Modern pop culture can be a fickle beast; chewing up and spitting out fads and trends at dizzying speeds. Modern culture’s infatuation with superheroes has often been called a fad, something that will fade away, a bubble to burst. After multiple billion dollar box offices from Marvel released this calendar year, I think it’s safe to say that the capes and masks are going to be sticking around for quite a while. Marvel has undoubtedly been the king of the box office with a string of blockbusters that seemingly appeals to everyone, while DC/Warner Brothers has struggled to replicate the success despite its own slate of well known franchises.
The one area of media that DC has had blockbusters is in video games, the Arkham series set in the Batman universe was lauded not just as a great game for a comic book game but a great game on its own merits. With E3 2018 just around the corner we want to look into our crystal ball and try and make a case that the best rehabilitation that DC can do for its cornerstone franchise is another dive into Gotham City in video game form.
Batman: Year One
Batman has always been the crossover star of the DC Comics properties. The Batman television series was a campy take on the character, introducing itself to a generation of kids with goofy sound effects and more scenery chewing that Killer Croc could handle. Batman again bubbled to pop culture relevance in the early 90s thanks to a new dark gothic-esque set of movies from Tim Burton and one of the greatest animated series ever produced in Batman: The Animated Series. During this time Batman first got exposure in the gaming world. A slew of games that ranged from innovative, yet limited to just plain bad were made.
The difficulties of translating a comic character to the gaming realm were apparent in these early games. Gaming as a superhero should be the embodiment of the character that can do amazing things. Unfortunately for the majority of developers who managed to license characters, the result would either be a slapped together, poorly constructed movie/tv tie-in or fall into the side scrolling beat-em-up formula as a way of translating the character. Batman was one of the few properties that, while not ideal, could still do a very standard beat-em-up style game without feeling too out of character. The older Batman games had varying degrees of success with the translation as it always felt a bit shallow for a character so complex; but in comparison to other comic properties it perhaps came out the best.
The Killing Joke
Batman was a property that no one in the gaming world had managed to really explore but all of that changed when Rocksteady Studios entered the picture with Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009. The game was a blockbuster that made everyone think, how the hell did it take this long for someone just make a Batman game where you felt like Batman. The game introduced a new combat system that felt robust and weighty, each punch and counter-attack felt real, there was a rhythm to the game that was unlike anything else released at the time. The setting of the game, the aforementioned Arkham Asylum, was the perfect self contained backdrop for the game, creating set pieces with the famous rogues gallery that Batman is known for. Rocksteady doubled down on the formula for the 2011 sequel Batman: Arkham City, adding more of everything that made the first game such a standout. At this point the franchise was riding high in the gaming world and gamers could not get enough of the Dark Knight.
Under the Red Hood
The demand for more Batman games along the lines of the Arkham series led to the prequel Batman: Arkham Origins, which was not developed by WB Games Montreal, not Rocksteady. While the game was an admirable attempt to replicate the success, including adding a multiplayer feature, the game just didn’t connect the same way that the Rocksteady games did. Gamers wanted more from the Arkham series, but to not abandon the creative vision of Rocksteady. In 2015 Rocksteady released the conclusion of their Arkham trilogy with Batman: Arkham Knight. The game had the familiar feel of the earlier Arkham games, but a clunky addition of the Batmobile and a somewhat telegraphed plot point hurt the game’s legacy. Additionally a very public blunder with the quality of the PC port that was so bad it was pulled from retailers with refunds being offered, put a cloud over the game. Since that time there has been a Telltale Batman game which scratched the itch for the character but wasn’t exactly the action oriented game that people had become to expect from Batman games.
The Dark Knight Rises
With Rocksteady more than likely working on another DC property, Superman, where does the Batman franchise go? The Batman universe is ripe for further exploration, Gotham city is home to some of the most iconic villains and supporting heroes across all of comics. With so many characters available, it seems only fitting that a developer takes up the mantle from Rocksteady, and does a game that focuses on that rich cast of characters. The Batman character has been explored almost perfectly with the Arkham trilogy, and perhaps there does need to be a break from him.
Another game featuring the Dark Knight at this point would risk burning out the character. Alternatively, focusing on the rest of the characters would be a fantastic way to keep the franchise in the limelight while avoiding any recycled plot points and character beats from the Arkham games. One of the common complaints from the Rocksteady games was the fact you rarely got to play extended time with any of your team-up characters. You would get maybe a DLC or a mission, but never fully able to free roam with a side character and feel the character in the context of Gotham without the familiar Dark Knight gadgets and tropes to rely on.
A new Batman game is a very real possibility during this years E3 but given the high bar set by Rocksteady, shifting focus away from Batman might be the best move. Avoiding comparison could offer the game a chance to stand on its own while stepping out of the shadow of the Arkham series. Batman has hundreds upon hundreds of storylines published over the years and he will return to the gaming realm when the time is right.
Offering up a look into the world of Batman could sate fans while not overexposing the character which may be the perfect mix for success. While a new game may not be imminent this year, I would expect an announcement or tease to show up somewhere during this E3 on where this franchise goes next in the gaming world. Stay tuned to our E3 2018 coverage to get all the latest details, same bat-time, same bat-channel!