Our demo begins. Batman sits perched above the city (regular men sit, Batman ‘perches’) the camera pans around the dark expanse of Arkham City, a sprawling metropolis packed with deviants and various combo opportunities. Batman swan dives... into the game demo of our lives – we half expect him to land atop a conveniently positioned pile of hay, but he doesn’t land period, instead firing off a grappling hook, onto a moving helicopter.
He hangs suspended; the camera pans once more – Arkham City is utterly alive with possibility.
The demo ends. Our shock subsides – we begin to wonder openly: what the hell do Rocksteady think they’re doing? They had a winning formula - Batman: Arkham Asylum was a commercial and critical smash. What’s with this whole ‘taking risks with a proven franchise’ thing? Is this some form of collective madness, and if so is it contagious?
“As a studio we feel it’s our responsibility to take risks and push Batman into areas that gamers and fans haven’t seen before.” We’re talking to Dax Ginn, Marketing Manager at Rocksteady Studios – the man with a name ripped straight from Star Wars, and an enthusiasm for taking the Batman franchise into uncharted territory.
“If we all of a sudden decided to stop taking risks,” continued Dax, “we’d be idiots. Playing it safe, in any aspect never crossed our mind from the very beginning.”
Playing it safe would - probably - have involved a simple sequel, using similar art assets, set in a similarly closed off setting; something a little simpler, a little less ambitious. According to Dax, keeping things simple is not part of Rocksteady Studio’s lexicon – they took risks with the first game, and made a habit of it for the sequel.
“To be perfectly honest the Batman experience in Arkham Asylum was the risk for us,” says Dax, “how do we deliver on incredible combat forensics, detective work, crime scene investigation, the psychology – really plumbing the depths of Batman as a man and a hero – that’s all really risky stuff.
“As a studio we all have a huge amount of confidence because we know we can deliver a ‘Batman experience’ – so the risk we’ve taken this time is, let’s not do hallways corridors and rooms, let’s take this massive game space and allow players to navigate the world as they want – as Batman. So it kinda feels like we are almost playing things safe this time round – because we know we can do Batman really well.”
You get the sense that Rocksteady Studios has confidence to burn – and why shouldn’t they? Coming from nowhere to create one of the best action games of the generation does oodles for one’s self belief, and there seems to be a certain vibe of invincibility around the team; an invincibility that is conducive to ambitious, creative video game development – on a grand scale.
Or perhaps it’s just the arrogance of youth!
“I suppose it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’re a new young studio,” claims Dax. “We don’t have a whole lot of legacy and history to complicate that picture. So when our colleagues at Warner or DC Comics are asking themselves questions, we can just point to the risks we took with Arkham Asylum and have confidence that it’s not all going to go horribly wrong.
“When you look at it we really did take a lot of risks with the first game, so everybody – everyone at Warner, everyone at DC – is really up for pushing this as far as we can, taking a new attitude to the game. We have support from everyone – no one is saying, ‘hey, we need to close this down’, everyone just wants us to make the game as awesome as we possibly can.”
As far as we can see, the risks are paying off. It’s difficult to gauge, in a guided demo, just how open Arkham City truly is and how structured the missions themselves are. Rocksteady themselves have been careful not to lumber Arkham City with an ‘open world’ tag – and that's a calculated decision. Part of Arkham Asylum’s charm was the manner in which the game guided players through a deliberately structured Batman experience. Rocksteady seem keen to maintain that vibe, while pushing the envelope in terms of scale.
“We’ve got a really clear idea of the game we want to make, but it’s a question that really kept us awake at night,” says Dax. “Are we making a big game with nothing in it?
“Making a big game for the sake of it doesn’t make any sense to us – but as soon as we committed to making a big game the very next question for us was how are we going to fill this world with story so that, every step of the way, there is a new piece of information, or something that throws a curveball at the player. So looking from the chopper down into Arkham City, we want you to get an idea of the density of Arkham City.
"I’m always so happy to see that we achieved that objective, because it was something that would have really rocked the studio if we made this world with nothing to do inside of it. That’s not a Batman experience and not the sort of game we set out to make.”
But with increased scope comes a whole new set of issues. Batman: Arkham Asylum was a video game designed and tailor made for a claustrophobic environment. Building a city and plunking Batman inside with the precise same gadgets simply wasn’t a viable option. According to Dax, each and every single mechanic in Arkham Asylum was placed under intense scrutiny by the team, and adjusted accordingly.
“With the new environment some things work – but others just don’t work anymore. Right from the off we took every mechanic we had and asked ourselves, honestly, does this work in the new game world? And once we’d committed to Arkham City we had to make some frank decisions about what we could evolve and what we had to completely redesign.
“Combat, for example, worked in Arkham Asylum really well and the transition into the new game has seen a massive evolution in the number of animations and the moves, but we’ve added a lot of new AI layers to that – for example the thugs coming at you will have weapons, they’ll attack you in teams. We’ve also integrated gadgetry into combat... so it’s going to feel different in Arkham City, but fans of the last game will see the roots of it.”
Rocksteady Studios are taking risks with the Batman franchise – but in a sense they’re calculated risks, made by a group of people who have a clear understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the Batman universe. That’s a skill that comes from a combination of gut instinct and experience, and a skill that has served the team well in creating one of the greatest licensed video games ever made. From what we saw in our short demo, you can expect the same level of quality from Batman: Arkham City.
“We’re very close to Batman and have very clear ideas about what is appropriate,” claims Dax, “The more we work on it the more we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense for it. It’s great working with DC Comics, because we have this open collaborative relationship with them and they let us know if what we’re proposing works. Very rarely do we come up with something that makes them say, ‘what they hell are you on about!’"
From our short experience, Batman: Arkham city is looking very appropriate. Very appropriate indeed!