You know that next-gen feeling? The one that has you staring
wide-eyed at a TV screen that you’re sure is not actually a TV screen, but an
unholy portal into the future masquerading as a common entertainment appliance?
The moment when you find yourself looking at a literally impossible game that
cannot exist according to current laws of video games?
Yeah it hasn’t really happened yet this time around, has it? New consoles are here, but no game has so far presented an exciting and significant step forward. So much so that, even as a man whose career is built around discussing games, I still feel unsure of whether I can accurately refer to the Xbox 360 and PS3 as last-gen yet.
That initialising moment has been kicking in slower and slower over
recent generations. Blame the increasing difficulty of wrangling the best out of
more advanced hardware, or the curtailed development times necessary to hit the
increasingly nebulous ‘launch window’ period. They’re both responsible to
variable degrees, the dirty dastards. And of course, some generations have had
it easier than others. It wasn’t hard to make Mario look significantly better
when the SNES had 32, 000 colours and Mode 7. The NES only had two colours, one
of which was transparent, and was a total stranger to special modes. It had
never even heard Personal Jesus. Similarly, the early days of last-gen got a
lot of free help from the advent of HD. Back in 2005 you could have sculpted an
effigy of Bernard Manning out of manure and had it worshipped like a Neolithic
god of graphics at E3, as long as it had stunk the room out in 720P.
This time though? We’re still waiting. Killzone: Shadowfall
looks quite nice, but not so much when you compare it to what Halo 4 was doing
on the (admittedly straining) Xbox 360. Ditto Titanfall. Nice dust and
explosions, but it’ll be interesting to see how far short the 360 version falls
when it eventually surfaces.
But fear not, noble acolytes of the great cult of graphics.
Because although you’re still awaiting holy word of the next glorious
commencement, I am in a position to communicate its miracles to you, via
visions of a sort. See me as your prophet, only with access to early preview
events rather than the divine word of God. And believe me when I tell you that Batman: Arkham Knight is going to give you the incredulous tingles you so
It’s not just about the graphics, though those will make you
vibrate like a Gotham goon recently punched in
a nerve cluster. I’d understand if you were cynical when that first batch of
Arkham Knight screenshots were released last week. After a generation that saw
notably ‘optimised’ pseudo-screens accompany the reveal of every big game like
deceitful cheerleaders, there’s no reason you should believe them on sight.
Equally problematic, those 8 years of cosmetically enhanced artwork might
even take the edge off a genuinely beautiful game that actually is genuinely
that beautiful. But trust me. Those screens show what Arkham Knight looks like
in-game. In fact in motion, with the more natural, unposed visuals of a
real-time video game going on, it looks even better.
But it’s not simply about Batman’s graphics, but rather the
context in which they appear. You see part of the reason that Arkham Knight is
going to make ripples is its place in an ongoing franchise legacy. Being the
fourth game in the Arkham series (though acknowledged as only the third, if
you’re Rocksteady), AK comes with an inbuilt sense of progression and
escalation that many console launch games lack.
There was no “Wow! It’s Knack
on next-gen!” factor (to be fair there was no “Wow! It’s Knack!” factor
either). Killzone; Shadowfall was so visually and thematically removed from the
previous games as to draw little direct comparison. And, probably due their launch day release, Forza 5 and Dead Rising 3 felt like incremental updates
rather than full-blown next-gen overhauls. With Batman though, we have the
perfect storm. A game with a long-enough development time to really play with
next-gen power, and enough previous iterations that we can see directly how
things have changed.
The fact is that Arkham Knight does feel like a very real,
very significant shake-up, moreso than most major franchise sequels from recent
years. Despite the (all-new) urban setting, it feels very much like it’ll be to
what Arkham City was to Arkham Asylum. But
crucially, the next-gen feeling isn’t simply about the big, obvious gosh-wow
It’s not just about how real everything looks, or the barnstorming
demolition runs through Gotham’s streets in
the Batmobile. Like any real next-gen calling card, it’s the subtle little
things that really resonate; the initially unnoticed things that last-gen games
just couldn’t do. So far we’ve had prettier games, but--probably as a result of
being shackled to last-gen cross-releases—none that have operated differently.
But Arkham Knight, being resolutely next-gen only, doesn’t have the problem. Remember
when you first opened the door to Niko’s apartment in Grand Theft Auto IV and
were greeted not with the expected loading screen but a whole, living,
breathing, swearing city street going about its business in front of you? It
was an underplayed but powerful moment that heralded the fact that next-gen GTA
had really arrived.
Arkham Knight looks to be full of that stuff. The current demo is
packed with moments of flowing, fluid freedom that get imperceptibly under your
skin, but cumulatively build a feeling that something very big has changed. It
happens as Batman glides between Gotham’s
rooftops, before spontaneously firing a line between buildings and creating a
(literally) on-the-fly tightrope. It happens when he swoops down to a mob of
goons several hundred metres away, and hurls in a handful of batarangs,
mid-air, before finishing his descent to beat down those still standing.
It happens each and every time Bats plummets a hundred
stories, only to have the Batmobile tear around the corner in real-time, from
exactly where he left it, to catch him. Most notably it happens, as it did in
GTA IV, during scene transitions. The act of diving to a distant rooftop to
initiate a cut-scene should not be an overly exciting process. But when it
happens seamlessly, with no obvious cut between gameplay and narrative, no
shift in graphical quality or style before or after, as a fully-directed
cinematic flows effortlessly in and out of the in-game action, then it really,
You won’t notice that stuff at first. You’ll be too
concerned with stealth-smashing 3 mooks at a time, and barrelling through
brick walls in a sleek, jet-powered tank, and squinting a bit to make the game
look like borderline live-action. But you’ll know that something feels
different. And when you notice what that something is, when you notice all the
little things that make this not just a prettier game, but a prettier game that
subtly changes the rules of how you’ve come to expect video games to work, then
you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it feels like we’re now really at
the start of something.