E3 2014 has come and gone, and after making a big splash in Sony’s press conference Monday night, Rocksteady’s conclusion to the Batman “Arkham’ series, Batman: Arkham Knight, has been wowing everyone who has managed to get their hands on it. Countless previews have been written by various publications that have escalated the hype and anticipation for the current generation console release to levels greater than ever before. This is no surprise really, given Rocksteady’s work with the Batman franchise in the past, but can you believe there was a time when an “Arkham” game flew under my radar?
In late 2008 I read my first ever preview for Batman: Arkham Asylum in what was then to be considered one of the last issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, or EGM for short. It seemed to be saying a lot of the correct things about the then new game, especially the information regarding the inclusion of Paul Dini from Batman: The Animated Series as writer, as well as having Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin returning as Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn respectively from that show as well.
This would not be the first time that the trio would lend their talents to a video game though, that would be 2001’s Batman: Vengeance, set in the universe of the Batman Animated Series. Though neither Hamill nor Sorkin would return for that games sequel, Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, Conroy did return to voice Batman. Neither games were terrible by any means, yet they didn’t particularly stand out nor sell in any large numbers, even with the inclusion of the actors and the creation of brand new villain in the case of Rise of Sin Tzu, created by writer/artist Jim Lee. Though not backed up with any facts and purely going on anecdotal evidence, Rise of Sin Tzu launched in October in 2003 and I was able to secure a copy as a gift for Christmas that year at a cost of $29.99 CAD and the collectors edition, complete with action figure, after the holidays at the same price.
So as both Batman: Vengeance and Rise of Sin Tzu proved, what’s the good of having excellent voice actors and writing staff if the game portion is lacking? Development duties on Batman Arkham Asylum were listed as being handled by Rockstady Games, who are held in high regard now of course, but back then not many people may not have even knew who they were. They had one game to their credit that was released back in 2006: Urban Chaos: Riot Response, a SWAT themed first-person shooter for the PS2 and Xbox original. How exactly would a studio whose only finished game was a first-person action shooter, handle a character who’s morally opposed to the use of firearms?
The millennium had not been overly kind to the Batman franchise in the video game world: Batman: Vengeance and the Rise of Sin Tzu from Ubisoft were admirably efforts but not critical or commercial success and the less said about Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker the better. EA would publish game based on 2005’s reboot of the Batman film franchise, Batman Begins, that featured the talent from the film as well as intelligent use of the films footage. It stood as a respectable representation of the Dark Knight in how stealth and fear were primarily used over fisticuffs and the Batmobile sections are probably the best use of that vehicle in a game to date, yet it stood more as a decent clone of Ubisoft’s “Splinter Cell” series than a Batman game.
What a lot of the Batman games released past the new millennium, and even before then, had in common were that they were not only based on the Batman character, but a specific version of the Batman character. Only a hand full of titles solely took inspiration from the comics interpretation: Batman and Batman: The Caped Crusader for early PC’s, Batman Return of the Joker (NES and Game Boy,) Batman: Revenge of the Joker (Sega Genesis,) and finally Batman: Dark Tomorrow. The last game being so atrocious that if you should happen to play it, you’d be left to wonder even today if an excellent Batman game was nothing more than wishful thinking. In retrospect you can think that compared to Batman: Dark Tomorrow, Rocksteady had no where left to go but up in their comic based Batman game, but it also stood as an example of how bad things could really go.
2008 was a huge year for Batman in the mass media. That year saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight, which not only generated huge box office receipts, but also critical acclaim and an Oscar for best supporting actor for the late Heath Ledger. As they did with Batman Beings, EA was set to release an open world Batman game inspired by the film of the same name from developer Pandemic studios. The story goes however, that initially Pandemic’s game was not going to be a Dark Knight game, but simply an open world Batman game. About six months into pre-production, EA dictated that their game had to be Dark Knight based, and it also had to be in stores before the end of December 2008 or else. As history has shown, neither Pandemic nor EA made that deadline.
Luckily much like this year, Lego Batman was there to be pick up the slack, but it still stood as a disappointment for those craving a mature take on the Batman license. It also added further fuel to the fire that bringing Batman to consoles was not a task that was easily completed. If EA and all their millions of dollars and employees couldn’t produce the Batman experience players deserved, what hope did an upstart outfit like Rocksteady games have?
Upon getting my hands on Batman: Arkham Asylum, it was a dream come true and personally a very bright light after a fairly dark year, as it marked the first time after a rather long period of unemployment that I had money to spend on something like a video game. Had you told me in late 2008 that not a year later, not only would Arkham Asylum, the Batman game from the cop shooter people, be good but my favorite game I played that year, I may have called you a liar. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be proven wrong.