Batman Arkham City Q&A by Rocksteady at BAFTA

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A with Rocksteady, the developers of Batman: Arkham Asylum, about the upcoming sequel Batman: Arkham City. For those of you who have been following the development of AC, a lot of this information will be old news, but I can assure you there are some big spoilers to come. I promise to hide the biggest spoiler of all at the bottom of the post under a read more section.

To introduce, Arkham City is an open world free roam game where the player controls Batman, and occasionally Catwoman, around a large area of Gotham City which has been walled off and left to the prisoners as a contained penal colony. Supervillains from across 70+ years of Batman’s rogues gallery have segregated Arkham City into districts ruled over by them, supported by their gangs. Well-known villains such as Joker and Two-Face as well as some lesser-known characters such as Hugo Strange feature as opponents for the player to conquer.

So the Q&A. Everyone attending is gathered in a little bar on the top floor of the BAFTA building. We all have free copies of Batman: Arkham City #1 comic handed to us at the reception desk. At around 8:50, we file into a very comfortable theatre. The Chair introduces the evening and asks that everyone who tweets uses the #ArkhamCity tag for some lovely viral advertising, but no photography. I comply.

We’re introduced to Marketing Game Manager Dax Ginn and Director Sefton Hill (I think, I’m not too good at remembering names). We are about to watch ~25 minutes of footage the world has yet to see and a very big controversial moment which I hope (as I’m sure Rocksteady do) will generate interest and increase anticipation to fever pitch. That comes later. The demo opens to a short comic explaining the story so far, intended to keep the player aware of what’s going on as they play. Starting to play, Batman is perched on a rail overlooking a grim-looking no-mans land in Arkham City. It looks very much like looking out on the island in Arkham Asylum. The art style is very much the same and it’s the same Batman. Batman jumps off the railing and starts to glide. Then he nose dives. After a short time, Batman pulls up, having gained the momentum from the dive to glide further and further away. I’m already impressed. It evoked feelings akin to Activision’s Spider-Man 2/3 game, where Spidey swings through the city and I could feel that movement. It’s a very similar feeling here. You can dive, pull up, use the grappler to pull yourself over to a building. It’s a fantastic idea and mastered well for the new open world environment. Batman flies up, glides around and takes down a thug from the air. Awesome.

We move into the Joker’s Funland and the city suddenly becomes adorned in fairground furniture. You know Joker owns the place. Each supervillain has their own domain made to suit their character. One thing I notice and someone brings up later on, there are no loading screens. The game runs smoothly throughout.

Batman enters Joker’s lair, a converted steelworks, through the chimney. Batman has two objectives, rescue a hostage and confront Joker. Without detailing a walkthrough, the demo showcases some new and updated abilities such as triple batarangs, quick explosive gel, double silent takedowns, feeze grenades and more. We see a new weapon, the Remote Electrical Charge. It’s basically a wireless taser, but has the added element of turning electric generators into electromagnets, something sued to great effect with a swinging crane hook. Each and every weapon or piece of equipment seems to be usable in combat.

The combat is an evolved version of Arkham Asylum. It’s still single button, but the number of animations have doubled, it flows well between moves and timing attacks with animations seems to pay off as much as I enjoyed them in the first game. Detective Mode, following its (possible) overuse by players in the first game where they would miss out on the beautiful environments, has been altered. It contrasts more highly and a lot of the navigation features from normal mode are removed. You turn it on, find what’s interactive or hunt your target, then turn it off and be Batman. As said, all the navigation elements such as the compass are only found in the normal mode. It’s great, because I’d hate to miss out on the world.

Dax and Sefton are joined by David Hego (Art Director) and Nick Arundel (Audio Director) and Ben Wyatt (Technical Director) on the stage. The core focus of the team was two build a game based on two ideas, telling an amazing Batman story, and focusing gameplay and what Batman would and wouldn’t do. Batman doesn’t kill, first and foremost, but he does knockout. Sneaking around, placing traps, utilising gadgets to distract, throwing smoke grenades to distract enemies are all methods in the player’s arsenal. Every tool Batman had by the end of Arkham Asylum is there, with some evolutions or new abilities.

The panel explains that they began with drawing out the overall story they wanted to tell, and then picking out the enemies from the Batman mythos to tell that story with. When asked if they had been tempted to create an original character, Sefton was clearly against the idea, describing it as “a kid going into a sweet shop and asking for the one sweet they don’t have.” It’s clear that they spent a lot of time deciding on villains and how to portray them to fit with the story, rather than picking personal favourites and patching a game around them. Each supervillain has their own agenda, and will cross others to achieve it. Hugo Strange knows Batman’s true identity, Joker is barely alive after the events of Arkham Asylum, Two-Face is new to the city and trying to gain power quickly enough to survive, Harley Quinn is desperate to save her lover. The developers are passionate about seeing the characters remain true to the mythology of Batman, whilst being distinctly Rocksteady’s interpretation and nobody else’s.

When asked about if they have addressed the weaknesses and criticisms of Arkham Asylum, the panel declare their focus is on celebrating and working on the strengths of the first game. They know AA wasn’t perfect, but ultimately they don’t want to risk losing the all-important feeling of playing as Batman.

The developers talked a lot about the differences between the island based AA, and the open world AC. In Asylum, it was always easy to keep the player involved with the story because they were always aware of where the player would go and progression was linear. An open world game throws that out of the window. Instead, the player can go wherever they want whenever they want and they have to keep the player aware at all times that the story is moving forward. To do this, Arkham City was designed to be alive. There aren’t large open areas with nothing in them, the city is busy and dirty, gang members are walking around talking about what is going on. To this end, Batman has surveillance gear which means the player can hear conversations enemies are having as Batman glides overhead. Arkham City was designed to be “as busy as possible”.