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NYCC '11: Batman: Arkham City

arkham_city_090411.jpg

Dead center of the DC Comics booth at New York Comic Con 2011 was a giant banner advertising the upcoming Batman: Arkham City with three demo stations beneath where long lines of eager fans waited their turn to try their hand at the sequel. I was lucky enough to get my own personal chance to taste the deliciousness as well as conduct a few interviews. After the jump, my initial impressions of Arkham City as well as an interview with Game Director Sefton Hill!

The demo actually starts out with you playing Catwoman, taking out a handful of Two-Face's thugs to get what's in a safe. I'm sure she has her own combat moves, but I only ever saw on-screen prompts for basic melee attacks and counters. I would bet money there's a button for the whip, but not knowing which one that might be, I stuck with what I knew. After this brief, but satisfying, fight scene, things go decidedly pear-shaped and you switch control of Batman to come to the rescue. There's a weird tracking gadget I actually had a little trouble figuring out, but soon found the location where Catwoman was being held. Traversing the rooftops of Gotham was a breeze, and I loved gliding from building to building.

Some more fighting gets you inside where Catwoman is being held, where you perform a little bit of quick stealth before launching an all-out assault on Two-Face's henchmen. Combat is just as satisfying as it was in the original Arkham Asylum, especially the little cinematics when you defeat the final enemy. Bone-crunching fun! Then there was a rather long story sequence that I won't spoil for you obviously, which led to a little bit of detective work. It's been a while since I'd played Arkham Asylum, so I had a little trouble remembering how to do certain things. But it comes back to you quickly. I then navigated the rooftops again to reach my next location, at which point I felt like I'd been monopolizing the demo station for far too long, and I wanted to give other people a try. I'd had enough of a taste to realize that Arkham City was going to be just as amazing as the first game. The graphics are spectacular, the voice work was really solid, and the gameplay was just right. I'm more than impressed, and can't wait to get my hands on a copy when it comes out on Tuesday, October 18.

As I mentioned, a preview launch event was held for the game at the Toys'R'Us in Times Square, NYC, and I was able to sit down with some other journalists for a roundtable interview with Rocksteady game producer Sefton Hill, who produced both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

Q: What were the differences between producing the first game and the sequel?

A: I think probably one of the big differences was the expectation on us. It was kind of weird because we could have played it safe, and done a game with the same sort of ideas and scope. But we really felt like what was successful was the fact that we tried to be ambitious in the first one. Because we wanted to do something that we really felt was worthy of Batman. So we kind of had to catch ourselves and just make sure that we were still as aggressive. We still wanted to take the chances. You know? If we made mistakes, we made mistakes. We just want to be the best possible Batman game we can be. So when we were building the size of the city, we weren't even sure it could be done, to be honest. We weren't sure that it would work, we just felt like this is the game we want to make. This is the thing that's exciting us. We wanted to still keep ourselves excited because that's the way we believe in making games. If we're excited and inspired, then the people who play it will feel excited and inspired. And if we try to do something kind of by the numbers and keeping the same scope and ideas from the first one, it's not going to have the same sort of energy. It needs to feel like that and the team needs to feel inspired by it. So it was just making sure we had that same unknown developer hunger. You know, like people don't really know who Rocksteady are. And we knew that wasn't the case for this one, but we wanted to still feel like that. I know it sounds weird, but I still look at us as a really new studio. We want to keep that passion there.

Q: Did you build the characters around the story or the story around the characters?

A: We started with kind of the main arc of the story, where we wanted it to go, and... I don't want to ruin it, but we knew where we wanted the main story to go. And then the great thing about Batman is that there's so many great super-villains, we sort of used the super-villains that best challenge Batman in each aspect of that story. So we could take particular super-villains who were very physical, or... take Mr. Freeze, for example. Because he's a character who's quite sympathetic. We don't really ever see Mr. Freeze as a bad guy, and we felt that was a really interesting thing to have in Arkham City is someone who actually fundamentally isn't a bad guy, but whose path crosses with Batman's and they both want different things at different times. So that's the great thing about the Batman universe. Everything isn't so black and white. You have all these different villains and they all have their own motivations and inspirations. So when we're choosing the super-villains we want to use, we're just thinking of who challenges Batman in interesting ways and what would be really interesting to go up against as a player. So the story and the villains and the gameplay all come up at the same time and we do it incrementally and make sure that not one of those things is trumping any of the other two parts.

Q: Asylum is primarily a solo game, but in City, you can play as other characters. What kind of mindset was that for the Rocksteady team?

