Few fictional villains are able to terrify through downright madness as well as the Joker, the iconic nemesis of DC Comics' Batman. In Rocksteady's Arkham series, the villain took his torment of Bruce Wayne from the confines of Arkham Asylum to a city-sized prison that threatened to terrorize the citizens of Gotham City. But in Batman: Arkham Knight, things have changed.
Surprisingly, the city has actually managed to rebuild itself one year after the events of Arkham City, recovering under the watchful gaze of its winged protector. The story concocted for the franchise's finale promised to ruin that recovery, but it still requires the developers create a game world far more complicated than those which preceded it. Now, the developers have explained what fans can hope for, and why their version of Gotham City is only possible on next-gen systems.
The breathtaking announcement trailer gave a quick description of Arkham Knight's basic premise: the various villains and gangs of Gotham join forces to bring down the Bat in their own unique ways, possibly led by the mysterious Arkham Knight - the brand new villain after whom Rocksteady has named the game. Little is known about the new enemy, but Arkham's first foray into next-gen will apparently be its last, so we're betting we'll know more soon.
Among the returning villains is Dr. Jonathan Crane (known as 'The Scarecrow'), who threatens to blanket Gotham City in his signature fear toxin, leading to a city-wide evacuation. While that presents an effective reason for the game's environment to feel devoid of citizens (one of the series' few criticisms), it doesn't change the fact: the developers have needed to craft a larger, and more technically demanding environment than ever before.
The development team has explained to Game Informer just how much of an increase in size and detail fans can expect, and why it was never possible to even consider bringing the game to previous-gen consoles. Director Sefton Hill claims that next-gen development may be an intimidating thing for some studios and designers, but the team not only knew they were up to the task, they were begging for the chance to go to next-gen:
"I think for us the main thing was, 'Please let us make this game. It's not going to be quick, and it's going to be quite hard, and it's probably going to be quite expensive."
"It's not a challenge to move to next-gen. The real challenge is making sure you're getting the best out of the machines. It's easy to get the game running, but it's about, 'What can we do that really pushes those machines?' Obviously, you see a lot of games that are cross-gen, and they feel a bit reined in because of that. Because we were able to make that decision quite early, we were able to be more ambitious with the design and make a real, genuine next-gen game."
Fans have long hoped to one day gain access to the entirety of Gotham City, and Arkham Knight will do just that, whether players choose to traverse it gliding over rooftops or barreling down the streets in the brand new Batmobile. But Hill is quick to remind players that in open-world game design, size isn't everything:
"As we've said before with Arkham City, it's not about the scale as much as the detail. We want to make sure the world is rich and full of interesting things to do. We're not trying to create the biggest open-world game ever. We are trying to create a really rich, vibrant, dense open world.
"Arkham City was quite claustrophobic. Here we have a lot more negative space between the buildings so it's much easier and more enjoyable to glide around."
That negative space will be put to good use as well, filled with the same mix of thugs, hired guns and small-time hoods as the previous Arkham games. The goons may not offer players the same kind of challenge as the game's roster of villains, but there will certainly be more of them. Lead AI programmer Tim Hanagan puts the number of active thugs around "three and four times" the amount seen in Arkham City, meaning even if Gotham has been evacuated, it'll be far from empty.
But it isn't just overall numbers of NPCs that can populate a game space that shows how next-gen hardware has changed the formula. Lead Character Artist Albert Feliu echoes Hill's claim that the leap to next-gen isn't about the overall scope, but the incredibly high level of detail:
"At the beginning, we started making characters that were about three to four times the polygon count and texture sizes of Arkham City. As we kept going with every character we just pushed it more. It's the kind of thing that sounds insane. Like, one character is as big as the polygon count of Arkham Asylum - the whole environment."
Comments like that set the standards for next-gen fairly high, but whether the finished product's improvements are all immediately noticeable or not, owners of the PS4 and Xbox One have another truly next-gen game to look forward to.
Where does Arkham Knight rank on your list of anticipated next-gen games? Will you need to see a bit more to be assured the issues of the previous games have been addressed, or is Arkham an empty well after three entries in the series? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Batman: Arkham Knight will be released in 2014 for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
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Source: Game Informer