If there’s anywhere that the old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies, it’s the Batman Arkham video game franchise. It’s a truism the developers at Warner Bros. Montreal, who have inherited the series from UK-based Rocksteady Studios, are all too aware of.
“There is a ton of pressure. Arkham City is one of the top-rated games of all time so there’s going to be a lot of eyes on our project,” says Ben Mattes, senior producer on the upcoming follow-up, Batman: Arkham Origins.
But hold on a second – if it’s so important not to mess up a good thing, why is Warner Montreal working on the game in the first place? Rocksteady’s series, starting with Arkham Asylum in 2009 and continuing with Arkham City in 2011, has been a critical success and sold a ton of copies. Why take the chance with a new studio?
Warner Bros. won’t confirm it, but the smart money is that Rocksteady is working on a brand new Batman property for the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 next-generation consoles. Warner’s Montreal studio, meanwhile, got the call to design a new game for current consoles, including the Wii U, with a release date of Oct. 25. The British outfit’s next game isn’t likely to arrive until next year at the earliest.
Mattes showed off a demo of Arkham Origins at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, and there appears to be no fixing of things that aren’t broken – it’s looking like more of the same action fans enjoyed in the first two games.
The new developers are tweaking the formula, though. Origins features the same free-flowing combat system, but the difficulty level is being ramped up with two new types of henchman: heavily armoured lieutenants and martial artists. Both are considerably tougher than the goons Batman typically encounters throughout Gotham, meaning players will have to think of new strategies when approaching fights.
Batman will also have at least one new gadget in his arsenal – the remote claw. It’s similar to the grappling hook he uses to climb buildings, but it’s got two claws so one end can be fired at, say, a barrel, and then another at a bad guy, who then gets pulled into said barrel. Or, Batman can fire both ends at two thugs and then yank them into each other, thereby stunning both. It’s a nifty toy designed to make his stealth sequences – which developers call “Predator arenas” – a touch more interesting.
Warner Montreal is also trying to add to the detective side of the character with a deeper crime-scene investigation feature. Batman will now be able to examine clues to figure out how certain events happened, with events playing out in reverse slow motion when he makes correct guesses.
“It’s more than just following the bread crumbs. It makes people feel smart, like they’re solving the crime, but in a fast, accessible way,” Mattes says.
The story itself focuses on Batman’s conflict with Black Mask, a lesser known villain from the comic books. But, as in previous games, much of the caped crusader’s established rogues’ gallery will be playing integral roles, including Bane and the Joker. As the title implies, the game goes back to Batman’s early days and focuses on the beginnings of his relationships with many key characters, including first encounters with a number of villains and other supporting characters, such as police captain Jim Gordon, who isn’t yet commissioner.
Developers were particularly inspired by The Legends of the Dark Knight comic book series, which in the 1990s reimagined much of Batman’s early days.
“At their core, they’re very powerful stories and there’s room to re-interpret them and put our own spin on them and in some cases, completely change them,” Mattes says.
One difference players may – or may not – notice is that the long-time voices of both Batman and the Joker, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill respectively, have been replaced. In their places are Roger Craig Smith – who voiced Ezio Auditore in several Assassin’s Creed games – and Troy Baker, who most recently performed the role of Joel in The Last of Us.
Hamill in 2011 said Arkham City would be his last performance as the Joker, while Conroy recently said on Twitter that he was going to be part of the next Arkham game. He quickly deleted that tweet, adding fuel to the speculation that Rocksteady is indeed working on another Batman game.
Regardless, Smith and Baker sound very much like their predecessors, which is something the developers were insistent on.
“We needed people who were passionate for those characters, who really loved the franchise, but who very much understood and wanted to play the younger version of those characters,” Mattes says.
Voices and new features aside, there is one other big difference in Arkham Origins – Batman has several days of facial hair growth.
“He’s young, he’s having a rough night,” Mattes says apologetically. “He doesn’t have time for a Bat-Shave.”