Before devoting itself to the development of video games about Batman, the British studio Rocksteady Studios managed to release only the shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response. However, after the resounding success of the first title in the Batman: Arkham series, Warner Bros. wanted to buy a studio, highly appreciating its potential.
For the past four years, the team has not appeared on the radar of the gaming industry, but at the recent DC FanDome unexpectedly announced their next project — Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. Although the upcoming title, scheduled for 2022, puts an end to the relationship between Rocksteady and Batman, the developers promise to continue some of the Batman: Arkham storylines in it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Interestingly, Rocksteady was not the first studio to work on Arkham Asylum. Initially, the project was supposed to be just an addition to the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight, and was developed by the Australian team Pandemic Studios. In an attempt to make «the first Batman game in the open world,» Pandemic pushed back the release date several times and eventually lost the project, causing huge losses to publishers.
Around the same time, Rocksteady was experimenting with the Unreal Engine 3. Publisher Eidos Interactive was so impressed with the result that they offered to develop a AAA title in the DC Universe for her, despite the fact that at that time the studio staff numbered no more than forty people.
By that time, at least two dozen Batman games had been released, not counting crossovers, but none of them left a noticeable mark on the industry. To remedy the situation, Rocksteady decided to focus Arkham Asylum’s gameplay on Batman’s three strengths: hand-to-hand combat, stealth, and crime investigation. Arkham Asylum was chosen as the setting, in which all the crazy criminals of Gotham were taken, among whom, of course, there were many enemies of Batman.
Rhythm games such as Guitar Hero served as the basis for the combat of the title. The developers noted that since Batman, as planned, can easily cope with ordinary bandits, then the player should easily carry out spectacular combat combinations.
The highlight of stealth was Batman’s ability to quickly move around locations not only on the ground, but also under the ceiling. Feeling the presence of a superhero, the enemies begin to behave differently, experiencing fear and panic.
The hospital is built on the principle of metroidvania, when a player can get to certain places on the map only after obtaining a certain weapon or gadget. In addition, various secrets of the Riddler are scattered throughout the levels, which Batman uses his trademark «Detective Vision» to find.
Visually, despite the dark tone of the Gotham universe, Rocksteady refused to use taupe tones to create realism. Instead, they tried to make the game look like a comic book.
One of the main gifts for all fans of the DC superhero was, of course, the return of actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who voiced Batman and the Joker, respectively. This decision was made, among other things, thanks to Paul Dini, the game’s lead writer, who previously worked with Conroy and Hamill on the animated series Batman: The Animated Series.
Dini himself was glad to return to a familiar universe with a willingness to create something fresh in it, because most video games were plotted, as a rule, tied to specific films and cartoons.
The game begins with Batman escorting the already captured Joker to the hospital, suspecting that the villain surrendered without any problems for a reason. Soon it will turn out that his intuition did not deceive him, and the hero will find himself locked on an island with a bunch of criminals, each of whom wants to tear his head off.
For Arkham Asylum, Dini wrote an entirely new storyline, borrowing from different scenes and characters from the universe’s comics. The main source of inspiration was the 1989 graphic novel Batman. Arkham Asylum. A House of Sorrow in a Sorrowful Land by Grant Morrison.
Many of the characters were given their own designs, but some were inspired by other comics. For example, the developers borrowed the appearance of the Joker from the novel Batman: The Killing Joke.
The atmosphere and storytelling method of the title was shaped by BioShock. As in Irrational Games, players get to know the backgrounds of various villains by reading doctors’ notes and listening to audio recordings of their conversations with doctors. As the game progresses, Batman’s appearance changes — the suit wears out, and stubble appears on the superhero’s face.
Released in August 2009, Arkham Asylum garnered rave reviews from the public and sold two million copies in a month, thereby justifying the hopes of publishers. The game even got into the Guinness Book of Records as the «Most Successful Superhero Game».
Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Work on the concept of Arkham City began even before the release of Arkham Asylum, and the events of the title are developing a year and a half after the debut part. Part of Gotham has become Arkham City, a prison city filled exclusively with criminals. Batman can move between his districts without any downloads, despite the fact that Arkham City is five times the size of the hospital. At first, the developers wanted to aim at the whole of Gotham, but they got their bearings in time, assessing the possible amount of work.
The developers had a hard time coming up with a classic Batman story, given that this time they were dealing with an open world. They painted in detail the background and history of each character met by Batman on the territory of the city. Rocksteady not only brought back some of the Arkham Asylum villains, but also introduced a dozen new ones into the plot, including Penguin, Hugo Strange, Two-Face and others. However, the player will also meet Batman’s accomplices, such as Robin and Catwoman. For the latter, you will even have to go through several scenes using her signature whip and claws.
