BAT­MAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT

THE SU­PER­HERO GAME FOR A NEW GEN­ER­A­TION

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY NATHAN BROWN

Game Bat­man: Arkham Knight

Pub­lisher Warner Bros

De­vel­oper Rock­steady Stu­dios

For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One

Ori­gin UK

Re­lease June 2

Arkham Knight game di­rec­tor Sefton Hill is in re­flec­tive mood. He and his team are on the home stretch, in the fi­nal six months of work on the fi­nal game in the tril­ogy that made their stu­dio’s name. Rock­steady has been mak­ing Bat­man games for eight of its ten years in business. One day next spring, Hill will wake up and it will all be over.

“It dawned on me the other day that we’re go­ing to fin­ish,” he tells us in the board­room of Rock­steady’s North London of­fices. “It’s go­ing to be re­ally weird. It’s go­ing to be like a mar­riage breakup or some­thing, be­cause I’m sort of ob­sessed with it. I wake up in the morn­ing and it’s the first thing I think of. When I’m speak­ing to some­one, if you could Ctrl-Alt-Delete my brain, my sys­tem re­sources are al­ways 90 per cent mak­ing this game and ten per cent hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion.”

Hill has less than six months to work out what to en­gage the bulk of his grey mat­ter with next. He has ideas al­ready, though none are be­ing worked on yet. Rock­steady is, un­usu­ally for a stu­dio of its size, a one­pro­ject op­er­a­tion, its 160 staff fo­cused solely on lay­ing this tril­ogy to rest. The prospect of mov­ing on may be un­set­tling, but it has also been lib­er­at­ing for Arkham Knight’s cre­ators. “We didn’t want to leave any stone un­turned; we wanted to put ev­ery­thing in,” Hill says. “That’s al­ways been our at­ti­tude, to be hon­est. We make ev­ery game like it’s the last game we’re ever go­ing to make.”

Play­ing it – and we are the first out­side of Rock­steady and Warner to do so – you can see his point. Bat­man’s ex­ist­ing move-set has been both re­fined and ex­panded, his util­ity belt and toolset has grown too, and he will put all of it to use in the big­gest, most de­tailed world that Rock­steady has ever cre­ated. That alone might be a fine way to say goodbye, but not for Hill. Arkham Asy­lum was about stealth and com­bat; City added free­dom and flow­ing means to tra­verse open spa­ces. Mere re­fine­ment of ex­ist­ing sys­tems is not the way Rock­steady works. There has to be some­thing else.

The Bat­mo­bile is the an­swer, and it feels weird to be be­hind its wheel at first. It should, re­ally. After all, it is an almost in­de­struc­tible, re­motely con­trol­lable tank-cum-su­per­car, and we’re guid­ing it around the mod­est court­yards and tight cor­ners of Gotham’s Ace Chem­i­cals fa­cil­ity. It seems an odd choice for a demo: the Bat­mo­bile, surely, was built for the open road, a nec­es­sary in­clu­sion as Rock­steady ex­pands its take on Gotham to en­com­pass a space five times the size of Arkham City, giv­ing play­ers an al­ter­na­tive to end­lessly grap­ple-boost­ing the Caped Cru­sader across miles of open world. In fact, Hill ex­plains, Rock­steady came at it the other way round.

“It was never a case of us want­ing to build a big­ger Gotham,” he tells us. “For us, it’s about rich­ness and de­tail, life and feel. It’s not about size; it was never re­ally a con­sid­er­a­tion when we made City, and it’s not re­ally a con­sid­er­a­tion here. It was more about what we wanted to in­tro­duce, and the Bat­mo­bile was there right at the start. We had some cool ideas.”

