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14 Features

LIKE: The streets of Arkham City

By Tamoor Hussain on Thursday 7th Nov 2013 at 12:43 PM UTC

Welcome to LIKE, our semi-regular series where we praise the wonderful oddities, small miracles and flashes of genius that, in their own specific ways, have enriched video game history.

This series is not intended as an exploration into grand or pioneering games, but instead a focus on one specific thing that the whole medium wouldn't be quite the same without.

We have intentionally called this series LIKE because, if you happen to love the thing we are praising, you can press the LIKE Facebook button as a way of democratically supporting its inclusion in the series. We hope you enjoy!

Our full LIKE archive: Metroid Prime's visors | The Strider from Half-Life | The PlayStation Adverts | Ganon | The Art of Yoji Shinkawa | The music of Rare's David Wise


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The blueprints for Arkham City were hidden too well in the Asylum

Alongside the army of thugs and the cabal of supervillains, the walls of Arkham Asylum (2009) contained a secret so well hidden that Rocksteady had to reveal its existence.

Behind a nondescript wall absent from all maps and invisible even to the Dark Knight's all-seeing detective vision was the secret office of warden Quincy Sharp. The room, accessible only by toppling the wall with multiple applications of explosive gel, contained a glimpse into the future. An idea. An ambition. A blueprint.

"The room obviously ties into Arkham City, but to be fair, we hid it pretty well," explained lead narrative designer Paul Crocker. "After following forum posts for six months or so, [we] decided to announce it."

"While building Batman: Arkham Asylum, we placed a number of 'hooks' into the game that tie into the 'Arkham-Verse. From the beginning we knew that Quincy was a bad guy, and planned what his next move would be."

But whether Rocksteady would get to execute these plans wasn't as assured as Crocker's statements suggest.

Today, the thought of not having a sequel to Arkham Asylum seems mad enough to get a person committed, but at the time Rocksteady's title followed a long line of questionable Batman games, so measured expectations were only fair.

"Maybe six to eight months before the end of Arkham Asylum, we started to think about what comes next," said Sefton Hill, game director on the Arkham series.

"We didn't know that anything was going to come next, but we hoped we'd be lucky enough to make another one."

By its own admission, the studio wasn't capable of juggling two projects at the same time. In the final stretch, it reinforced its efforts on Arkham Asylum instead of siphoning off developers to work on a secondary project.

But the idea had clearly taken root, and been given enough consideration to warrant including it in Asylum, albeit behind a layer of concrete. That idea was to take Batman out of the madhouse and unleash him upon Gotham.

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Arkham City is a nightmarish walled off area of Gotham where criminals are given the freedom to roam the streets and do as they please, provided they never try to breach the wall.

Although it's an open-world in the traditional sense, in comparison to the likes of Los Santos, Steelport or Empire City, Arkham City is much smaller in scale. But standing on the rooftop, looking out into the city, the benefits of a smaller canvas are immediately apparent.

"Our objective wasn't to make the biggest open world game, it was to make the most detailed open world game"

By sacrificing a greater landmass, Rocksteady gained the ability to cram much more detail into its world. From sky to sewer, Arkham City is dense in detail, almost bewilderingly so. From beyond the walls a crown of towering Gotham skyscrapers surround the open-plan prison. The city stares in, beaming golden lights like a parliament of owls watching from the darkness.

Searchlights sweep the sky and, together with the icy white moonlight, silhouette a hypnotic fluidity in the movement of the clouds. A blimp swims through the swampy grey sky, while choppers patrol much closer to Arkham City's rooftops, weaving between buildings.

The city's buildings and bridges and are crowded together, while the various villain-controlled districts are dangerously close to encroaching on each other, threatening to spark an all out criminal civil war. The rooftops, which are used as platforms for Batman to skip around the city, are also littered with bad guys up to no good, or home to some elaborate puzzle set up by Riddler.

Down at street level the level of care given to construction of the city is uncompromising. The walls are plastered with oppressive personality; the unmistakable cartoonish green scrawl of the Joker's gang, advertisements for Penguin's enterprises, or the dictatorish face of Hugo Strange reminding the criminal element to "obey order".

Shopfronts have fallen into disrepair, some with windows and doors boarded up, others pillaged, with their innards laid bare. The streets are caked in filth, a mixture of garbage and the crumbling remains of derelict buildings.

