The senior producer for Batman: Arkham Origins is firm in how he wants the upcoming game to come across: it's going to be a training course in how to properly become the Caped Crusader.
"We force you to learn the proper Dark Knight way to play," says Ben Mattes before a demo session at Warner Bros.' Montreal studio. "We want you to be a 'black belt' in being the Dark Knight."
In Origins, which is being released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U consoles on Oct. 25, players return to an earlier time in Batman's career, when he was first starting his war on Gotham City's criminals. But rather than just a same-old Bat prequel, that skills-building narrative tool also serves as the game's central conceit and challenge.
At the beginning of the story, Bruce Wayne isn't yet the fearsome Dark Knight. He's inexperienced and sometimes makes mistakes in the field – a slip-up here, a failed sneak there. The game represents his learning process where, along the way, he must figure out the proper ways of doing all the things that make Batman, well, Batman.
As is evident from the 20-minute playable demo shown to journalists, the player is intended to go through the same schooling. After wading through a group of henchmen aboard a cruise ship belonging to the Penguin (who is still a fledgling crime boss in this story) Batman encounters Deathstroke, one of a number of assassins sent to kill him by Black Mask, the game's primary villain. The two face off in an arena-type fight-to-the-finish while the Penguin looks on.
The fight is intense – and difficult. My first urge is to attack aggressively, but Deathstroke counters easily. He wears armour that is battered and weathered, a visual cue that indicates he's been at this for much longer than Batman. He deftly swats my attacks away with his quarterstaff and sword, then makes quick work of Batman with his counters. The failure screen comes up, Deathstroke mocks me and I'm back to trying the encounter again.
Mr. Mattes says the fight is a "final exam" in timing and patience, so I'll only learn to beat my opponent if I can master those two things. It's true – I have more luck as I sit back and wait, then counter his blows. It takes a few more failures to get the hang of it, but on my fifth try I finally vanquish the assassin.
"You come out of it as a better fighter," Mr. Mattes says, and I can't help but agree. Deathstroke hasn't just made Batman a better Batman, he's also made me a better Batman.
Mr. Mattes and his team have inherited either the most or least enviable job in games, depending on one's perspective. British developer Rocksteady set a very high bar in superhero action games with the previous two entries in this particular Batman franchise, Arkham Asylum (2009) and Arkham City (2011).
The third game was assigned to Warner's Montreal studio while the original developer went to work on another project. Rumours suggest it is another new Arkham game for the next-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4, to be released next year or even later, although no one at the company is saying anything on the matter.
The assignment meant a return to the drawing board of sorts. Mr. Mattes explains that his team didn't want to mess with the winning formula established by Rocksteady – that of an open-world game that pays solemn tribute to the Caped Crusader and his 70-plus-year history with faithful representations of characters as well as pulse-pounding action. The first two entries were, after all, among the highest-rated games ever on aggregation site Metacritic.
They decided not to re-invent the wheel and instead tweaked what came before. Origins features news bad guys, a few additional Bat-gadgets and some refinements to the combat and upgrade systems. The game-as-a-learning process, however, was where the studio could make its own stamp on the series, Mr. Mattes says.
One of the great things about the two previous entries is that players were able to adopt different approaches in their gameplay. Stealth-oriented players could sneak their way through many parts, while those who appreciated action more could dive in for all-out slugfests. Origins still allows for that choice as upgrade points can be spent on one particular style, but there are incentives for learning the "proper Dark Knight way," Mr. Mattes says.
Throughout encounters, players receive Dark Knight challenges – say, rescuing a hostage without being seen by the bad guys. Completing these tasks is the only way to unlock certain upgrades, including gadgets and special abilities.
The goal is nevertheless the same regardless of how the game is played. Players will hopefully feel a sense of accomplishment at the end, Mr. Mattes says, when the hero achieves his rightful status as scourge of the streets – when the very words "I'm Batman" strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
For Warner Bros. Montreal, the desired outcome is a game that stands shoulder to shoulder with its predecessors. Origins is the studio's first original big-budget console game, following its port last year of Arkham City for the Wii U.
The Montreal operation, founded in 2010, is now up to almost 400 employees, with a number of other projects in the works, including Lego Legends of Chima Online, also due for release this fall.
The pressure is on for both the studio and Origins to perform, given the recent spate of bad news that has hit the Canadian games industry in both Vancouver and Montreal. A number of studios have closed out west, while Montreal has also faced its share of pain. Both Electronic Arts and online game developer Funcom announced big layoffs earlier this year, which followed the forced closure of THQ's operation last year following the company's bankruptcy.
"It's almost like we lived for a while in a bubble and reality caught up to us," says Warner studio head Martin Carrier.
"Fortunately, we were able to get some really, really good people out of it," adds creative director Reid Schneider. "It worked out well for them and us."