In May 2012, the DLC Harley Quinn’s Revenge was released, which slightly continues the main campaign of the game, in which you can play not only as Batman, but also as his assistant Robin.
Rocksteady hoped to build on the success of the debut, but it turned out even better. Arkham City not only sold faster, but also broke the record of its predecessor, also appearing in the Guinness Book of Records. Critics praised almost every element of the game, noting separately the improved combat system, which was replenished with new tricks, because now Batman could use all his inventory in battle.
Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)
Arkham Origins was a prequel to the entire series, and was developed by WB Games Montreal while Rocksteady prepared for the release of Arkham Knight. The game uses mechanics already familiar to players and even introduces a couple of new ones, such as using the Controlled Claw and quickly moving between areas of Gotham using the Batwing. Various side missions have also appeared to help the city’s police and capture the wanted criminals of Gotham.
The development of the title this time took place without the participation of Paul Dini, as WB Games decided to no longer seek help from freelance writers, but to manage on their own. Conroy and Hamill also did not return to voice their characters. Instead, Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker played Batman and Joker, respectively.
According to the plot, which tells about the events that took place five years before Arkham Asylum, another famous opponent of Batman, Black Mask, has announced a reward on the head of a superhero. Eight of the most dangerous criminals responded to this proposal, including Deadshot, Destroke, Croc, Bane and others.
Although the game did not receive the same warm reception as the Rocksteady titles, Arkham Origins still garnered strong reviews and posted strong sales, not letting the franchise fade away.
Batman: Arkham Knight (2015)
By the time Arkham Knight was released, Rocksteady had been working on the series for about eight years and knew it was time to end the Batman story, but it had to be done with brilliance. Rocksteady decided to shock players with an unprecedented level of graphics, where the number of polygons of one character can exceed the level of detail of the entire setting of Arkham Asylum.
This time, Batman’s main opponent is the Scarecrow, who, with the help of the mysterious Arkham Knight, threatens all the inhabitants of Gotham. In addition, after the events of Arkham City, Batman continues to be pursued in his own way by the Joker, remaining the true antagonist of the series.
Perhaps the main innovation of the series was the Batmobile, the creation of which the developers approached with such attention and trepidation, as if they were going to introduce a new protagonist of the universe. The Batmobile allowed its owner to quickly move between areas of the city, destroying everything in its path.
Arkham Knight was the first game in the line to be rated «M» (for adults) and not «T» (for teens), which came as a surprise to the developers themselves, because they avoided bloody scenes and expletives. However, the ESRB felt that the ability to attack unarmed characters and the torture scenes on the operating table deserved just such a rating.
In June 2015, the game was released on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows. If the versions for the first two platforms received the applause already familiar to Rocksteady, then the release on the PC was accompanied by a bunch of technical problems. Even the owners of modern video cards often observed a serious drop in fps and game crashes. The developers at first hoped to solve the problem quickly, but it all ended up that the next day after the release, the title was simply withdrawn from sale and returned only four months later. Unfortunately, even after that, players often complained about the poor optimization of the game.
Apart from the above issues, otherwise critics continued to praise Rocksteady’s approach to the development of the line, and the title itself was called an approximate conclusion to the AAA series. Arkham Knight broke The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s fastest-selling record, and by October 2015 had sold five million copies.
Batman: Arkham VR (2016)
The first and currently the last experiment of the series in virtual reality. Arkham VR allows the player to be Batman while investigating the murder of one of his friends. The game itself takes a couple of hours and consists of several scenes without any combat. In each of them, you need to find evidence using an arsenal of available gadgets, solving simple puzzles.
Rocksteady impressed critics here too, calling Arkham VR one of the best titles on PSVR, praising the talented direction and innovative gameplay.
By the way, at the same time as Suicide Squad, Gotham Knights was announced, which will not be related to Batman: Arkham in any way, but will become a kind of restart of the series, which will be developed by WB Games Montreal.
Rumors about the development of Suicide Squad have been around since 2010. At different times, they were either confirmed or refuted, but talk about a potential title did not subside. However, according to creative director of the studio Sefton Hill, Rocksteady had no idea what to do after Batman. Shortly before the release of Arkham Knight in 2016, he was asked if the studio would take it up again under license in an already created universe:
“Batman is an amazing and rich universe, and we have always considered it a huge blessing to be able to work on it. If we decided to repeat this experience, we would need an equally interesting and detailed world with rich lore. It is unlikely that we will be able to find something like that, ”Hill replied.