Sunday, 6 November 2011

Holy Batman

There is an obsession with games and stories. In general I think that gamers don't give a hoot about story but they do crave a context and consequence to their actions in the game. Lots of games struggle to give their actions a reason or a wider meaning and the player feels like they are going through the motions, rather than achieving. In a new game the world and it's rules have to be established and at the same time it has to show the player what hey can do in the world. While all this is happening the game has to keep the player entertained. Drop any one of these balls as you juggle them and the player will get dissatisfied and abandon the game for a new distraction.

One of the smartest things a game could do is start with a known quantity. Start with an established world and an established character with well understood abilities. The player would then be able to focus on how to play.

So this is what Rocksteady did. A very clever move. But their Batman games could easily have been like so many licensed games, using the protagonist as a crutch to prop up a game that they already knew how to make. I think what they did was something quite remarkable.

The Rocksteady guys know Batman. What they chose to do was to bring the Batman that they knew to the game. And the people who play the game and know the Batman will know this is the character that has been established for over 70 years. (As a side note, there will be a Batman long after people have forgotten Marcus Fenix, Master Chief or Nathan Drake). There must have been greenlight meetings and discussions with marketing where Rocksteady spoke about vague but powerful concepts such as 'feeling' like the Batman, about the Batmans motivation and his responses to a situation, about being authentic to the spirit of Batman. These kinds of vague concepts scare the tar out of business people, but let me tell you, this is the very stuff that makes the Arkham games stand out. So I should also thank Warner Brothers for having enough faith in Rocksteady to trust them with making a Batman game the way it should have always been made.

The first and most important feature is Detective Vision. If you or I walked into a room and it was full of thugs, we'd last about a half minute. The Batman eats that sort of situation for breakfast. The questio is how can the player feel like Batman but not have the fight choreographed or played as an interactive cut-scene. This needs a design solution and so we come to detective vision. It allows the player to see through walls, to identify oppponents and how they are armed. The player can plan an attack in an approximation of the choices the Batman would make in that situation. Combined with the Batmans grapple and some scenery to allow Batman to disappear and suddenly each encounter is a playground for the player to be Batman. It is very satisfying to pick off the opponents one by one and it feels like the Batman going to work just like he does in the movies, comics and books.

But this freedom would make a poor game. If the Batman could always skip away and recover his health the game loses it's challenge. So the game uses an intelligent mechanic that recognises when you start a combat. For the duration of the fight your energy bar is finite, when the fight is complete the game replenishes it. Each fight becomes a moment to moment battle, but the game is not reduced to a series of guerilla skirmishes. It's the sort of solution that you almost ignore, and thats because it works so well.

The game is full of stuff like this. Take the grappling hook and Batmans gliding. It's an incredibly powerful manouver yet it takes some practice. The game doesn't artificially stop you using it, instead it is built to cope with the player doing what they want. And the freedeom encourages you to experiment and push the limits of what Batman can do.

There's so much attention to detail it's impossible not to be impressed. The Catwoman costume is taken from the Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke run of the Catwoman comic. The Penguin has had a fantastic original makeover that seems to be in the spirit of Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker graphic novel. Gotham itself is a patchwork of some of the most famous landmarks from that city. Some of the incredible architectural design work that was done by Anto Furst for the Tim Burton Batman movies (and then incorporated back into the comics) seems to be the inspiration for the Wonder city segment of Gotham. Then there are some great but underused characters like Deadshot, Hugo Strange, Azrael and Ras A Guhl. I got a thrill just seeing them in the game. And the little touches that showed a knowledge of the Batman books kept coming. The ninja bodyguards of Talia had costumes that are based on Lady Shiva one of the greatest and deadliest martial artists in the DC Universe. It's a touch that most people won't appreciate but I got a real kick out of. It's an attention to detail that shouts quality. I think this sort of quality shines through, so anyone that plays the game will feel the quality even if they don't appreciate the subtleties.

And it's not a perfect game. For example I think the characters with jamming devices that ruin Batmans Detective vision is too gamey. It makes sense as part of the game but it doesn't entirely make sense of Batmans abilities. I hat that you can't fly down to ground level from the top of the Wonder tower. I can see things that will be improved as the series progresses.

But more importantly I have hopes that Rocksteady expands in the future. The DC Universe is vast and ripe for  more games made with this same care and attention. Even in gotham there are loads of options, The Demon - Etrigan (and his host Jason Blood) live in Gotham, The Huntress, Nightwing, Red Robin. It's not a huge jump to imagine a Green Arrow game, or harnessing some of the racing studio talent in the UK and making a Flash game. That doesn't even take into account the things you can do with Batman that follow recent comics. Grant Morrison established an international network of Batmen in Batman Incorporated. It's an idea that would allow Rockstar to expand beyond the confines of Arkham and create more diversity in a Batman title. It's very hard to contain my excitement now someone has made a credible comic book game.

I hope very much that Warner Brothers understands the potential that Rocksteady have created. I hope they choose to invest and expand and make more of their properties. And I hope they appreciate that by giving their characters to people who show respect and have the skill to make a game that stays true to the concept they are building a very strong future.