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Batman is dead. The Caped Crusader is no more. Gotham Knights kicks off with an explosive opening sequence, WB Games Montreal making sure we know for certain there's no tricks here, the Dark Knight doesn't disappear off screen with a get-out clause, there's no "maybe he got away". We've got a body, a funeral, the whole nine yards, and it's up to the Bat Fam that's left behind, Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood and dear old Alfred, to pick up where the world's greatest detective left off, taking on his final case and diving into a new threat that's simmering under the corrupt streets of Gotham.

It's a delightfully dark start for a surprisingly dark game. People die with regularity in Gotham Knights, there are innocent victims counted and confirmed every time one of the featured supervillains strikes out in a bombastic attack on the city. So there's no time to grieve, no chance to rest, as our four young pretenders to the Bat Crown form a united front to take on a host of Gotham's most wanted whilst investigating the shadowy Court of Owls, an organisation long thought myth, which has now officially stepped into the limelight.

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It's pretty obvious that Gotham Knights has got something of an uphill battle on its hands as it releases into the wild. A DC universe game set in this city is always going to be working in the shadow of the superlative Arkham series, it's destined to be closely compared at every turn to Rocksteady's best, and it's a testament to the strength of what's been served up here that it compares rather favourably indeed.

WB Games Montreal has stepped out of Arkham's shadow with its own unique spin on combat and tweaked detective mechanics that make for a superhero experience which manages to feel very much its own thing whilst also remaining comfortably familiar. In terms of the cast of masked vigilantes you get to play as here too, it's not an easy task to drop a character as all-encompassing and easily roleplayed as the Batman for a bunch of lesser protagonists. However, Gotham Knights does a stand-up job in making these newbies feel like a hugely likeable team who can brawl with the best of 'em and are just different enough in combat to keep things interesting as you take to the streets to lay the smackdown on the ghouls and gangs of Gotham.

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Combat is still combo-heavy stuff here, with each of our four heroes combining light and heavy strikes with a bevvy of unlockable "Momentum Attacks" which operate on a gauge that's refilled by timing your punches and kicks well and pulling off perfect evades. This ain't no messy button masher, it turns out. You can also grab enemies, once they've had their health whittled down, and then choose to either strike, throw or interrogate them depending on how the mood takes you. It's a tidy fighting system overall, one that feels satisfyingly crunchy, and it's enhanced greatly by lots of flashy animations for all four protagonists as they pull off their fanciest moves.

Those Momentum Attacks work well to keep the whole thing from growing stale as quickly as it might otherwise do, too. Batgirl can use her gathered momentum to fire off a barrage off batarangs, call up a drone to heal or shoot at enemies, strike with an elemental attack that goes through armour or pull off a beatdown that sees her batter her foes with a ferocious flurry of punches. Nightwing, meanwhile, can somersault around the battle arena, firing off darts, pouncing on the heads of his opponents and using his Escrima sticks to take on multiple threats quickly. There really is a decent amount of variety in movesets here overall.

Indeed, while the core of each of the knights' combat and traversal options feel fairly similar early on - they all pull off similar base combos of kicks and punches and use a grapnel gun and the Bat Bike to get around the city - Gotham Knights then builds on this shared core to make for an experience that opens up nicely as you push through its story and level up. Knighthood abilities, as an example, unlock for each character once they've completed enough of a particular type of side mission, and these abilities are transformative for traversal of Gotham, with Batgirl now able to glide around with her cape, Robin can teleport across large distances and Nightwing's Fortnite-style glider is capable of carrying him all around the map without losing altitude.

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It's stuff you might not unlock for the first four or five hours, and it's complimented by an array of combat abilities that keeps expanding as the game grows tougher, the streets of Gotham slowly populating with increasingly difficult enemies who require use of ranged and armour-piercing attacks to open them up to punishment. As the story unfolds, the regular thugs of Gotham are joined by members of the Court of Owls and the League of Shadows, as well as drone-equipped attackers, larger brutes and shielded enemies, making for scraps that require more concentration as you dodge, pull off perfectly timed punches and kicks and build up that momentum gauge in order to strike out with some of your flashier moves.

There's also plenty of skulking around and stealth to enjoy here, and zipping around above battles you can choose to pick off foes with silent stealth attacks or surprise ambushes, whilst Robin - who's very much the next Batman in training - can even pull off perched takedowns just like those we're all so familiar with from the Arkham series.

