As I’m writing this I’ve just finished watching what is arguably the best Batman film ever. No, not The Dark Knight, Batman Returns you philistines. I’ve got the theme tune from the Tim Burton Batman films going through my head right now and I suggest you hum it yourself while reading this so it’s as epic to you as it is to me while writing it. I’m kind of on a high for Batman right now, which makes me perfectly placed mentally to write up a look at the upcoming Batman: Arkham City game and my hopes for it. The Batman series has, like so many comic book franchises, always been blessed with awful video game adaptations. That changed in 2009 when Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham Asylum on current generation consoles. Suddenly we had a game based around the principles of stealth and detective work that still required us to beat the hell out of criminals in a slick and much requested (to be copied in other games) combat system. The strength of this game was that the player was encouraged to use stealth to make enemies disappear without their allies knowing anything was out of the ordinary then to use fear techniques on the slowly diminishing groups of enemies to scare them and gain the upper hand. You can read my own award-winning experience with that game here. In October of this year Rocksteady will be releasing Arkham City, a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum, and they’ve raised the odds considerably. My question is if they’re aware of what they can do with the franchise they have and if they have the licensing strength to do those things?
I’ve been a Batman fan for years now, growing up with the 60s camp show before school and at the weekends, graduating to the films and animated adventures in my teenaged years and even reading a few comic books (usually the weaker entries in the Batman family of media as far as I’m concerned, although capable of telling some truly fine stories when handled correctly) and I’m fully aware of just how versatile this franchise is, and how open for interpretation the different stories that play out within it are. I have a sneaking suspicion that the guys at Rocksteady are aware of this too and they have played to those strengths already in Arkham Asylum, just not as much as I would have hoped.
The Riddler is a great example of how well Rocksteady understands the Batman franchise and how to make gameplay from it. The Riddler in Arkham Asylum was never seen, instead making his presence known through cryptic puzzles around the island that Batman had to solve. As Bats solved more and more of these puzzles Edward would get in touch with the Bat, to taunt him at first but then with increasingly desperate accusations of cheating. Bats used the time spent in these calls to triangulate the position of the escaped Riddler and forward this position to police (at 95% of the riddles solved, if memory serves) with the police relaying a live audio feed of the arrest to Batman as he solved the very last puzzle, This showed that the team knew how to make a cerebral villain into a plot piece (a major sidequest in this case) without resorting to having him as a generic boss fight who suddenly has plenty of combat ability (yes, I’m aware of the ending to the game and how it did exactly that), but it also showed off how easily they wasted opportunities. Very often the answers to riddles put forward by Edward were things relating to other villains in the Batman mythology. Rather than facing these villains there would be a prop, costume element or newspaper clipping around the area which hinted at them being a part of the world. In one way it was a genius piece of design that enabled many of these elements to be included and then drew the player into finding them, but it was also a waste in some ways as so many of those villains could have had some great little cameos. The cameo of Clayface, shown at first as someone you’ve been looking for and then as other characters from the world, showed that the designers knew how to plot an actual cameo from a character, but that they were more comfortable hinting at a larger world than showing it.
In Arkham City this is being rectified somewhat, with villains galore on the streets and many more cameos. In the first game we could go and visit the Joker in the Visitor’s Centre after every major part of the game and have a different scene play out. This has been taken further in Arkham City with the introduction of the awfully named Calendar Man. This rather minor character in Batman mythology had a schtick of committing crimes only on special dates and holidays, and is being used in much the same way in Batman: Arkham City. In the game he will have a different message for players who play on different dates, encouraging multiple playthroughs on special dates. Other villains will show up in the game, some having their own storylines, others merely being visitable throughout the story and one even being playable, but Calendar Man is the one that stands out as a unique gameplay feature so far.
The question is, will there be enough content to allow the player to come back on those dates and expect a different experience anyway? Without it, most players aren’t going to be going through the game again just for a new line from a single character. The developers could leave Calendar Man on the main menu, allowing players to see what he has to say without needing to play through the game again but that defeats the object and removes the player from being immersed in the game world, which is the object of a feature like this in the first place.
Much talked about is the fact that Catwoman is a playable character – activated whenever Batman approaches a group of cats on a rooftop – for her own missions that tell another story in the city. As she has no cape to glide with and a different set of abilities and gadgets to Batman, even traversing the city will be different when playing as Catwoman. This opens up a wealth of possibilities for downloadable content in the future as the Batman mythology has several villains and heros who could easily have their own stories set in this game world with them as the fully playable protagonists. Setting these things up to play out alongside the main story, in much the way that Selina Kyle’s adventures will, and littering the world with different activation points could turn this from a simple game into an epic adventure in the world of the Batman. As an example of this, Robin has already been revealed as a retailer specific playable character in a few unique challenge (secondary play mode that pits the player against specific combat or stealth objectives) maps, but he could be so much more than that. With the character model already existing he could easily be pursuing his own agenda in the city, and this could easily be an interesting story in its own right. Likewise, if Dick Grayson has graduated to become the hero Nightwing in this continuity then it makes sense that he’d drop in to see his old mentor and help him out in his time of need, perhaps without Batman’s knowledge at all. That’s two more stories already that could easily become a part of this experience, each requiring slightly different thought patterns in regards to traversing the city as the characters would have different loadouts (the Tim Drake version of Robin that is appearing in the game is excellent with computers, a great detective but a weak fighter, having to use a bo staff to compensate for his lack of combat ability, which could open up some interesting gameplay avenues). Like the Catwoman missions these scenes would all start with the player approaching something to make the switch and then having a cutscene show control swapping, and these scenes may show the new character communicating with the Batman in the case of allies, or watching from afar for enemies. Rather than having these things built into the game I’d like to see them released later as downloadable content to boost the value of the core game by allowing us to find a new story in the city and play as a new character.
The mention of challenge maps makes me realise that is another area that I feel the Batman series of games needs some work. Rather than only including these maps as stand-alone challenges like the previous game has done, have them all built into the world and have the challenges open when playing the main game. The player is then able to learn these advanced techniques and use them with style in arenas built for that purpose while within the story itself. As the player is likely to be revisiting certain parts of the city and there is no way we’ll be able to wipe out all of the criminals in the city, these challenges could repeatedly become available, allowing the player to attempt to get bonuses throughout the game and beat the scores of other owners of the game.
These are just a few of the ways that the games could bring everything together into a more interesting and cinematic package, and things that I believe would be of benefit to the game as a whole. These sorts of things could benefit many games out there, slightly tweaking their designs, pulling game features together and using downloadable content in more interesting ways, but I personally feel that the Batman franchise is set up for this in ways that other franchises aren’t. It has been around for seventy two years after all, and accumulated a lot of baggage in that time. I feel that Rocksteady have shown they understand how to use that baggage already, and now have the ability to drive the games industry with the way they use this baggage in the future.