"Batman started life as a rhythm-action game"
7th May 2009 | 14:30
The latest issue of PSM3 goes on-sale today, and features an exclusive playtest of the first six hours of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Far from the typical disappointing superhero title, UK-based developer Rocksteady Studio's game verges on something truly exceptional; poised to sit among the higher echelons of PS3 games like BioShock, GTA IV and MGS IV. The magazine features an exclusive hands-on with the PS3-only 'Play as Joker' Challenge Rooms, plus a revealing chat with Director Sefton Hill. We had to cut a large chunk of our conversation from the mag, but it was too good not to share. Read on for an exclusive insight into one of 2009's biggest games...
Interview with Sefton Hill, Game Director, Rocksteady Studios.
So what are the main differences between playing as The Joker and Batman?
It's Joker's gadgets that really set him apart. For one, he has a gun. We wanted to give him something Batman would never use; something that was the antithesis of everything he stands for. During battle you can combo the gun into your moves. You get one shot per round, which adds to the strategy of when and how you should use it. And it's an instant kill, even going through multiple enemies if you line the shot up right. But that takes a lot of skill. This is especially useful during the Predator challenges where you have to take out a certain number of guards - you can set up traps to lure them into a group then take three or four out with one bullet. Another gadget he uses are explosive teeth that you can throw down and control remotely to blow up walls, take down guards or create a diversion.
In some ways playing the game's challenge rooms as Joker is harder, but in others it isn't because he has the gun and the remote control teeth are very dangerous. But you do only have one of each, so you have to decide carefully when to use them. Overall, Joker isn't quite as good at fighting as Batman. He's not as agile, and you will feel that when you play. Batman can use Detective Mode at any time to see through walls and track thugs, but Joker's equivalent - the x-ray specs - can only be used when he's standing still. He has his own limitations, but also unique strengths that Batman doesn't. He also has some moral boundaries that he doesn't mind traipsing over.
How did you go about recreating The Joker?
We used a combination of hand animation - because some of Batman and Joker's moves can't actually be performed by real people - and motion capture. And sometimes a mixture of the two. We'll take motion capture data and then push it beyond a human being's capabilities. You can see this in Joker's animations; some of his moves are incredibly nasty, like jumping on peoples' backs and smashing them over the head and kicking them in the nuts. It's a nice contrast to Batman that he's such a funny, charismatic character. You can't help but smile as he offs Arkham's guards.
Why can't we use The Joker in the game's single-player mode?
Our main goal when starting the project was to make a really authentic Batman game, so we did limit ourselves to focusing entirely on him. We also made some decisions from the start, like never having a level in which you drive the batmobile or having multiple playable characters. The Joker was added towards the end of the development cycle. It worked really well because we knew the game inside out and could build something that worked well and fitted in with the rest of the game. So he won't be playable in the story at all.
Why is The Joker exclusive to PS3?
Because we like you so much, of course. Well, not really. A lot of that's down to deals between the publishers and console manufacturers. Another reason was actually fitting the content onto the disc. It's easier for us to support extra content on Blu-ray because of the increased capacity. But mainly it was an exclusivity deal established between Sony and Eidos.
Did you think about making any of the game's other villains playable?
We decided that if we were going to make another character playable, we wanted to do it properly and not make it feel tacked-on. We didn't want it to feel like you might as well just be controlling Batman with a different skin. So we were keen to spend a bit of time making Joker feel right instead of just re-skinning a load of characters. We wanted to keep it limited so we could deliver a quality experience for players.
Eidos recently said that Batman: Arkham Asylum was "close to perfect". What kind of pressure does that put on you as a developer?
[laughs] Well, from our point of view we just wanted to make the kind of Batman game we've always wanted to play, rather than try to appeal to an imagined audience. We wanted to create something that we were really passionate about and could believe in. And that's my philosophy when creating games; we need to be passionate and make something we think is really enjoyable. And that's the best way you can get other people passionate about your project. All we've ever looked to do is create something totally authentic, and whether people like it or not... well, that's up to them. I like it and I'm really proud of the work the team have done on it. So we aren't really in control of what other people say about the game, and we don't really pay attention to it either. You can get obsessed by it and it can affect the project when you start wondering about what other people think or are expecting from you.
Eidos also told us that the PS3 version is better-looking than the Xbox version...
[laughs again] Well, there's a perception that Unreal Engine games tend to look better on Xbox 360, but we haven't really found that to be the case. You definitely have to work to the strengths of the two systems - for example I personally love the way PS3 renders and the richness of the colours. But there are things that the Xbox does better too. They both have their pros and cons. The game looks great on PS3 because of the rich colours and the way the PS3 renders objects but, to be honest, there isn't really a lot between them. We've put a lot of effort making it look great on both consoles.
What's it like developing a game for PS3?
It would be fair to say that PS3 is maybe a bit more idiosyncratic than Xbox 360. The disc space is obviously a big advantage - we struggled to fit Arkham Asylum onto a 360 DVD. We even struggled to fit our last game, Urban Chaos, onto a DVD. The main disadvantage however is that there are very specific things you have to do to get the best out of it, which can take a lot of time.
The combat and character movement feel incredibly smooth and polished - how have these changed since development started?
Moving Batman around is something that we've been tweaking for two years solid. We tested, tweaked and improved it again and again to get it perfect, because that's something vital to the game. If moving your character through the world doesn't feel right then the entire game will suffer. Similarly with the combat, which went through a few iterations. We started in one direction, didn't really like it and changed entirely. But from the start a clear goal was not to ape any other third-person action games. We deliberately didn't look at or try to mimic anything that had come before as we wanted it to feel totally unique.
We went off in some slightly crazy directions to begin with. In fact, one of the earliest versions was like a rhythm action game and saw you judging when to hit the 'notes' (i.e. punches), which was an interesting idea but never really worked. But, weirdly, the final game isn't actually that different from this. When you're fighting enemies there's a kind of rhythm to it. I'm a big kung-fu fan and when you watch the fights in those films there's a lovely natural rhythm to it. That's something we wanted you to feel when you were playing Batman; that you're in control at all times. We wanted it to look choreographed, but with you being directly responsible for every move and attack.
Tune back tomorrow for Part Two of our interview with Sefton Hill, including DLC plans and the origins of the license, plus - all being well - the latest PSM3 podcast.
Want to know more about Batman: Arkham Asylum? PSM3#114 is on-sale today from all good UK newsagents for £4.99, including a free dual-side PS3 DVD, a deeper look at Assassin's Creed 2's historical context (including the origins of the Mafia), plus '10 things we learnt at GDC... and what they mean for PS3', plus all the latest big game previews, news and reviews.
To subscribe to PSM3, claim your free gift and get the magazine before it hits the shops - not to mention save money off the RRP - click here.
Have a great evening,