As we mentioned, there's detective work to dig into too, and all four of our heroes can activate an AR mode at any time to scan for clues, focus on elements of the environment to pick up on further details or highlight some of the many collectibles scattered across the world. There are also crime scene puzzles to figure out, bespoke aspects to story missions where you'll need to examine several pieces of evidence and choose which would be best to identify a crook, work out where an assailant may have absconded to and so on. These sections can be skipped over if you're having trouble or not feeling the vibe, but we enjoyed these little pauses and, together with the evidence boards back at the gang's Belfry hub area, it does just enough to make it feel as though you're actually working on solving cases and not just swinging around the city battering thugs.

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To this end you'll also pick up "clues" from defeated and interrogated foes in order to open up premeditated crime scenes on your map - bomb threats, kidnappings and the like - that you can then rush to in order to receive rewards in return for slapping some higher-level bad guys.

In terms of those bad guys, well, you've got a handful of Gotham's most infamous to take down in separate campaign strands here that unfold over multiple missions. Harley Quinn, Mr Freeze, the Penguin, Clayface, there's plenty of criminals to chase down on the side as you also contend with the main threat, a looming all-out war between the Court of Owls and League of Shadows. There's a surprisingly strong story driving this game along - one we won't spoil a moment of here - it's well acted all round, and features a few cool set-pieces, some of which even disrupt and change the look of parts of the city temporarily as you enter into showdowns against your biggest adversaries.

Speaking of the city, WB Games Montreal reckons this is the largest video game representation of Gotham yet, and we're inclined to believe them. It's a big old chunk of real estate to bat bike, grapnel and eventually glide around and it's also impressively atmospheric, a multi-levelled jumble of detailed districts. There are the cobbled streets of Old Town, the down and out wasteland of Park Row, replete with vomiting junkies, and the flashy lights and skyscrapers of the financial district. There's plenty of verticality here too with multiple levels leading you right down into the disgusting gutters of this crime-ridden hell hole.

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The combat, traversal options, city and story are all pretty much gravy then, but Gotham Knight has its issues too, the biggest of which is that it very much feels like two separate games rolled into one at times. There's a whole gear, customisation, crafting and modification aspect to proceedings here, basically all the stuff that you do back at the Belfry, that feels like a bit of an unnecessary chore.

There are absolutely tons of unlockable suits, mods to add to your weapons, customisable bits and bobs and so on, and they all inhabit these rather cumbersome menus, menus that you'll also need to sift through in order to level up, choose where you're headed next or what mission or criminal you want to focus on - it's all a bit of a pain in the neck in the end. You also collect lots of different materials of varying rarities when you're out in the world, and all of this stuff just feels like it doesn't belong, like it's been crowbarred in or left behind from some earlier vision of what we've ended up with.

Sure, it's cool to have lots of customisation, there are some kick-ass suits to get your hands on, and the ability to switch up your investigative focus makes it feel as though you've got a choice in how to proceed, it just all needed a bit more tidying up. There are an overwhelming number of menus and things to track here and, honestly, less would have been more. We just want to hit the streets, beat up a bunch of bad guys and zoom around on our big loud bat bike doing wheelies without so much downtime.

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Of course, much has also now been made of the revelation that Gotham Knights has no performance options and runs at a locked 30FPS but honestly, beyond a bit of stuttering whilst zooming around at full tilt on the Bat Bike, Gotham Knights feels super smooth and we were surprised when we found out it's capped at 30FPS, it genuinely doesn't feel like it. Some folk will, of course, swear off the game due to this issue, but they're missing out on a bit of a banger as a result. What WB Games Montreal has delivered here is a dark, dense and surprisingly gripping adventure that manages to put its own stamp on Gotham, gives us four cool protagonists to play around with, is absolutely dripping in detail and lore and manages to successfully deal with its lack of a Batman as a result. No mean feat when you think about it.

Remember too that the entire campaign here can be played in online co-op with a buddy, a mode that worked a treat in the short bursts we managed to sample it, and there's a four player Heroic Assault mode lined up for release a little further down the road. Plenty to get excited about.

Gotham Knights may not quite hit the highs of the all-timer that is Arkham Asylum, and some players will always prefer the combat of Rocksteady's games, no matter what else is on offer, but if you're willing to give it a chance, if you can overlook some messy menus and the odd stutter or glitchy animation here and there, this really is a super solid action adventure that's taken us quite by surprise. Just remember to put your fingers in your ears for that Livin' La Vida Loca set piece.

Conclusion

Gotham Knights is a dark, dense and surprisingly gripping action adventure that almost manages to step up to the level of the very best of the Arkham series. There's a cracking story to dive into here, a huge and wonderfully detailed city, tons of lore for Bat fans, brutally crunchy combat, four cool superheroes to get a handle on and some of Gotham's most infamous villains to take down as you fight to prevent an all-out turf war. We were slightly concerned going into this one but, as it turns out, we needn't have been. If you can ignore some messy menus and a few too many upgradeable bits and bobs, you'll have a great time.