In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Sam celebrates the crunchy counterattacking of the Batman Arkham games.
Arkham Asylum was, miraculously, the second game that Rocksteady had ever created. It was the first game in over ten years that let you be Batman without the drawback of being otherwise quite shit. Yet it was developed with the confidence of a much larger and much more experienced team, a complete package of stealth, exploration and melee combat that borrowed from a number of sources but had an original angle in the way each was presented. Better still, the logic of each dovetailed perfectly with Batman’s fictional crimefighting methods: sneaking about, cool gadgets, gliding and beating on criminals to the extent that they’ll definitely never be able to walk again.
And yet at the time, I remember playing Asylum and wondering why there was just one button to attack—why wasn’t there a kick command, or something? One button combat seemed like it would get kind of old, and I feared it having the original Assassin’s Creed’s utter dearth of long-term fighting progression. But then Arkham wasn’t trying to be Devil May Cry—this fighting system was almost entirely original, based more on counterattacking, timing and strategic crowd control rather than thumb-blistering button combos.
A flash appears above a goon’s head when he’s about to hit Batman in any mano-a-mano encounter. Hitting the counter button in time will have the Dark Knight stop the guy in his tracks, give him a Bat-slap then push him back as the fight continues. I think it’s the centrepiece of the Arkham combat system, making defence part of the player’s arsenal and changing the pace of melee encounters so it’s more engaging than button mashing.
It’s no surprise a load of third-person action adventure games from Sleeping Dogs to the recent Shadow of Mordor blatantly copied it—you might as well take from the best. In each case, they replicate the counterattacking from Arkham with a varying degree of success, and I think it’s fair to say Mordor has got it better than anyone (maybe sharing a publisher in Warner helped there). But Rocksteady’s still the best at melee combat by far for my tastes. That’s because it was tailor made to capture the Caped Crusader's methods. They crafted a system that was designed specifically for that character, one that’s worthy of Batman as an enduring pop culture icon as well as providing an essential sense of empowerment for the player.
Counterattacking is the best part of that, for me, because it magnifies a few of the different ways that Rocksteady understands what’s cool about being Batman. Batman can confidently stride into a room, be ambushed by a team of goons and immediately fly across the room, with a swoosh of the cape animation, to elbow a guy in the face while disarming him. It’s uncannily close to the Dark Knight’s modus operandi, and this form of countering just happens to be a brilliant idea in game design terms, too. What a double win to pull off in your second ever game as a studio.
And of course, Arkham City built upon that, allowing for triple counters with each successive button press that result in absurdly satisfying animations where Bats will kick two dudes in the face while punching another at the same time. Rocksteady’s animators were crucial in bringing that system to life, in the variety and quantity of contextual moves that keep that combo meter flowing.
I have a theory that the basis of Arkham’s combat and stealth systems stems entirely from this one scene in Batman Begins—the first where the character appears in-costume. Within that, you can see Batman stalking the higher levels of some shipping containers, very much like the predator sections from the games, then dropping down into a crowd of goons where he’s fighting in the open. In those moments, you can see where Arkham’s combat system might’ve come from—Batman is within a circle of enemies, beating the shit out of them in a 360 degree radius. That’s what Rocksteady recreated in Arkham Asylum. Just as the filmmakers behind Batman Begins successfully captured the essence of the Dark Knight on-screen on their own terms, so too did this London-based team in a videogame.