Developers: Warner Bros. Montreal
Publishers: Warner Bros. Interactive
The infamous conservative pessimism hit Warner Bros. Montreal square in the jaw when it was announced that Rocksteady would not be making the third game in the Arkham franchise of action-adventure Batman titles. The vocal despair was palpable, and only got worse with the announcements of prequel pretensions and the lack of Kevin Conroy as a titular character. The benefit of the doubt, it would seem, was nowhere to be found.
Still, after getting to grips with Arkham Origins at Gamescom this year, there's no way we're going to be missing out on this one later this year, and if you count yourself as a fan of Rocksteady's games thus far, we rather reckon you're going to want to check out what WB Montreal are bringing to the table.
"It's been a huge responsibility to follow in Rocksteady's footsteps," acknowledged creative director Eric Holmes. "But I think that any trepidation we felt has really been overruled by our enthusiasm for the property. You won't find any bigger fans of those Arkham games than the guys on our team making this one."
There are parallels, certainly. The combat is largely unchanged, and that's a damn good thing. In fact, if anything, it feels a little more robust and impactful. There's a smidgen more crunch in the hits, a little more whomph in the sound of Batman's fists flying through the air in violent slow-motion. And he'll have plenty of fighting to do. It's Christmas Eve, there's a blizzard about, and the number one crime boss in Gotham -- Black Mask -- has put a $15 million bounty out on Batman's head. Given that there's some serious moolah up for grabs, eight of the deadliest assassins in the world have arrived in town, looking to take down the Bat.
The demo we were privy to had Batman chasing down the jetpack-toting pyromaniac, Firefly, who'd gone and planted a load of bombs on the Pioneer Bridge that connects Gotham's North and South islands. It was a trap, of course, but no matter. With Gordon's police battalion awaiting orders to move in, Bats had little time to tarry, and so set about smacking down goons, and using his Detective Vision to locate the bombs and start deactivating them. Of course, it wasn't long before Firefly showed up, Batman got him to drop the detonator and thus began one of many boss battles Batman will face in this game.
Holmes wouldn't discuss the specifics of how Batman will take down his famous foes, but he did go into some detail about the design philosophy behind these climactic moments, revealing how the team had returned to their favourite confrontation of Arkham City for inspiration: Mr Freeze. It's clear that instead of simply making these battles between the Dark Knight and villainous counterparts spectacular setpieces, the team want to leverage the openness and systemic nature of the game world to provide multifaceted showdowns that play to the game's core mechanisms.
"There was something very special about when you played through [Arkham City]: once you'd learned a few takedown techniques, you thought you knew how to play the game," explains Holmes. "But when you got to Mr Freeze, there was an exam! It was like a surprise exam that forced to you use all of the stealth mechanics. So it was kind of like, 'Wow, I thought I knew how to play this, but this guy is going to check to see if I know everything!' So it was a very rewarding experience overcoming him, and so we've tried to do that with the fighting, we've tried to do that with the stealth. I think that if you look at our boss roster, once you've seen them all and played the game, I think you'll realise that those guys were chosen based on how well they mapped to the core game mechanics.”
One of the best things about the previous two games has, of course, been the freedom to tackle enemies and problems in a number of ways – utilising Batman’s toolset and the environment around him to his advantage, whether that be to brawl down in the trenches or maintain a distance and pick off enemies from the shadows. In terms of combat, players will get a lot more feedback after each fight, with the game issuing scores after battles, letting players know how they did, how skilful they were, and dishing out XP boosts for combo chains, avoiding damage taken, and other systemic little challenges overcome. There’s something a little DMC-esque about the whole thing, and that’s incredibly exciting. As someone who never really felt much of an urge to return to the Arkham games once finished, it’s nice to have a little incentive in the main game for score attack fans.
Gotham itself has changed, and it’s a different city that players will step into rather than the grim, grey, miserable environment of the last game. There’s a little more colour in this incarnation of Gotham, though the sense of the gothic remains very strong indeed, and Batman has a little more variety in the side-missions in which he can engage himself. There are crime scenes to be solved, Most Wanted criminals to be hunted down, and Holmes expressed that the pace of the game is very much determined by the player themselves, and that there’ll be dynamic elements, surprise events that pop up in the world, that will earn players more XP than regular side missions.
“It keeps people awake, it keeps them on their toes,” Holmes says of these pop-up events. “[Dynamic elements] stop people from tuning out of the game world if there are things that pop up and surprise you. Surprise is very valuable – both drama and in a game – and that’s something we’ve challenged ourselves to do with this open world: to give players a sense of surprise, to give them a sense of agency. You’re choosing how to control to the pace of this game. You’re choosing whether or not to follow the main narrative or go off and explore the open world, follow some of the most Wanted characters, or track down collectible, or solve some of our Crime Scenes. That sense of being in control is very important.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about becoming Batman, stepping out into the world as the Dark Knight, and imposing your will as the player on the character. But it’s a different character under the cowl than we’ve seen previously in these games, and the team are most excited about the opportunity for presenting players with a Batman who’s a little bit complacent perhaps – overly-confident and a little brash rather than the grizzled and experienced figure of the previous games.
"The thing I'm most excited about is for people to see this new, younger Batman that you'll find in our game,” says Holmes. “He's not as fully-formed as he is in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, where he understands who he is, his mission, and everyone understands him. In this game, he's still something of an urban myth in the city. The cops consider him to be a vigilante, and they don't agree with his methods. Captain James Gordon -- not Commissioner at this point in his career -- is currently tasked with bringing the vigilante in, and he's no fan of Batman's work at all.
“For Batman himself, he doesn't really know who he is either. He been doing this for two years at this point, and he's been fighting the mob, and he's way better than those guys. He's much more proficient than the standard Falcone goon. But the characters he's going to face tonight, in this game, they really force him to reconsider his role and who he is. Characters like Bane and Deathstroke, these are characters who are peers to him. So Batman's maybe grown a bit cocky, a bit arrogant in his first two years on the job, and these characters really force him to reconsider his role in the world.”
For fans of the series and of the character, it’s a tantalising prospect. We won’t be certain of the final game’s quality until it’s sitting in our hands, but it certainly looks like WB Montreal are on the right track, and if they can manage to pull together the dynamic, systemic elements together with this mouth-watering narrative proposition and character study through conflict, we’re in for a real treat.