Rocksteady has done for Batman videogames what Christopher Nolan once did for the Dark Knight at the movies. Just as the British director’s rebooted film trilogy added critical kudos to Batman’s undoubted and enduring box office appeal, London studio Rocksteady’s Arkham adventures have, after years of disappointments, done DC’s property true justice in videogame form.
Following the conclusion of Nolan’s movie trio, Rocksteady’s game trilogy will end later this year with Batman Arkham Knight, the series’ debut on PS4 and Xbox One. The hands-off demo we saw at GDC gave us little reason to doubt that Arkham Knight be turn out to be another handsome, muscular and systems-rich game, one to evoke a real sense of ‘being’ Batman like never before; the only real question Rocksteady must answer is how it will implement the Batmobile into its formula, and what that means for the game’s rhythm of play.
Set a year after the events of Arkham City, Gotham is under threat from a Scarecrow-led chemical weapon attack and has been all but evacuated, besides a familiar gaggle of crooks, henchmen and supervillains. There are sightings of returning characters Two Face, Penguin, Commissioner Gordon and ‘The Oracle’ Barbara Gordon during the demo, as our Rocksteady representatives pitch what they consider to be a seamless experience – there is indeed a smooth transition not just between gameplay and cutscene, but in-car and on-foot action. And there’s not a loading screen in sight, either.
And so to that Batmobile. When he’s out on the streets of Gotham, Batman can now call upon his companion at any time he sees fit and it’ll speed into view. In this demo he divebombs down into its cockpit from on high, having swooped and grappled his way across the city’s skyline. Once we’re behind the wheel, the driving is lightning quick. It cuts through the city’s street-level detritus with ease, neon-soaked night sky and rain-slicked road hurtling past at a terrific pace.
It’s clear this isn’t just GTA: Batman. And for all GTAV’s size, Rockstar’s open world is mostly exterior; essentially a sprawl of beautiful, varied surface detail mapped onto a vast swathe of undulating contours and empty grey boxes. Arkham Knight’s open world isn’t as big because it wants to retain the richness of the series’ on-foot play, says Rocksteady brand marketing producer Dax Ginn. “For us, the experience and the atmosphere of an interior was established in Arkham Asylum – that was a very claustrophobic game, so we really value what you can do in a tight, pressure-cooker situation,” he tells us. “The big shift for us from a technical perspective with the power of next-gen is that we’re able to create interior and exterior locations that are ‘in memory’ at the same time. So you can drive past a window and see what’s going on inside the building, you can jump out of the Batmobile, leap through the window and get involved. We haven’t set out to make a big game world just for the sake of it, we’ve set out to make the most detailed open world game that’s appropriate for the experience.”
The game world is five times bigger than Arkham City, but that’s been achieved without compromising the level of graphical detail Rocksteady lavishes on its environments, says Ginn. It’s hard to vouch for that having just seen a relatively brief demo because Batman moves through the world at such speed both in the air and at the wheel – but later, when the action switches from active play to cutscene without pausing – and also when Batman ambushes a gang of goons with a string of new insta-takedowns – the visuals are suitably sumptuous. Our Rocksteady representative Ginn needn’t have whooped and hollered his way through the demo at all: the really memorable stuff was all up there on screen.
Rocksteady has achieved a startling amount for a developer of its size. When it finished Arkham City it was a studio of around 100, but now its London office houses around 140 fulltime employees. The majority of those most recent recruits are in its art department, tasked as it is with both building a bigger Gotham than ever before and also bringing it to life. Its London office is open plan and will remain so however much it expands, says Ginn – Rocksteady places a premium on communication between staff, and tries to steer clear of strict hierarchies. The heart of Arkham Knight’s development team remains consistent, too: lead gameplay programmer Adam Doherty continues to work shoulder to shoulder with game director Sefton Hill, the former now responsible for the function and feel of the Batmobile and its integration into the Arkham series’ existing systems. “There’s no-one better in the world than Adam Doherty to do that, because he’s been part of Rocksteady from day one,” says Ginn. “He has built Batman’s movement, combat, his gadgetry – everything – from Arkham Asylum onwards.”
That Rocksteady has been allowed to design its own Batmobile and even introduce a brand new character – the titular Arkham Knight – speaks of how highly Warner and DC Comics regard the London studio. So is Rocksteady’s contribution to the Batman universe’s rich lore officially ‘canon’? “I honestly don’t know the answer to that,” says Ginn. “We obviously take our Batmobile really seriously and the design of the Arkham Knight was something that the whole team was really energised by – a lot of work went into it. We’ve been working with DC to make sure it’s really honed and perfect. Whether that is now like boom, the approved, authorised version going forward…? I don’t know. The relationship we have with DC is very fluid, we come to them with ideas and they’re excited when we’re excited about something.“
What happens next for Rocksteady, though? It’s often said that Nolan gained funding for pet project Inception as roundabout reward for reviving the fortunes of Batman on the big screen; the same has been suggested of Naughty Dog, Sony allowing its studio to create risky new IP The Last Of Us as a ‘thank you’ for its excellent Uncharted series. Could the same be true of Rocksteady, once Arkham Knight is complete? ”I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do next – our attitude to what’s next is if we smash Arkham Knight out of the park then we’re going to have a whole range of awesome opportunities that we can pick from,” says Ginn. “If we take our eye off the ball and live in the future without delivering on this now, then we’re going to have fewer opportunities at our door. I’m sure there’s a conversation happening at some point about Rocksteady’s future but right now I look around the team and everybody is just working like crazy on Arkham Knight.”
As creators there must surely be an urge within Rocksteady to build a world of its own, we suggest. “We think Batman’s awesome,” Ginn continues. “I don’t think anyone within the studio is thinking ‘Oh, we should be doing something else’ – we’re just Batman fans who love what we’re doing.”
Even if Rocksteady’s next project isn’t built on its own new intellectual property, its owner has plenty of other rich worlds crying out for a credible videogame. When Nolan finished his Dark Knight trilogy, he moved on to reboot Superman; would Rocksteady be interested in doing the same? Ginn stares dreamily into the middle distance. “Oh man…ask me in five years’ time…”