Prequels are inherently problematic. While exploring the backstory of familiar characters and beloved universes certainly has its appeal, it creates issues with gameplay continuity. While the story, understandably, winds back the clock, the gameplay is expected to advance. The original Batman: Arkham Origins was not without faults -- most evident in the repetitive Titan boss encounters -- but Arkham City improved on what went before and escalated in ways that made it one of the best (if not the best) game of 2011. Fast-forward two years and three-year-old developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal has been given the none-too-small task of rising from the shadow of the previous Arkham games and forging a prequel that continues the beloved trend of awesomeness.
AusGamers recently had the opportunity to visit Warner Montréal and go toe-to-toe with one of eight assassins in Arkham Origins as a Batman who’s only two years into his night job and whose current status is closer to vigilante than Dark Knight. The Gotham City Police Department see him in the same vein as the thugs he hunts, there is no bromance between Commissioner Jim Gordon and Batman, and the pre-Dark Knight is sharpening his wrist blades on the faces of comparatively small-time crime families. He’s yet to meet his first supervillain, but all of that is about to change over the course of a single night that’s sure to go down as Bruce’s worst Christmas Eve of all time.
But how did such a fresh studio get its hands on one of the most revered series of this gaming generation? Reid Schneider, vice president of development and executive producer of Warner Bros. Games Montréal, reflected on the humble beginnings. “It’s been quite a ride,” said Schneider. “Martin Carrier and I founded this [studio] on June 1st, 2010, so it was just the two of us and an HR person. We didn’t even have an IT room.” Warner Montréal proved it could work in the Arkhamverse with the Wii U ‘Armoured Edition’ adaptation of Arkham City, which led to the coveted gig of working on Arkham Origins.
“We had a little work to do to get Arkham,” laughed Schneider. “They [Warner Bros.] liked what we were doing, they liked the culture we’d built up here and how everything was going, so one thing led to another then, before we knew it, we were asked, ‘Hey, do you guys want to do some work in the Arkham space?’ And we were like, ‘Yes, we want to do some work in the Arkham space!’ That’s not something you turn down.”
Even before the game has been released, Warner Montréal has already copped some flak for Arkham Origins. Most recently, after the revelation of a newly designed female Copperhead (Copperhead is a dude in the comics), the feedback was disappointment about the apparent use of key-frame animation over the more common zeitgeist of motion-capture performances. As it turns out, these criticisms were simply untrue.
Before taking us to the Warner Montréal offices, our journo contingent was ferried to Game On, a local motion-capture studio, to put a stop to the key-frame detractors. Over the course of the next two hours, we were shown a deconstruction of the same criticised Copperhead cinematic that was acted out in front of us by a trio of performers: two for Copperhead (a professional circus aerialist, and an expert fighter) and a Batman mo-cap performer who’s built like a brick shithouse and more than capable of holding his own against the WWE-type fighting moves of the expert Copperhead fighter. After the skilfully choreographed sequences had been performed time and time again, cinematics animation director Lloyd Colaco stepped into the performance space with a virtual camera -- the same technology used by James Cameron to shoot Avatar -- and walked us through the process of how he has 360-degree control over any type of shot he wants for the cinematics.
When it was time to visit the dev studio, it was clear no-one was taking the responsibility of working in the Arkhamverse lightly. When asked whether they expected to top Arkham City, all responses were humble from interviewees who are grateful to be working in such a beloved space, but fiercely aware of the burden of expectation. As part of the assets received from Arkham Asylum/City developer Rocksteady Studios, Warner Montréal also scored production schedules and milestone documents that inspired the team to create a playable version of Arkham Origins, months before release; just as Rocksteady had done.
An iterative approach was the name of the game, as senior producer Ben Mattes gave us a rare insight into a part of the game that didn’t make the cut. While Arkham Origins certainly includes some new enemy types to mix things up, one foe that didn’t make the cut is Predator drones: that is to say, drones used in Arkham’s stealthy Predator maps. In a large room on board Penguin’s international gun-running ship the Final Offer, we were shown an early version of the game that included drones that hovered above the heads of guards, scanning for Bat-like insurgents.
The drones could be dispatched in a variety of ways, but one of the more interesting ways was to drop to the floor, swipe a guard’s key card and watch as the drones turned against them. For more aggressive predators, Batman could glide to the drones and hurl them at unsuspecting guards below. This louder approach may be one of the many reasons why the drones didn’t make the final cut, but Mattes assured us that what was learnt from the exclusion of the proposed new enemy type was used to shape a tighter Predator experience.
Gameplay director Mike McIntyre expanded on the exclusion of the drones. “It did add some cool things,” said McIntyre. “It wouldn’t have made it as far as it did if it was a complete wash, but it was one of those things where there’s a recipe to what Rocksteady has already created for Arkham. They’ve fine-tuned it very nicely, and we had to figure that out, and it takes time to understand that. There are things that are so different or can be designed in such a way that, sure, they are cool. You think about them in isolation and, yes, that’s cool, and maybe it even creates cool moments but, surprisingly, it begins to detract from what’s already good. And that’s what we had. We were essentially making some different, not an addition that made Predator better. If there was some way for us to take the coolest pieces and put it on something, I think we would have done that. But we realised to get excellence you do need to throw away sometimes good things so you can keep great things.”
During my hands-on time with the game, I got to play through a later version of the same room -- sans drones -- and the improvements were evident. More than just the absence of a new enemy type, the tighter design improved the flow and speed at which enemies could be dispatched. Playing through the room multiple times, it was fantastic to experiment with the different options for dispatching guards -- sometimes unsuspecting, other times fully aware of my presence.
The latter play style is a cause for concern in Origins, though, as it influences your overall potential for greater XP income. Both combat scenarios and Predator rooms are graded from passable ‘D’ to superfluous ‘S’, resulting in an XP bonus that enables proficient players to unlock abilities at a faster rate. The Freeflow 2.0 combat system remains largely unchanged, save for the aforementioned new enemy types -- including a bastardly tough Penguin Enforcer -- and more aggressive fighting stances for a younger Batman who’s cocky in how he wants to take the fight to his enemies.
Mastering combat is still a balance between front-foot smack-downs and back-foot counters, with the defensive being a crucial component of the demo section I played through. Warner Montréal’s intention is for each of the eight assassins to offer a master class in a particular gameplay feature. In our demo, master-melee assassin Deathstroke was poised to school us on the intricacies of countering. Judging by the soundtrack of mashed buttons and screams of frustration from fellow journos in the demo room, you’ll need to have a hang of countering if you stand a chance of besting Deathstroke. As it stands, getting past him also means that if you sucked at countering before the boss encounter, you’ll be much, much better at it afterwards.
Those well versed in Arkham combat, though, may not find Deathstroke particularly challenging on normal difficulty (the only difficulty on offer on the day), but the boss encounter does provide a satisfying and well-structured encounter. The idea of providing constant updates on performance via the XP grading system and the final-exam approach of boss fights for specific gameplay features are all intended to culminate in a synergy between player and Batman that makes both deserving of the Dark Knight mantra by the time the credits roll. From what I played, Arkham Origins is in a great position to achieve this end.
As with any well-constructed game, my time with Arkham Origins left me wanting a whole lot more. Warner Bros. Games Montréal may be a relatively unknown name in the lead-up to Batman: Arkham Origins, but the reverence with which they’re handling the next iteration of the Arkham series goes a long way to showing that it really gets the Arkhamverse and is poised to make a name for itself with one hell of a Batman game.