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"We wanted to take the lessons that we learned from Arkham Asylum and write them large on the canvas of Gotham," explained Dax Ginn, marketing manager at Rocksteady. "Our objective wasn't to make the biggest open world game, it was to make the most detailed open world game."

"We wanted to get the sweet spot between action-adventure games that are big but not very detailed, they generally copy and paste buildings to fill out the world, and the games that are very small but very detailed. There has never really been an exploration of what happens in between those games, so we wanted to explore that ground."

"Other open-world games normally have procedural-systemic systems... but it gives you a much more generic feeling," Hill added, "whereas we felt the goal in many ways was to have an open-world game but with a scripted single-player level of quality when you play."

Arkham City is also peppered with iconic landmarks such as the Sionis Industries steel mill, its chimneys piercing the Gotham City sky, erupting red-hot fire and spewing out plumes of dirty amber smog. A decrepit ferris wheel somehow still stands proud, its carriages hanging precariously with balloons tied to them, the unmistakable fingerprints of the city's clown prince of crime. Nearby, the sign for the Ace Chemicals plant glows blindingly, an ominous reminder that birthed Gotham's most psychotic super-villain.

Sections of the city have also been designed to be both aesthetically appropriate for the various villains and as signs of important historical moments. Amusement Mile, for example, still bears the marks of an earthquake and a flood, while the Old Gotham freeway lays destroyed as a result of a turf war between Penguin and Joker.

Iceberg Lounge is an arctic haven built by Penguin as a hotspot for the city's wealthy elite, but is also the base of operations for the pint-sized gangster. Poison Ivy, meanwhile, has assumed dominion of a large observatory, her territory marked by snaking vines enveloping the place and the surrounding area.

Arkham City has a wonderfully varied aesthetic, but it has also been designed to reinforce that you are Batman

More than just eye-candy, these themed areas are woven into the fabric of Arkham City to ensure players are consistently being stimulated by their surroundings, to combat what Rocksteady describes as "normalisation".

"You start getting into the action and the gameplay and the narrative and you stop focusing in on a lot of the details of the environment," explained David Hego, designer of Arkham City.

"Contrasting elements and colour schemes to keep things entertaining. So we create a lot of clashes in many of the levels. We added a lot of fanfare and the giant white clown faces to the steel mill to help fight the oranges and reds, for example. We just keep clashing in the hopes of creating new and still interesting environments."

Despite the divergent styles, the brushstrokes form a cohesive picture. Arkham City has a wonderfully varied aesthetic, but it has also been designed to reinforce that you are Batman.

Although Gotham City has been the setting for the majority of Batman's adventures, it has only been shown briefly in comic panels and movie scenes, mere snapshots. Rocksteady's game realised it fully, and in painstaking detail.

What had been just a philosophical anchor for Batman, or simply the background furnishing for his exploits, became a very real character. Finally, fans were given the freedom to explore a piece of the city he fights to save; to soak up the atmosphere in what they had been told for years is the most dangerous city in DC's universe. It didn't disappoint.

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And like the echo of a bat in a cave, the contained nature of Arkham City's construction amplifies your presence in it, while delicate touches in the metropolis' minutea ensure the focus is always entirely on you.

In its opening stages the presence of the masked vigilante that strikes from the shadows are whispers among the gangs, branded as ravings of the paranoid. But as the game progresses, as the seemingly unstoppable villains are brought to justice, the whispers become shouts and fear begins to take hold.

Where once thugs would find themselves confidently rushing in when confronted, they later recoil in fear as Batman emerges from the shadows. Discussions on your activities become more prevalent, surfaced through weary chatter heard on the local surveillance systems in Batman's cowl.

"Who's screaming? There's someone up there, get over here. It's... It's the Batman," they say as Batman snatches an unsuspecting enemy away.

"What the hell are you," the last remaining enemy whimpers as you systematically drop a large group of thugs.

Similarly, Gotham City's police department remark on Batman's engagements, surprised at the sight of what they thought was an urban legend, commenting on the ease in which he tears through mobs.

There's a moment in Alan Moore's Watchmen when prison goons attempt to shiv an incarcerated Rorschach, to which he retorts by throwing boiling oil in his attacker's face.

Then he delivers something far worse; a promise to all the other inmates: "None of you seem to understand, I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with ME!"

Should you ever want to make the same statement, come visit Arkham City.

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