A: We wanted to introduce playable Catwoman because we felt she was someone who allowed you to play that other... You know, Batman being so morally strong and direct, and Catwoman being sometimes bad, sometimes good, ambiguous, and then, too, also having this interesting relationship. We thought that was something that was really fun to play off of. Batman's not got really any friends inside Arkham City. The closest thing he's got to a friend is Catwoman, and obviously they have this flirtatious relationship. We felt that was a really interesting angle. I think it was actually more work than we thought it would be to put Catwoman in. We didn't want to just put somebody in who was effectively Batman in a Catwoman skin. We wanted it to feel like Catwoman. So we spent a lot of time on the way she kind of moves around the city. And that took actually quite a while to get something that felt right. To have this kind of intimate relationship with the city the way she kind of slinks and claws around it. As opposed to Batman, who's much more dramatic the way he swoops around the city.

Q: Arkham Asylum was more self-contained, this is sort of an open-world city, but still self-contained. Did you want to do Gotham proper and then realize it was too much and had to scale back? Or are you saving that for the next step in the trilogy?

A: Ah, I see where you're going with that. [laughs] No, actually that wasn't ever really our goal. We wanted to make a game that felt the right size for Batman. If you're on one side of the map and you have to go to the other side, it's not like, "Aw, I don't want to go over there, it's so far, it'll take me so long..." So the size, we spent a hell of a lot of time on just to get this feeling of it's exactly the right size. It's big enough that it has all of this detail and life in it. And every square foot of it can be worthwhile. Because you know, you play a lot of open-world games, and there's not gameplay everywhere. There's a lot of empty areas. And we wanted every square foot to justify its existence. If it's there, it should be there for a reason. So the size of the game is pretty much identical to what we started with. We sort of did start to go smaller and then went a bit bigger again just to get it that right feel of making sure that every square meter in the game was worthwhile. And we certainly don't hold anything back. Part of our philosophy is we're trying to make the best game we possibly can make. So we put every idea we possibly could into this game. And the idea is that tomorrow's game, that's tomorrow's problem. We don't hold anything back for future games. That's not our philosophy. We wanted this to be the best possible Batman game we could possibly make. We didn't hold anything back.

Q: What do you take away from events like this where you see the fans and meet them?

A: It's incredible when you see that passion that people have for the game. For the last year and nine months, we were working really long hours, nights, weekends... and when you go on the message boards and hear directly from the fans, it really inspires you. When you're working those long hours, that's something that really helps to motivate you, that what you're doing is really worthwhile. We're putting in little secrets and twists in, which hardly anyone will find, but these are the guys who will find it. And if 1% of people find it, that's still a lot of people. And when you see how much it means to the fans, that's why it's worth doing that stuff.

Q: Why Tim Drake Robin instead of Damian Wayne or another?

A: The "Who Is Robin?" question went around quite a lot, actually. And it was discussed a hell of a lot, which version of Robin. And we just felt that Tim Drake fit best into what we were doing. Obviously we have Nightwing in there as well, so it felt right to have Tim Drake. That felt like the right balance of where we are in our timeline.

Q: As director, what was your biggest challenge in creating Arkham City?

A: It was definitely creating the city. We said at the start we want to take Batman into Gotham. Because that's what's exciting. And then we were like, "How the hell are we gonna do that?" It's quite a big technical challenge. And one of the things we said was that we want to keep that same fidelity and attention to detail as the first game. So that was definitely the biggest technical challenge. The biggest design challenge was to make it feel populated like a real living, breathing place. And we took quite a different philosophy from other open-world games in that everything in the game is hand-crafted and hand-scripted. We don't have any such thing as generic population. So it's quite a different approach than where you have generic people wandering around and not doing anything. We wanted this feel of this is a real kind of place.

Q: Most super hero games aren't exactly good. Arkham Asylum was probably the best super hero game I've ever played, and I expect Arkham City to be the same. Do you guys only like Batman, or is there any chance you might pick another super hero and make an awesome game about them?

A: I mean, we obviously love Batman. There's no lock-in for us to just make Batman games forever. I think the key thing for us as a studio is just what inspires us, what excites us. And working with Warner, that's what they say to us as well. Do what excites you and inspires you if that's going to make the best game. So it's not a fait accompli that it's Batman. It will be the next thing that excites us. We like the comic book universe because it's such a rich universe to pull from. And as a developer, it's really fun to throw yourself into that universe. So I definitely wouldn't rule out working on other comic book games.

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