As impressive as Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games were, they were nonetheless hindered by the limitations.
2009’s Arkham Asylum, the title that rewrote the rulebook on superhero video game development, was a rather claustrophobic affair – albeit by design. And while its follow-up Arkham City shifted the action to an open-world district of the iconic metropolis Gotham, towering walls were a constant reminder that you were in an artificial playground, sculpted by a games designer rather than an city architect.
In Batman: Arkham Knight, the walls have been torn down. Rocksteady’s first project for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 plucks the Dark Knight out of his limited sandbox and lets him glide over a sprawling city that stretches as far as the draw distance can render.
During a behind closed doors preview at last week’s GDC, Rocksteady’s social marketing manager Gax Deaves tears through the streets in the studio’s hulking interpretation of the much-redesigned Batmobile, the speed at which he travels and the time it takes to reach his destination hinting at how vast the new Gotham is.
Our lead engine coder never has to say no anymore. He’s just telling the art director ‘just go for it, we can handle it’, which is awesome.
As he will explain later, the Batmobile is something brand marketing producer Dax Ginn (pictured) and the rest of the team have longed to introduce to their critically acclaimed titles, but it’s only with the next-gen hardware ticking within the Xbox One and PlayStation 4’s black shells that they are able to accomplish this and much more.
“There was a lot more freedom for our art team,” he tells Develop, reflecting on the contrast between work on Knight and the previous Arkhams. “Previously it was a trade-off between scale and detail. We really went crazy with detail in Arkham Asylum, and we wanted to see how far we could push detail while going open world in Arkham City, because that sense of intimate detail is really important to us.
“Some of the first questions we asked ourselves were ‘are we going to have to make compromises when we move into next-gen?’ ‘If we go into an insane scale, does that mean we can’t have deliver on the detail that we’re known for as a studio?’
"Figuring out where that line was took a lot of work between our creative and technical teams. But I was talking to our lead engine coder a few weeks ago about this, and he told me he never has to say no anymore. He’s just telling the art director ‘just go for it, we can handle it’, which is awesome.”
With no limits and so many new possibilities open to them, there were only two things Rocksteady were determined to achieve: recreating the whole of Gotham City, and the inclusion of a bad-ass Batmobile.
“We’re quite a small team, so we really have to decide where to put our energy and focus,” explains Ginn. “We don’t want to spread ourselves so thinly that we’re trying to do lots of different things and trying to do them half-baked, so we had to make a decision where do we put our creative and technical energy.
“When we had the opportunity to work exclusively on next-gen, we had to channel all of our energy into making those two things absolutely incredible.”
TO THE BATMOBILE!
That energy certainly shows in the current build of Batman: Arkham Knight. The Batmobile roars through the streets, smashing through destructible scenery and buildings, screeching as its massive tyres tear into the litter-strewn tarmac. The new Riddler challenges include some underground racing circuits that will allow players to fully explore what the beast of a vehicle can do, throwing in complementary game mechanics: for example, obstacles such as doors and moving platforms that Batman can hack into and control to clear his path.
While it made a cameo in Arkham Asylum, for Rocksteady the realisation of a driveable Batmobile has been a long time coming.
“We always knew that was something we needed to get around to doing, so we’ve put all of our love and energy into that,” says Ginn. “It’s the final piece of that complete batman experience. When you think batman, you think Batmobile.
“You spend 50 per cent of your time driving, 50 per cent of your time gliding around – those two complementary abilities really do marry with that man and machine syngery, and that’s the way we’ve designed the game: to motivate the player to use the Batmobile as a tool when it’s appropriate, as well as using Batman’s abilities when appropriate. We didn’t want it to feel like a Batman game with a bolted on driving section.
“If we weren’t building the entirety of Gotham City this time around, I think we’d think about doing that on a future project. But we’re taking on both of those challenges at the same time.”
We’ve designed the game to motivate the player to use the Batmobile as a tool when it’s appropriate, same as Batman’s abilities. We didn’t want it to feel like a Batman game with a bolted on driving section.
The city that the Batmobile is both protecting and destroying is not only built specifically to cater for the juggergaut, it’s also far more detailed than Arkham City. Like its predecessor, Arkham Knight’s Gotham oozes with decay and disorder, with underworld thugs guarding the streets in search of civilians that missed the mass evacuation depicted in the game’s opening.
Despite the fact that players will spend most time either gliding over its streets or rocketing through them, Rocksteady was determined not to hold back when it came to fleshing out Bruce Wayne’s corrupted hometown. Its team is shooting for a look that’s distinctly Gotham.
