All Your History: Batman Part 4 – Knight’s End
In the early 2000s, Warner Brothers—the media powerhouse that owned DC Comics—took its first real steps into the video game world. Previously the company had simply licensed its properties out to other developers and publishers, and Batman’s spotty video game track record up to this point had proved that the strategy delivered mixed results at best. In an effort to exert greater control over the final product, Warner Brothers Interactive stopped merely licensing and took an active role in the games that featured the parent company’s characters. To that end, Electronic Arts and Warner Brothers Interactive co-published Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a tie-in game for the movie of the same name. No one could have guessed that a game featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck would help pave the way for not only the best Batman game yet, but one of the most popular game franchises of this generation…
Though Looney Tunes: Back in Action earned mixed reviews, it proved enough of a success for Warner Brothers Interactive to continue its foray into the video game industry. In 2004, it acquired The Matrix Online’s developer Monolith Productions, and partnered with Sega to co-publish the game in 2005. That same year, they teamed up with EA once again to co-publish Batman Begins, a Eurocom-developed adaptation of Christopher Nolan’s film franchise reboot.
The movie, starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine, was everything that Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t. Nolan’s Gotham City was grounded in a recognizable world and offered one of the most realistic depictions of the Caped Crusader that had ever been committed to film—well, as realistic as you can make a guy who dresses like Dracula and punches people in the head. The movie broke the box office records set by franchise leader Batman Forever, taking home $72.9 million in its first five days. Not only that, but Batman Begins was embraced by fans of the character whose hopes had been dashed in 1997 by Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher’s cinematic travesty.
Though Begins was a hit in theaters, the video game adaptation released for Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s GameCube, and Microsoft’s Xbox only earned average reviews. Players could sneak through levels inspired by the film, utilize Batman’s extensive list of combat moves, and use gadgets and darkness itself to inspire fear in criminals. But while many of the ideas should’ve made for a solid Batman experience, critics knocked it for a lack of cohesion. Some reviews merely saw the game as a patchwork experience, with elements cobbled together from other more polished titles. Even with impressive visuals and the movie’s cast reprising their roles as voice actors for the game, Batman Begins failed to make much of an impact, and would be the first and only console adaptation based on Nolan’s franchise.
In 2006, Warner Brothers Interactive continued its pursuit of video game success, purchasing a 10.3 percent stake in SCi Entertainment, the parent company of Eidos Interactive. Over the next few years, the relationship between WB Interactive and Eidos grew stronger. Eventually, Warner acquired a 35 percent stake in Eidos, and Eidos got the license to produce games based on Batman. But before that deal could come to fruition, the Dark Knight’s reputation needed to be built back up—brick by brick.
In 2007, WB Interactive acquired TT Games, the parent company of LEGO video game maker Traveler’s Tales. Up to that point, the studio had created titles based on LEGO versions of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In 2008, Warner published LEGO Batman: The Videogame, which, despite its LEGO trappings, offered players plenty of authentic Batman goodness, like Batman and Robin teaming up to fight crime, a massive cast of supporting characters and villains from the comics, and scads of special costumes and gadgets to aid in the Dynamic Duo’s quest against evil. As one of the most well-received titles starring Batman in many years, it was tough to find a game more loyal to the character’s franchise. As it turned out, LEGO Batman was merely a sign of things to come.
During Warner Brothers Interactive’s expansion, British developer Rocksteady Studios—which was founded in 2004—was hard at work on a new prototype utilizing the Unreal Engine 3. The studio had only one game to its name—a little-known first-person-shooter called Urban Chaos: Riot Response that was released in 2006. But this new prototype was generating interest. Rocksteady co-founder Sefton Hill explained in a 2009 interview that Eidos took notice of their work and proposed that they use it to make a new Batman game. Rocksteady agreed, worked up a proposal, and a deal was struck, simple as that. The studio worked on the game for the next two and a half years.
Little did anyone know that the final product would become a mega-hit.
In 2009, Warner Brothers Interactive and Eidos co-published Batman: Arkham Asylum for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC to rave reviews and fantastic sales. The game dropped players in the middle of Gotham City’s legendary home for the criminally insane, which had been overrun with armies of violent thugs and many classic villains from Batman’s rogues gallery. Better yet, the game played like a dream, emphasizing the way Batman thrives in darkness, but is vulnerable in the light. Using an ever-expanding cache of bat-gadgets, Batman hid in the shadows and preyed on criminals one-by-one. At other times, he searched the asylum’s grounds for clues, tracking down suspects and making daring rescues.
And when the fists started to fly, Arkham Asylum boasted a unique, “free-flow” combat system. Based more on rhythm and timing than complex combos, the game’s combat allowed Batman to dispatch legions of foes nearly effortlessly, making players truly feel like the character in ways they’d never before experienced. The game’s original story was written by Paul Dini—a writer/producer from the renowned Animated Series from the 1990s. Batman and the Joker were also portrayed by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, veterans from the show’s voice cast whose performances fans considered to be without peer.
Arkham Asylum was almost universally praised as the greatest Batman game ever made. It also earned several Game of the Year awards throughout the industry, and even managed to secure a Guinness World Record, unseating Marvel vs. Capcom 2 for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever.”
Not bad for Rocksteady’s second project.
Arkham Asylum’s success was the best sign yet that Warner Brothers Interactive was a legitimate player in the game publishing world, and made Rocksteady Studios an overnight sensation. In 2010, Warner purchased a majority stake in Rocksteady, which was already hard at work a sequel.
At this point, any damage suffered by the Batman brand in the years before had essentially vanished. Christopher Nolan’s film franchise was setting box office records and reestablished Batman and the Joker as pop culture icons, while yet another animated series—Batman: The Brave and the Bold—was winning critical acclaim and earning Emmy nominations. A game based on the show, developed by WayForward Technologies, was published by Warner in 2010. Exclusive to the Wii and Nintendo DS, it earned above-average reviews, and provided platforming action with a fan-approved presentation that mimicked the style of the TV series.
And the Bat-train kept on rolling. Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham City in 2011 for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Everything that had made Arkham Asylum great was improved upon for the sequel. Batman fought more classic villains, could take down several more thugs at once, and stuffed his utility belt full of even more gadgets. And instead of confining Batman to the small island setting of the first game, Arkham City plunked him down into a large swath of Gotham City itself that had been turned into a massive urban prison. Players finally had another chance to explore Batman’s hometown in an open-world setting since 1998’s forgettable Batman & Robin for the PS1.
Once again, Rocksteady earned near-universal accolades for their game, with review scores surpassing that of the first, and selling two million copies in its first week of release—nearly half of its predecessor’s total sales. It also earned a slew of awards—including Game of the Year from The Official PlayStation Magazine—and according to review score aggregator Metacritic, it tied for highest-rated game of 2011 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
In 2012, Traveler’s Tales took a page out of Rocksteady’s book and released LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, which upped the ante in just about every way. In addition to offering players the chance to control Batman and Robin, the duo’s super-heroic allies like Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman were also available for the war on crime. Not only that, the game also featured an open-world Gotham City made entirely LEGO bricks.
Without a doubt, Batman has proven to be one of the most versatile video game characters of all time, having starred in titles that soared to the greatest heights of triumph and some that sank to the deepest depths of mediocrity. With that kind of resume, it’s only a matter of time before the Dark Knight returns one way or another—you’d have to be some kind of joker to think otherwise…