Just as we know our heroes will come back to life in the comics, or that of course they’ll pay the big star to play his superhero role a couple of more times, we knew after the amazing success of Batman: Arkham City that there would be another game in the now acclaimed franchise.
What no one could have guessed, however, is that it would be done by a studio other than the originators of the series, Rocksteady. Nevertheless, Batman: Arkham Origins is hitting consoles and PC this October 25, and it’s being done by a new team, and done well – it earned Best Comic Book Related Game of E3 from us at Newsarama.
At E3 2013, we talked with Warner Games Montreal creative director Eric Holmes about the challenges of taking over something so beloved, what excites him most about the game, and why the characters this younger Batman will take on will surprise you.
Newsarama: Eric, it’s a daunting task taking over the Arkham games from Rocksteady…
Eric Holmes: It absolutely is!
Nrama: So, what was it like for you when Warner Interactive first came to you and offered this game and franchise to you and WB Montreal?
Holmes: Well, I was actually hired on for that role. So I guess kind of simple, the first thing was “Would you like to make a Batman game?” and my answer was “F*$& Yes!” It’s Batman! I’m never going to turn that down.
Then the opportunity to work with their mature systems, the Unreal Engine which I was familiar with because I was working at Epic. To work with the guys I had worked with when I was doing the Incredible Hulk games over at Radical. It was a lot of people I knew, and I trusted, and they trusted me, so it seemed like a kind of “planets aligning” situation, where I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t take the chance. I was super excited to take it.
Nrama: You guys had a pretty firm platform to start with, getting the assets and the combat engine and everything Rocksteady had built, right?
Holmes: Exactly. We’re working in a modified Unreal Engine 3. We got everything that Rocksteady had done to ship Arkham City. That whole engine, the environment, the enemies, that AI, the sound library, all that stuff is where we started from.
Nrama: What do you think is enduring about the idea of taking Batman back to the start of his career? Obviously we’ve seen it with Batman Year One, Batman Begins, this summer DC Comics is doing it again with Batman Zero Year, and here we have Arkham Origins. What do you feel is the appeal to that?
Holmes: Well, these characters are our modern mythology. They’ve been around for so long. The defining reinvention for me is Year One, as I think it probably is for many of your readers. Because they’re around for so long, there’s always an opportunity to take a look at them again and say something new with it, bring a fresh perspective to it. I think there’s something enormously powerful about taking Batman away from that position where he’s 100% complete.
We refer internally to the Arkham City Batman as “Issue 500 Batman.” He knows exactly what he is, he’s met all the characters in his world, they know each other inside and out to the point there’s almost a shorthand. They don’t even name each other, there’s not a lot of surprises in that world. There’s other stories you can tell, but it’s hard to shake things up.
By going back to the prequel space, we felt we could tell a very important story for Batman. Also taking him away from that “complete” position, where he knows exactly what he is, where all the characters know him inside and out, where he’s fully equipped, we could tell something very important for him, and show him transforming into that character. It’s those revelatory moments where he figures out who he is or why he does what he does, or what these people mean to him.
Nrama: You guys are also going a bit outside-the-box of your standard Bat-villains here. The first two assassins we saw, Deathstroke and Deadshot, aren’t traditionally Batman villains persay – what was the thought process behind going that route and opening up the DC world a little?
Holmes: We have a mix of familiar faces and fresh blood. It’s to be expected that we’d bring new characters to the game because we want it to feel fresh. But we also want it to feel like it’s part of Batman’s pocket of the DC Universe.
We scoured the whole DCU for a cast of characters that would bring unique challenges to Batman – that would bring something different to him, and would tie in well to the Arkham mechanics.
If we had eight snipers, it would be a bit repetitive and dull. If we had eight giants, the combat would be quite similar. The core reasons were A) to tell a great story, but also B) to have great showdowns with these fantastic characters. One thing we fell in love with in Arkham City was the boss fight with Mr. Freeze. As game developers that’s a Holy Grail right there. I rate sometimes how into a game I’m in at a moment by how sweaty my palms get, and my palms were super sweaty in the Mr. Freeze boss fight. Batman is so feature rich when he’s taking down foes in this gameplay, you can get by using just a couple of the techniques, but when you get to Mr. Freeze, you think you’re in control. You think you’re pretty skilled, but it’s the exam you’re not expecting. We loved that it tied to the core mechanics of the game.
So when we were looking at which bosses to bring into the game, we wanted each of these bosses to test a facet of the Batman’s core mechanics: counters, stealth, I’m trying to think of what I can say without giving too much away…
Nrama: Well since you opened it up, fans are guessing all over the DCU for the eight assassins. We know we have Deathstroke, Deadshot, and Bane, revealed here – Merlyn is a popular guess, especially with his increased profile on Arrow…
Holmes: (laughs) Is he? That’s interesting! I really can’t give more away here. We’ve dumped a whole lot here. We’re giving the showcase to South Gotham, the whole new island we’ve added to the game.
We’ll be revealing more of the assassins – probably not all of them before the launch – but we’ll be revealing more of them before launch date. Personally, I think, once we close that question it becomes less interesting, and it’s fun to see what people want.
Nrama: Right. And are there some that – again, without really giving anything away – are there some that are kind of out of left field, that you’re especially excited for players to run into for the first time?
Holmes: I’m excited about the whole cast there. I really can’t give anything else away though.
Nrama: Well, tell us something you’ve shown at E3 that you’re really excited for fans to get a hold of.
Holmes: Sure! Probably the thing I’m most excited about at E3 is the new casefile [advanced detective] system we’ve introduced to the game. That’s something you’ll see a number of times in the game, both in the core story and in the side stuff they can choose to go into.
Batman uses the sensors in the cowl and the supercomputing power of the BatComputer to visualize and synthesize what took place at the point of evidence that he finds.
The thing I really dig about that, it’s very similar to the energy that I got at the start of Arkham City to when you first suit up as Batman, and you’re looking at the courthouse. All the trailers and characters you know are in the game, and you have this sense of “who is next” of “who is out there and where are they?” By going into the prequel setting, we have a bunch of characters who are returning to the game, and a bunch that are new to the Arkham-verse. So when you’re playing these crime scenes and you don’t know who is behind it, you get that same surge of excitement. You’re thinking “Oh, it could be this guy, he works – or maybe he doesn’t do that here!” I think there are a few of them that will surprise you.
Nrama: Now that you’re here and you’ve revealed gameplay, and gotten positive feedback, is that a load off your shoulders, or do you still feel like you have to push really hard?
Holmes: We’re going to keep pushing all the way, anyway. We want this game to be everything it can be. The thing I really liked about coming here to play, we have people that are obviously very attached to Kevin [Conroy] and Mark [Hamill] as voice actors, and we respect the hell out of those guys, but this was the first opportunity for players to come and hear Roger Craig Smith as Batman and hear how close he is to Kevin, that he sounds like a young Kevin Conroy in that role.
And the same goes for Troy Baker [as Joker]; this is a franchise, so we want people to feel like these are connected to the characters in those games. These guys have really reached in, taken on those roles, and realized younger versions of what those characters are, something that feels authentic to the Arkham-verse. I have had so many people come up and tell me they were skeptical and now they love it.
Nrama: Troy is such a pro.
Holmes: Both of those guys are amazing. You look at their IMDB listings, they’re everywhere. It’s hard to spot them in different roles, because they’re both vocal chameleons. But they’ve both blossomed really spectacularly in our game. They really delivered.