Batman: Arkham Knight is, in the word of producer Dax Ginn, a “smorgasbord” of video game entertainments, laid across a Gothic canvas of violence and heat.
Combat, exploration, puzzles, driving, shooting: all have been stretched across an enormous Batman tale, like pizza dough over a model city. The potential for confusion is something developer Rocksteady has sought to mitigate with multiple tutorial ramps, but still, this is not a game where a new player can drop in and just feel their way into the controls.
"The reality of the third installment of a trilogy is that you're building on pre-existing systems and pre-existing narrative," explains Ginn, speaking to Polygon at a recent preview event in Santa Monica. "We combat that by tutorial-ing everything so that if you've never played an Arkham game before, you've got everything you need to learn how to succeed in combat, how to drive the Batmobile, how to grapple and glide, how to get on with the various gadgets that Batman has.
"We understand and we acknowledge that we are in a complex, sophisticated place, but we have systems in the game to counteract that."
During a short demo session, lasting less than an hour the game served up these activities...
- Driving the Batmobile around the streets of Gotham
- Puzzling through a warehouse maze of levers and elevators
- Exploring part of the city on Batman's wings
- Tooling around with Batman's grapple-hook
- Effecting a firefight between the Batmobile and tower defenses
- Dropping in on a gang of goons for a fight
- Interacting with environmental stuff to aid in that fight
- Dual playing with Robin, switching between the two characters
- Entering a driving-maze designed by the Riddler.
Even for experienced Arkham players, the offering is daunting. This was just a small slice of the game, and each activity demanded its own controls and skills. Batman's array of gadgets only adds to the kaleidoscope. It's clear that Batman: Arkham Knight is really a compendium box of game genres branded with the DC Comics license.
"Our objective all along has been to send players on this journey of empowerment," says Ginn. "In the early days of Arkham Asylum, Batman's abilities were fairly limited. We added in the grapple-and-glide capabilities of Arkham City. Now we've added the Batmobile in Arkham Knight. You felt powerful at every step along the way, but now you are getting more powerful as the threat to Gotham increases."
Pick and Mix
This multi-layered activity strategy is based on giving as many people as possible the Batman game they want to play. "It's impossible for us to know in advance what every one of the millions of players who'll play the game wants to play," says Ginn. "Our attitude is, let's offer them a smorgasbord, and they can pick and choose what components of that they particularly find appealing.
"For completionists who want to see and experience absolutely everything in the game, they will really need to master every aspect of Batman's capabilities across the spectrum. But there are also gamers who just want to focus on combat. They won't have to experience everything the game has to offer, right across the board."
The Arkham Knight is a character loyal to the Scarecrow, who has managed to unite Gotham's super-villains in a vendetta against the hero and his allies. Batman: Arkham Knight tells the M-rated tale across an area five times larger than the previous game, with streets and buildings created individually.
Between Arkham City and Arkham Knight, the development team grew from around 100 people to 170 people.
"Our games have always felt very hand-crafted," says Ginn. "We didn't want to create a game that was procedurally built, where every street is identical and every building is the same. We wanted every street to feel unique, every building to feel different. That means you need a big 3D art team that can hand-craft all that stuff. They are creating textures, geometry and architecture from scratch."
Narratively, this game spreads itself wide, with appearances from many favorite characters, as well as the Arkham Knight, created by Rocksteady.
But the experience on offer is to be the Batman, a moody, no-nonsense power-fantasy upon whom players want to project themselves. "Kevin Conroy has a lot of credit to take," says Ginn. "His performance toes the line between self-awareness and being very brutal and businesslike. We write for Kevin, but then when he performs it, it gets 500 percent better through his performance."
Rocksteady's Batman trilogy, stretching back to 2009's Arkham Asylum, has been an undoubted triumph for the company and for its parent, Warner Bros, both in critical and commercial terms. For many people, the Arkham games are a core experience of the character and his world.
Ginn described the responsibility as "terrifying," but adds that the developer has grown into its role as confidence has grown. "Early on it was about showing [DC Comics] that we're not here to break or to ruin Batman. As the years have gone by, we're more excited to show them the stories that we want to tell and the gameplay experience we want to offer.
"We want to see if they are as interested as we are in our ideas. The conversation is a lot of us coming to the table with gameplay ideas, and our colleagues at DC Comics really focusing on character and character design. We have a lovely creative relationship, where we're very open, very honest. The objective is the same: to create an authentic and genuine sensation of being the Batman. That's always been the plan."
Batman: Arkham Knight will be released June 23 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.