“The atmosphere of Gotham City is something that takes a lot of thought and hard work,” says Ginn. “It could very easily just feel like any city but the lighting, the smoke, the design of the sound, the architecture – all of that needs to be built out of incredible detail, and next-gen gives us the opportunity to do that.”
Another thing the next-generation hardware allows the UK studio to do is create seamless transitions between various states of the game. The camera no longer cuts to a new fixed perspective to signify cutscenes: it simply pans out as the game temporarily takes control of Batman. Loading screens no longer separate interior and exterior sections: the caped crusader simply walks through a door or, more often than not, smashes through a window to enter new areas. And players will be able to switch swiftly between gliding and driving as they traverse Gotham, with a Batmobile that hones in on its owner’s position and an ejector seat to launch you back into the air.
It’s presented so effortlessly that you’d be forgiven for assuming the previous Arkham titles were structured in the same way. But Ginn reveals this was one of the toughest challenges for the team.
“It’s a much bigger deal than anyone thought it was going to be,” he says. “Take our first encounter with Jim Gordon: the commissioner is standing on the top of a tall tower and you can approach that tower from any direction, so there isn’t an opportunity to fade to black and put those two characters in conversation. We’ve got to make sure that Gordon’s back is always turned, irrespective of where players come in from.
“It’s little things like this that you have to think about, and you have to account for them in that transition moment. It’s an insane amount of work, but it’s worth it. The payoff, I think, is really worthwhile.”
Neither Xbox One or PlayStation 4 have been left wanting when it comes to open world titles that are home to powerful protagonists: for every Assassin’s Creed IV and InFamous: Second Son that is already available, there’s a Watch Dogs, Dragon Age or other similarly structured title on the way.
But Ginn is confident that Arkham Knight has enough to set it apart, freeing it from the danger of being tarnished with the ‘just another open world game’ brush.
“The experience of driving a Batmobile is the defining thing. As you’re moving through the city and the open world nature of it – given that it is Gotham City and the atmosphere is spot on – that’s the thing that makes this game feel unique and really distinctive.
“You know you’re in Gotham; it’s not some other game world, it’s this incredible city and legendary place that you can’t find in other game. This is the only game in which you’re going to have the experience of driving a Batmobile through the entirety of Gotham City.”
Since Rocksteady first proved itself with Arkham Asylum, there has been ongoing speculation as to what other superhero franchises the team could tackle – perhaps a Justice League game to complement Warner Bros’ forthcoming rival to Marvel’s Avengers?
We're using the emotional context to understand Batman as a man rather than a hero – that’s something we haven’t really done before as a studio.
However, if Rocksteady were to get their hands on another franchise, the team would take everything back to the drawing board. The Arkham formula is not one that can be copied and pasted into another superhero universe.
“This is a design specifically made to realise the power fantasy of being the Batman,” says Ginn. “I can’t imagine putting another character in there and it feeling genuine or authentic. It wouldn’t work. There would be good commercial reasons to do that, I’m sure, but from a gameplay perspective it makes no sense.”
Naturally, the Batman team is focused solely on finishing Arkham Knight in time for its Christmas release, but while ideas are no doubt being tossed around as to what they want to work on next, all Ginn is willing to reveal is it may involve a shift in tone.
“The size of this game is obviously a big undertaking for us, but it’s also the most emotional game we’ve ever written,” he explains. “The emotion that exists between Barbara Gordon, Jim Gordon and Batman, and using the emotional context to understand Batman as a man rather than a hero – that’s something we haven’t really done before as a studio.
“So thinking about where we go in the future, I reckon that the learnings we’ll take on board from making this game will probably set us up for getting that balance between action and emotion, all the things that people look for in games. That aspect of the game is incredibly engaging, so in future I imagine we’ll spend a lot of time drawing emotion out of gameplay.”
There's lots more to come from Batman: Arkham Knight – not the least of which is answers to the mystery surrounding its titular character. No, not Batman but the Arkham Knight, a masked copycat that gets the upper hand on the Dark Knight at the end of our demo. This is a brand new character that Rocksteady has created in collaboration with DC Comics, and there's no greater sign as to how much respect the studio has earned within the Batman creative universe.
Whether the game will live up to the promise is for consumers to decide. One thing's for sure: with Rocksteady preparing to say farewell to the series that made it's name, it's pulling out all the stops for its Batman swansong and next generation debut.