In a lot of games, boss battles take place after the player has gained a new ability or received a new tool of some kind, and that kind of boss fight immediately tests how well the player can use that recently acquired ability or tool with a sequence that may be a significant departure from the typical combat in the rest of the game.
That's not what Warner Bros. Games Montreal is doing with Batman: Arkham Origins. Instead, the studio is designing the game's boss battles in a way that encourages players to become more competent combatants.
"Throughout the game, [players are] doing [free-flow combat], they're doing Predator [stealth combat], they're doing navigation. And we wanted to make sure that the bosses were testing that and not necessarily testing exotic skills, things that they would have to learn in the boss fight," said Michael McIntyre, gameplay director on Arkham Origins, during a recent demo of the open-world action title.
"If you don't test people, then they're never really required to go into that depth," McIntyre continued. "So we wanted to kind of require them to dig a little deeper into some of these systems." The developers hope that these boss fights will help players earn "black belts at being Batman," explained McIntyre.
Deathstroke interrupts Batman's interrogation of Penguin
We were able to try a hands-on demo of an early segment of Arkham Origins, a section that takes place about 90 minutes into the game and includes one of its first boss battles. The Penguin, a classic Batman villain, is an arms dealer who's locked in a turf war with the Falcone family. The Dark Knight drops in on him while he's beating and threatening Alberto Falcone. After making quick work of Penguin's thugs, Batman begins to interrogate Penguin as to the whereabouts of Black Mask — the primary antagonist of Arkham Origins — only to be interrupted by the assassin Deathstroke.
He and other assassins will play an "absolutely core" role in Arkham Origins, said senior producer Ben Mattes, and we saw that firsthand in the fight. As one of the game's early boss battles, the Deathstroke fight tests your fluency with a core combat mechanic: countering attacks, except in a one-on-one battle as opposed to a brawl with a group of enemies.
The duel proceeds in a few stages. We had to correctly time a long chain of counters in order to get the opportunity to whale on Deathstroke for a bit. It's tough to time some countering sequences because Batman fends off a few blows automatically — it's part of the animation in that Deathstroke attack — which can throw off your rhythm because you have to wait until a certain point before you press the counter button. We found the Batclaw to be the most successful tactic: You quickly fire it at Deathstroke to pull him toward you, à la the spear from Mortal Kombat's Scorpion, and then clothesline the assassin.
Deathstroke tests your countering skills
Further complicating matters is that once you break Deathstroke's bo and punch his mask off, he starts throwing in other attacks along with swings of his katana. One of the attacks sends an explosive barrel hurtling toward you, forcing you to quickly deflect it in his direction. As Batman, you don't have a lot of gadgets at your disposal, since it's early in the game (and WB Games Montreal is paring down the number of tools in Batman's utility belt, anyway). But defeating Deathstroke will give you the remote claw, which was the gadget he was using to fire those explosive barrels.
Although WB Games Montreal is telling an origin story — Arkham Origins takes place in year two of Batman's existence in the Arkham universe — the studio decided against making him a less-skilled fighter.
"The mistakes he makes are not in the core combat or in the core gameplay mechanics," said Mattes in an interview with Polygon. "There was honestly a very short-lived debate on the team of, 'Well, it's year two — he should mess up, he should trip, he should not have Batarangs, or he should throw his Batarangs and they should miss or, you know, whatever.' And for very obvious reasons, that idea couldn't survive. You can't subscribe to the fantasy of being the Batman and trip over your cape [in] your first fight and get stabbed in the leg by a pimp."
"You can't subscribe to the fantasy of being the Batman and trip over your cape"
Mattes and McIntyre explained that in their interpretation of Batman, he got to where he is by being a world-class hand-to-hand fighter. What he's learning over the course of Arkham Origins is the nuance of his role as the protector of Gotham City — he's becoming more intelligent and clever.
"He doesn't stand straight up and confident like he does in the previous Arkham games. He's fists-up and ready to go; he's a lot more aggressive," McIntyre told Polygon. "He crosses certain lines, and he's learning lessons as he goes along. [...] He doesn't realize that aggression doesn't necessarily solve all problems."