He’s not wrong. Yes, you can use the Bat­mo­bile to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and de­ploy its mounted weaponry to clear out a road­side threat, but Rock­steady has gone fur­ther than that, build­ing the car in the same way it has de­signed ev­ery new ad­di­tion to the Arkham se­ries as it has pro­gressed. It is made to com­ple­ment, not sur­mount. “That’s al­ways been very im­por­tant,” says player code di­rec­tor Adam Do­herty, who has worked on all three Arkham games and un­der­stands Rock­steady’s Bat­man as well as any­one. “One of our core goals was that we didn’t want to put in a Bat­mo­bile that was just there for shoot­ing sec­tions, or get­ting from A to B.” For all that we’d have loved to have put it through its paces on the open road, Ace Chem­i­cals is the Bat­mo­bile’s ideal de­but, an op­por­tu­nity to show how it has been built first and fore­most to serve Bat­man, not shunt him off cen­tre stage.

“BAT­MAN’S NOT BEEN NERFED TO MAKE THE CAR MORE POW­ER­FUL. IN FACT, HE’S BEEN BUFFED”

It’s why, dur­ing one com­bat sec­tion with the Bat­mo­bile parked nearby, a new but­ton prompt ap­pears. We press X and Square and dragon punch an op­po­nent into the air be­fore the Bat­mo­bile knocks him back to the floor again with a tran­quil­liser round to the head. Out­side of brawls, a built-in winch pulls down heavy doors to let our hero en­ter new ar­eas, and raises and low­ers a bro­ken lift to lead him to hostages. The Bat­mo­bile is never more than a but­ton press away from be­ing at our side, and dur­ing puz­zle sec­tions we find our­selves switch­ing con­stantly, and flu­idly, be­tween the Dark Knight and his ve­hi­cle.

“We worked to make sure it feels like it was al­ways part of Bat­man’s uni­verse,” Hill ex­plains. “It doesn’t dis­rupt the orig­i­nal core set of moves; it to­tally in­te­grates with them and re­ally be­comes part of Bat­man. They’re not re­ally sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. It’s the ul­ti­mate gad­get.” Its re­mote con­trol sits in the same ra­dial menu as the Batarang and Bat­claw, po­si­tion­ing it as an ex­ten­sion of Bat­man’s core abil­i­ties, de­signed to give more op­tions within ex­ist­ing sys­tems, not sim­ply add a whole new one on top of them.

Even when the fo­cus is squarely on the Bat­mo­bile, it sticks to house style. Squeeze L2 and it switches to Bat­tle mode, the left stick mak­ing it strafe in­stead of steer, the right trig­ger shoot­ing in­stead of ac­cel­er­at­ing, taps of X per­form­ing quick di­rec­tional boost dodges. Later, we’ll learn that Bat­tle mode is ideal for nav­i­gat­ing tight spa­ces, but we’ve got rather more press­ing con­cerns at the mo­ment. Fac­ing off against a court­yard full of drone tanks, we’re told that clean play is as re­warded here as it is in melee com­bat; a translu­cent line shows the en­emy’s in­tended line of fire, and it glows red a mo­ment be­fore a shot is fired. While per­haps not as el­e­gant, and cer­tainly not as in­tu­itive, as throw­ing punches, Bat­mo­bile com­bat is still a bal­ance of at­tack and de­fence, of dis­patch­ing a screen­ful of en­e­mies with­out tak­ing so much as a scratch. After two or three too many re­tries, it all clicks into place, and a flaw­less fight con­cludes with us dou­ble-tap­ping a face but­ton so that the fi­nal two drones fall to our hom­ing mis­siles. Longer com­bos will yield more pow­er­ful weaponry still. And just as in any Arkham game, en­e­mies that re­quire spe­cific tac­tics to bring down soon ar­rive to com­pli­cate mat­ters. One later in our demo fires three rounds at once in a forked pat­tern, and can only be dam­aged with weakspot strikes from your cooldown-man­aged grenade launcher. It is a very Rock­steady ap­proach to ve­hic­u­lar com­bat, and it works.

