental way, so it seems unlikely that the storytelling aspect – which I think ARKHAM ORIGINS did very well – isn’t compromised somehow.

But the bigger elephant in the room is all the RPG nonsense. Numbers everywhere, and an implied grind for loot, gear, and crafting materials. I don’t know about you, but my superhero power fantasy does not involve micro-managing item inventories, stats, crafting recipes and whatever other spreadsheet nonsense the game is likely to throw at you – and I like spreadsheets! With numbers being so pervasive in a mere 5 minute demo (in which we never even saw a menu or inventory screen), I imagine these elements are going to be fairly inescapable.

I’m reminded of the feeling I had playing 2013’s TOMB RAIDER, immediately followed by RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER. The former had some grinding, loot-crafting crap I didn’t care for, but the structure of the game still allowed me to play it as a linear action game paying little to no attention to those elements or the game’s ostensibly open world. RISE, however, doubled down on the crafting, side quests, skill trees (plural), and constantly reminding the player that they might want to backtrack to previous areas once they get new items or abilities – all in the name of LOOT and NUMBERS GOING UP. I finished RISE, but I was put off enough to have zero interest whatsoever in playing its sequel. Coincidentally, TOMB RAIDER developer Crystal Dynamics’ next game is the aforementioned AVENGERS – which seems to have dug so deep into this loot-grind rabbit hole that there hardly seems to be much game left around it.

Hopefully, the same fate won’t befall GOTHAM KNIGHTS. But as of now, the anticipation and excitement that I had for WB Montreal’s next game has largely been traded for confusion and apprehension. I feel like I’ve come out of this reveal with more questions than answers, so while I am curious to learn more about the game, I was definitely expecting to come away from the reveal feeling a lot more excited.

So, SUICIDE SQUAD: KILL THE JUSTICE LEAGUE, then. With a lot less of this game being shown (in fact, nothing, really) I don’t really have as much to say about it, but I do have a few thoughts on the cinematic trailer they showed.

Going in, I had less anticipation for this than GOTHAM KNIGHTS, primarily based on the recent track record of WB Montreal and Rocksteady, respectively. I loved BATMAN: ARKHAM ORIGINS, but had found ARKHAM KNIGHT not just underwhelming in its own right, but also doubling down on indulgences that I’d never been very fond of. Basically, I would have expected WB Montreal’s next game to represent another step away from some of those indulgences, while Rocksteady would deliver an even more bloated mess with a dreadfully grim tone.

Now, of course I have no way of knowing whether SUICIDE SQUAD will end up a bloated mess, but what I can say is that aesthetically and tonally, the vibe I got from the trailer was not at all what I expected. Basing the game around an all-villain team tasked with killing heroes seems like a premise tailor-made for a “darker”, more “mature” take on a superhero game than ever, but lo and behold – the trailer actually seemed to go for a bit of… fun?

Most surprising to me – there’s some actual colour! The dour colour palettes and nasty, grimy-looking character designs is a bone I’ve had to pick with the Rocksteady’s Batman games since day one, so I was pretty stunned to see the titular squad actually look pretty vibrant – even in the middle of a literal warzone these guys look cleaner and brighter than anyone ever did in the ARKHAM series. There’s even sunlight! Thank you!

Confusingly, the game apparently is set in the post-Batman ARKHAM-verse, but looking at the trailer, you could’ve fooled me. Beyond the character designs, the tone feels altogether lighter, and with what appears to be some sort of invasion by Brainiac, Rocksteady don’t seem to be too concerned with making the more outlandish comic book stuff “grounded”. Again, great!

The one red flag I see, which is admittedly not a minor one, is the whole, uh, KILL THE JUSTICE LEAGUE thing. The main thrust of which seems to be – *sigh* – Superman going evil, which after a couple of Zack Snyder movies and Injustice games, feels like the absolute least fresh thing you could do with the character. But to Rocksteady’s credit, even with an evil Superman they’re giving us the one thing Snyder or Netherrealm never did: red trunks!

I’m legitimately blown away that Rocksteady are going in this direction – even if it is only superficially. It is pretty much the only thing we have to go on for now though, and regardless of how the final game turns out, it at least seems more likely to end up more aesthetically pleasing than I would’ve assumed. With nothing else to go on, I’m happy to take the small victories.

So where does that leave us? With a 2021 date for GOTHAM KNIGHTS, and 2022 for SUICIDE SQUAD, we’re pretty far out from either game coming out, with little to do for now but speculate. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more about both games, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit disappointed with this weekend’s showings.

With how long the two games have seemingly been in the oven, I would’ve expected at least one of the games to be slated for this holiday (which for all I know could’ve been the plan until the last few months), but whatever, that’s no big deal. More than that though, I’m struggling to accept that the WB Montreal game I’d been waiting for with such excitement and anticipation just might not be for me.

It remains to be seen how Rocksteady’s take on the online co-op format may or may not mess with the ARKHAM formula – to say nothing of whatever unrelated problems it could have – but I can’t deny that even on an entirely superficial level, what little they did have to show gave me a surprisingly positive impression. It’s impossible to not compare the two games announced, and as such GOTHAM KNIGHTS gave me a lot more specific things to be concerned about.

I do remain hopeful though. For all my grievances with ARKHAM KNIGHT I still had a good time with the game, and hell, I still haven’t entirely given up hope that I might somewhat enjoy AVENGERS – and so far neither of these DC games look nearly that bad. As a fan of the ARKHAM series, and as uh, somewhat of an Internet Expert on Bat-games I guess, I definitely plan to play both of these games on release, and I really look forward following up on these thoughts and observations once I have some first-hand experience. Until then, let’s hope that whatever we get to see next manages to build a bit more excitement. 🥴

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