OPINION: Rocksteady’s back with the Arkham Knight, a new, bigger open world and they’ve even brought the Batmobile. But Nick Cowen asks whether it is enough to live up to the hype?
[WARNING: Contains Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Asylum spoilers]
Sequels can be tricky. Whether they arrive in the form of books, albums, films or games, they all carry a weight of expectation like a millstone around their necks – especially if their predecessors were roaring successes. Not only are they hamstrung by the fact that, unlike their forebears, their entire audience can see them coming, they’re expected to go one better than the entry that preceded them.
This is made all the more difficult in the gaming industry; simply skinning a new story in shiny visuals isn’t enough. Players and critics alike demand – among other things – innovation, new tools to play with and new weapons to use. Then there are the massive budgets to adhere to, the steady workflow to manage and the development cycle of game – which can run the length of three years – that all rub up against the demands of a publisher who wants a new entry in the franchise in the market as soon as possible.
Punching out the follow up to a critically lauded blockbuster that sold like the clappers is difficult enough – and if you sequel doesn’t suffer from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome and matches its predecessor in acclaim and sales, you’re golden right? Not really – you’re expected to improve on that success if you’re pushing a third entry. Toss in the fact that the new game has to land on new gen machines and the task become all the more difficult.
This is a situation RockSteady Games finds itself in ahead of the imminent release of Batman: Arkham Knight. The British developer has a lot of hype to live up to since Arkham Knight’s two predecessors are both critically acclaimed, mega-selling giants. Oh, and they’re also both viewed as two of the best games ever released on the last generation of consoles.
Admittedly one of the reasons Batman: Arkham Asylum was greeted with such plaudits was because the bar for it was so low. Up until RockSteady sent the Dark Knight deep into the bowels of Gotham’s home for the criminally insane, Batman games were, on the whole, not all that good. In fact, until many players got their hands on Batman: Arkham Asylum, the fact that critics were calling it the ‘best Batman game ever’ could’ve been read as them damning it with faint praise.
See also: PS4 vs Xbox One
Arkham Asylum was one of the best games of its year of release. Unlike developers in the past who simply used the Batman IP license to skin shallow beat-‘em-ups, RockSteady created a game that fed off every aspect of Bob Kane’s cowled crusader. The Dark Knight in Arkham Asylum was a hand-to-hand combat expert capable of taking down entire rooms filled with foes, but he was also a stealthy tactician; when faced with a room filled with gun-toting goons, he’d harass, terrify and torment his targets. Players also got to play with Batman’s selection of wonderful toys and engage in sections of detective work that actually required them to use their grey matter.
What really put Batman: Arkham Asylum in the land of the giants was the fact that its action moved seamlessly from brutal combat, to puzzle solving, to sections requiring a stealthy approach seamlessly. It was a stealth game for any player who’d never had the patience for true-blue entries in the genre and its commercial success had a profound effect on the way games of this type were developed afterwards – see: Splinter Cell: Conviction, Hitman: Absolution and last year’s reboot of the Thief franchise, which all mixed action set-pieces into their usual stealth cocktails.
See also: Best Games 2015
Arkham City took RockSteady’s ambitions widescreen. The studio built on the solid foundations laid out in Asylum while adding a deeper and more satisfying combat system, a raft of side missions that roped in some the Dark Knight’s best and most iconic villains and the ability to glide throughout the map, launching off rooftops and swinging around gargoyles that leered out over the snow-covered city Batman: Arkham City became one of the fastest selling games of the year of its release – selling more units in the first week of its release than Asylum had managed in its entire release up until that point.
All of this past success heaps a hell of a lot of pressure on Arkham Knight. One has to wonder where RockSteady’s third Arkham installment can go beyond being ‘bigger’ than its predecessors. It’ll look lovely – previews of it look gorgeous even if the framerate’s been a bit wonky. And we know that the addition of the Batmobile is going to give things a chaotic twist – since you’re able to plough through most obstacles in Gotham with it, and those that you can’t you can shoot with its tank setting. But Batman: Arkham Knight has already come in for stick from some quarters who are muttering that it can’t possibly live up to its own hype.
See also: Xbox One vs Xbox 360
The reason for this is two-fold. First off, there’s no guarantee that ‘bigger is better’ in this case. While Arkham City thrilled a lot of the faithful, there were quite a few fans who bemoaned RockSteady throwing out Asylum’s tighter structure in favour of an open-world set-up. It’s unlikely they’re going to be thrilled with the fact that Arkham Knight’s environment is going to be bigger than City’s – even if they get to tool around it in the Batmobile.
Then there’s the small matter of the Joker being dead. RockSteady’s game director Sefton Hill has said that the developer aren’t going to pull a fast one and that the clown prince of crime’s shock demise at the end of Arkham City is canon as far as their universe is concerned.
See also: PS4 vs PS3
This leaves two villains to carry the can in Arkham Knight – the antagonist who shares a name with the game and The Scarecrow, whose presence in this third entry was hinted at in a rather fun Easter Egg in Arkham City. The latter has never been what you’d call one of Batman’s top tier villains – although his boss battles in Arkham Asylum were two of the game’s highlights – and not really much is known about the former. Although it’s hinted at that he has a deeper connection with the Dark Knight than even Batman himself realizes.
We have high hopes for Batman: Arkham Knight and RockSteady’s track record gives us reasons to be optimistic – even if WB Montreal’s bug-ridden Batman Arkham Origins took a bit of the sheen off the franchise.
There’s a lot riding on RockSteady’s final installment in the Arkham series, so here’s hoping that in in packing new features, new characters and wrecking ball on four wheels into the biggest gaming environment they’ve created thus far, they haven’t lost sight of what enthralled players and critics in the first place.
Batman: Arkham Knight will be available on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on June 23, 2015.