Yet the Bat­mo­bile posed a chal­lenge to many more peo­ple than just those de­sign­ing it. In fact, it has im­pacted on just about ev­ery other area of the game. A su­per­car de­mands a vast net­work of roads; a tank de­mands that they be wide. As such, Arkham Knight not only had to zone out a larger por­tion of Gotham, but its struc­tures had to grow taller to match the scale of the streets. The en­emy threat had to be ramped up to ac­count for a ve­hi­cle that takes no dam­age from falls, col­li­sions or small weapons fire, hence the pres­ence of the tit­u­lar Arkham Knight and his in­vad­ing drone army. The audio team had to come up with a con­vinc­ing en­gine sound for a ve­hi­cle that does not ex­ist. And Bat­man him­self had to be tweaked to en­sure play­ers didn’t feel Rock­steady was clos­ing out the tril­ogy by ton­ing him down. Out in the world, an ex­tra up­grade for Arkham City’s grap­ple boost flings you higher and faster than be­fore, while taller build­ings mean you can pick up more speed by div­ing, cov­er­ing longer dis­tances quickly.

“Bat­man’s not been nerfed to make the car more pow­er­ful. In fact, he’s been buffed. We’ve got a re­ally nice bal­ance,” Hill tells us. “In­ter­nally, we have some peo­ple who use the car a lot more, and some who use the glid­ing more. It’s up to the player. I’m play­ing the game a lot at the mo­ment – it’s a lovely stage of the project: you’re just play­ing, re­view­ing, writ­ing up lists of tasks – and I con­stantly switch up the way I play. I’m not do­ing it to test the game, I’m do­ing it be­cause I en­joy it. If I ever find I’m erring

too much on one side, then ob­vi­ously we’re do­ing some­thing wrong.”

It is an open-world par­al­lel to the bal­ance Rock­steady strikes be­tween com­bat and stealth, giv­ing you op­tions and only oc­ca­sion­ally in­sist­ing that you use one or the other. The for­mer is the Arkham games’ great­est de­sign, and its most in­flu­en­tial too; count­less games have bor­rowed it, but none have ever bet­tered its Zen-like flow of a fight well won. That, too, has been re­fined. New play­ers will ap­pre­ci­ate the spec­ta­cle – the Bat­mo­bile as­sists, the con­text-sen­si­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal take­downs – but vet­er­ans will be more in­ter­ested in the lit­tle changes. There are more en­emy an­i­ma­tions – Do­herty points out that ev­ery op­po­nent in Arkham

Asy­lum and City shared the same punch and kick. Some en­e­mies charge at you, and must be taken down with a quick Batarang throw, some­thing that has long been op­tional in

Arkham’s com­bat but is now fre­quently es­sen­tial. A tightly ex­e­cuted counter will push your op­po­nent back, knock­ing down any en­e­mies be­hind them, some­thing that, in the pre­vi­ous games, could have meant the end of your combo, since a downed en­emy could not be struck ex­cept with a knock­out blow. Now, you can land a lightly dam­ag­ing hit on en­e­mies while they’re down, or pick them back up for another pum­melling, en­sur­ing Bat­man’s flow re­mains un­bro­ken.

“I think our se­cret is pri­mar­ily an ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail,” Do­herty says. “Ev­ery move that goes in, we make sure it has a pur­pose and we make sure that all the tim­ings are just per­fect. And there’s al­ways a win­dow after a move where you get an op­por­tu­nity to counter, no mat­ter what they’re do­ing – they’ll just slow down their an­i­ma­tion a lit­tle bit. We want the player to feel like what they’re do­ing is awe­some, re­gard­less of how good they are.”

That ethos ex­tends to Arkham Knight’s stealth, too, where the new Fear Take­down sees Bat­man tak­ing out three en­e­mies in quick suc­ces­sion. We drop onto the first from the ceil­ing, point the cam­era to the next and press Square to take out the sec­ond, then do the same to the third. What would, in

Arkhams past, have been a drawn-out process of isolating and dis­patch­ing the group one by one has been com­pleted in seconds. It adds a note of the com­bat sys­tem’s flu­id­ity

“YOU CAN PLAY THE WHOLE THING LIKE METAL GEAR OR SPLIN­TER CELL – DO EV­ERY­THING SILENTLY, PER­FECTLY”

to some­thing that has al­ways nec­es­sar­ily been more stac­cato and thus feels, Do­herty be­lieves, more ap­pro­pri­ate to the character. “You can play the whole thing like Metal

Gear or Splin­ter Cell – do ev­ery­thing silently, per­fectly, with­out alert­ing the room. But in some ways, that’s not par­tic­u­larly Bat­man. If you watch the movies, he never does a Silent Take­down. Some­one al­ways hears it. We wanted a way to em­power the player to ag­gres­sively take on groups of en­e­mies.”

There’s a fine line be­tween em­pow­ered and over­pow­ered, and as a con­cept the Fear Take­down leans to­wards the lat­ter, but it’s been bal­anced clev­erly. It has to be recharged with a Silent Take­down, you have to get up close to be able to use it at all, and if you take out three mooks and the fourth has a ri­fle, you’re still in a pickle. It’s the kind of gen­tle re­fine­ment to a core sys­tem that can make all the dif­fer­ence for a se­quel, but get­ting such tweaks right is a par­lous bal­ance that re­quires an aw­ful lot of work.

It’s noth­ing like the ex­tra work man­dated by the leap to new con­sole hard­ware. Almost ev­ery­one we speak to has a story of how tak­ing the Arkham se­ries from 360 and PS3 to Xbox One and PS4 has both em­pow­ered and frus­trated them. Yes, you can do much more, but it means you have much more to do to make it hap­pen. The prob­lem with reach­ing for the skies is that they are quite far away.

The ben­e­fits are im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, and it’s almost im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that

Arkham Knight runs on the same en­gine as its pre­de­ces­sors. Stag­ger­ingly, it’s based on Un­real En­gine 3, al­beit a ver­sion that by now is so heav­ily mod­i­fied it is es­sen­tially Rock­steady’s own, a line we’ve heard be­fore but which is hard to ar­gue with when you see the game in mo­tion. Load­ing up Arkham

City for com­par­i­son, it’s clear to see that Rock­steady once had to sacrifice de­tail for the sake of scale. Here, it can have both.

We ex­press our sur­prise that pub­lisher Warner Bros sanc­tioned the move; after all, like so many oth­ers, the company has hedged its bets, with re­cent re­leases – and the forth­com­ing Mor­tal Kom­bat X – ap­pear­ing as cross-gen ti­tles. But for Hill, the choice was ob­vi­ous: you can’t make the best game you pos­si­bly can if you ham­string your­self by cater­ing for ten-year-old con­sole hard­ware.

“Very, very early on, we had dis­cus­sions about do­ing cross-gen,” he says. “When we were look­ing at it, we re­alised that there were com­pro­mises we would need to make with the lay­out of the city. There were cer­tain ar­eas we could only have Bat­man get to, and cer­tain ar­eas we could only have the Bat­mo­bile. ‘Com­pro­mise’ is not a word that sits well with me. If we’re do­ing it like that, we may as well not do the Bat­mo­bile; if we want to in­te­grate it fully then it has to be on a ma­chine that can de­liver it. It was a re­ally bold decision by Warner. At the time [we made the choice], no one knew what the up­take on next-gen was go­ing to be like. It’s been bril­liant, which is great for us and great for the in­dus­try, but it was bold.”

It was a decision, how­ever, that has come at sig­nif­i­cant cost. To those who saw the

game be­hind closed doors at the Game De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence last March, a 2014 re­lease al­ways seemed am­bi­tious, and so it would prove. Rock­steady needed more time, and Warner ended up de­lay­ing its most im­por­tant 2014 re­lease by almost eight months. “The vi­sion for the game just meant we weren’t go­ing to get it fin­ished to the stan­dard we wanted in time,” Hill says. “It’s as sim­ple as that. We had to de­cide: is it a case of re­duc­ing the scope to try to get some­thing out? Or do we de­lay the re­lease in or­der to make sure we can achieve the vi­sion? That’s the dis­cus­sion we had with [Warner’s] se­nior man­age­ment. For­tu­nately, after a lot of grov­el­ling, we got the time, be­cause those guys be­lieved in the vi­sion too.

“The ques­tion was never whether it was good enough. It was whether we were go­ing to get it done. I don’t want to sound ar­ro­gant, but we were very con­fi­dent in that di­rec­tion. We just didn’t have time to fin­ish what we wanted to do. It’s fair to say that’s my fault: the rea­son we didn’t ship in 2014 is be­cause of the game I wanted to make. It couldn’t be done in the time we had.”

Hill’s open­ness has its lim­its, how­ever. While more than happy to take the blame for the de­lay, to ad­mit his lit­tle flaws (“I’m quite OCD,” he of­fers when ex­plain­ing why he doesn’t play his games after they’ve shipped), and to dis­cuss his de­sign phi­los­o­phy, he’s on lock­down about de­tails of Arkham Knight’s story. We know that, with Joker sup­pos­edly out of the frame after City, Scare­crow is the pri­mary an­tag­o­nist, as in­ter­ested in break­ing Bat­man psy­cho­log­i­cally as phys­i­cally. The Arkham Knight is in­tended to pro­vide the lat­ter kind of threat, though his cos­tume sug­gests he has plans to do more than shoot peo­ple and flex his hired mus­cle. Tier-one vil­lains – in­clud­ing Pen­guin, Two-Face and Har­ley Quinn – will re­turn; Or­a­cle and Com­mis­sioner Gor­don will play a big­ger role. Beyond that, Hill’s giv­ing noth­ing away.

“I don’t want to spoil it,” he says. “I’d hate to be a film di­rec­tor, be­cause you craft this story and then some­one goes and ru­ins it. I fight con­stantly to make sure we don’t spoil any­thing. There are so many games now where you feel like you’ve seen all of the killer beats that would’ve been great to dis­cover for your­self. It’s this huge, epic con­clu­sion. It’s our strong­est, most emo­tional story, and I’m re­ally happy with what we’ve got. Be­cause I’m happy with it, I’m not go­ing to tell.”

That Warner is pre­pared to in­dulge Hill and re­frain from a story-spoil­ing trailer blitz says much about how Rock­steady has man­aged to earn the trust of one of the big­gest me­dia com­pa­nies on the planet. The stu­dio was granted a risky move to new con­soles, af­forded the ex­tra time to make it

“IT’S THIS EPIC CON­CLU­SION. IT’S OUR STRONG­EST, MOST EMO­TIONAL STORY – I’M RE­ALLY HAPPY WITH IT”

hap­pen, and on top of that is get­ting a say in how the game is mar­keted. Rock­steady has spent the best part of the decade prov­ing to Warner Bros it un­der­stands what a Bat­man game should be bet­ter than any­one else on the planet. Soon, that won’t be ap­pli­ca­ble.

“To think about some­thing so much, for so long,” Hill says, “and then sud­denly to just have that not be there – it’s such an iden­ti­fi­able character, and that uni­verse…” He pauses, as if he’s fi­nally un­hook­ing the re­main­ing 90 per cent of his brain from the business of Bat­man and re­al­is­ing he’s go­ing to have to get used to it at some point. But not just yet. The beauty of mak­ing ev­ery game as if it’s your last is that you never have to worry about the fu­ture.

“It’s go­ing to be strange, I know that. I’m not wor­ried about what we do next, be­cause of the tal­ent of the peo­ple here. I’m su­per con­fi­dent that what­ever we do, we can make a suc­cess of it. The big­gest thing that can guar­an­tee the suc­cess of the next game is this game, so let’s use our en­ergy to fin­ish this one. Then we’ll worry about what comes next.” From all we’ve seen, we’re pretty sure Rock­steady is go­ing to be just fine.

FROM TOP Sefton Hill, game di­rec­tor; Adam Do­herty, player code di­rec­tor

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