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Why Batman: Arkham Knight is the REAL start of a new generation

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 crave. 

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 Arkham City what Arkham City was to Arkham Asylum. But crucially, the next-gen feeling isn’t simply about the big, obvious gosh-wow moments.

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, really is.

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.  

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27 comments

  • AlexAMG - May 19, 2014 9:40 a.m.

    I'm no longer interested in graphics for next gen. Rather, I want games to go back to having lengthy, interesting single player modes. Ocarina of Time was 50+ hours of fantastic story. FFX was easily 100+ hours of fantastic story. Yet now, on these latest gen consoles, we're getting games that have mediocre, 5 hour single player campaigns. I am quite willing to sacrifice a bit of graphics to have a lengthy, GOOD game.
  • winner2 - April 2, 2014 8:24 a.m.

    I can't share the optimism, I'm not feeling the hype. I won't be surprised if it's just slightly prettier and stuff. I'm expecting another gradual step towards amazement.
  • Stoorm - April 1, 2014 1:31 p.m.

    Everyone thinks in next-gen game the most important thinks is graphics. But for me game is not only graphics...we have storyline, soundtrack, control ect, ect.
  • Balaska - April 1, 2014 10:57 p.m.

    You don't require computational power for story , sound or control, anything by Bioware, Nintendo, Naughty Dog, Arkane, Rockstar and so many more it would be TL:DR. What exactly have you been playing?
  • Timstertimster - April 1, 2014 10:15 a.m.

    What next gen would be to me, if it existed: No more proprietary engines, nor platforms, and devs would have freedom to focus on designing great gameplay instead of wasting time inventing yet another particle physics engine when there already are such food ones out there, just because they can't or won't afford a license. It would also be open source for gamers to build plugins and mods. I'm sick of games forcing tedious gameplay, especially in multiplayer, because nobody is willing to break out of the XP based leveling system. To hell with matchmaking. Just pop players into the arena and give everybody the same abilities and gear. And watch how they all gleefully while away hours in silly action. As for cack-proofing. It becomes a non issue with open source engines/platforms. The system takes care if itself: hackers who do fun and cool stuff attain celebrity status and the stupid ones who ruin gameplay get banned by the community.
  • Balaska - April 1, 2014 10:54 p.m.

    That's called the PC :D
  • mafyooz - April 1, 2014 8:15 a.m.

    ...but how would you be able to tell the manure effigy of Bernard Manning from the real thing?....
  • Shigeruken - March 31, 2014 8 p.m.

    Arkham Hype!
  • homestar99 - March 31, 2014 6:29 p.m.

    People need to wait for a while for new and completely overhauled graphics. Remember this generations' early days, when a PS3 or Xbox 360 game meant PS2 and Xbox games but slightly shiny. Now let's make that fit the generation: PS4/Xbox One game = PS3/Xbox 360 game but slightly shiny and full of bloom. It takes a few years for hardware to flourish. After that we'll wonder how games like Infamous Second Son and Titanfall were ever thought to have looked "next-gen".
  • Jacko415 - April 1, 2014 12:21 a.m.

    ^^^THIS Remember Splinter Cell Double Agent? Where everything had to be round, shiny, and texture-less PS2 graphics? And then... Suddenly... Gears of War came out.... And i shut right the fuck up and sat in awe.
  • godisanarc - April 3, 2014 3:30 p.m.

    Yeah I totally agree, the one game that really is mind blowing on x1/ps4 gen (to me at least) is NBA 2k14, game is gorgeous.
  • Moondoggie1157 - March 31, 2014 4:54 p.m.

    This generation has almost completely lost my interest. When I was told to be excited for Titanfall, I got excited only to be let down. When I was told to be excited for Infamous: Second Son, I was let down again. Arkham knight looks like a lot of fun, but unless it is some mind blowing, game changing killer app (there, I said killer app, it's only happening once) I think I might just bask in my last gen gaming for the next while. I've got a good years worth of backlogued games, so hey, lucky me. But really, this generation has proven to be completely lacklustre in my mind, thus far anyways.... I'm sure something will change my mind eventually.
  • universaltofu - March 31, 2014 11:36 a.m.

    Growing up I remember these transitions : from nes to snes - Seeing Super Mario World, and playing Mega Man X, I could feel the progression. from snes to n64 - Having seen other consoles from sega show up, the playstation, and stuff like the jaguar, it was Mario 64 that struck me the most, pulling off that first triple jump was astonishing. n64 to gamecube - and dreamcast and ps2 and xbox, this transition was perhaps a bit more subtle, I enjoyed myself from the start with waverace and pikmin, but it wasn't until the Metroid primes, resident evil 4's and shadow of the colossus' started rolling out that I was really impressed. onward to wii/ps3/360 - an even more subtle transition, but it happened sooner this time, it was the simplicity of getting into a match on gears of war, the first 'swing' of a tennis rack in wii sports, seeing how the glass shattered in Resistance, it was everything all at once. This time, I don't even know, haven't had a chance to really play with any of them, and none of the candidates stand head and shoulders above the rest it would seem.
  • shawksta - March 31, 2014 11:07 a.m.

    Good ol David being enthusiastic just like me :3 Though its hard to say, a real step forward needs to be both in design and approach. Honestly i only think its a step forward if only because of what happened in the end of Arkham City. Though thats exactly what you just said and frankly im excited. To be fair, lets not ignore the Wii U as praise has stated that 3D World was the true step in next gen for the integrity of 2013. However i wont see any massive steps till we see PS4 and Xbone pull through with something spectacular(maybe Batman, who knows)and Wii U still needs to get a game that uses the Gamepad to its fullest(Zelda or whatever Miyamoto's working on, hopefully).
  • Vonter - March 31, 2014 12:02 p.m.

    I still think the gamepad could add to the multiplayer aspect. I mean if Nintendo could expand the concept of making the gamepad player being like a boss/game master it could add a new type of genre. Even online games usually fare about giving all players equal chances in multiplayer. How about a beat em up or Smash TV game in which one player delivers the goons and the others look to survive or reach a destination. In the higher performance machines I suppose the major breakthrough will be more connected worlds like the Dark Souls invasion system, just instead being interconnected game worlds in which players could leave items, traps, messages or even sidequests on other players' games. Or from a technical perspective a game in which the game world has dynamic weather changes, schedules or dynamic changing environments could be quite innovative. Maybe going into a GTA game and discover a new area that was previously on construction now has an amusement park or something like that.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - March 31, 2014 1:06 p.m.

    Wasn't fucking Sega/Gearbox supposed to make a mode where the Gamepad user is a boss and drops the Aliens down on the Marines? Oh wait, Aliens Colonial Marines sold like shit, was a disappointment and Sega/Gearbox just outright canceled the Wii U version.
  • Vonter - March 31, 2014 3:43 p.m.

    I don't remember but it'll have been nice, since the Zombi U multiplayer is only for 2 people, going all out for 5 it's the best feature Wii U could market.
  • shawksta - March 31, 2014 1:54 p.m.

    It definitely does have Multiplayer worth, Nintendoland, Rayman origins and other games used it well. That boss idea you mentioned sounds great, like a whole Dungeons and Dragons nostalgia trip if they could. As Jackonomics crudely said, it WAS gonna be in the Multiplayer for Aliens Colonial Marines but cancelled.
  • Vonter - March 31, 2014 3:45 p.m.

    Also even if I don't like the COD series, being able to play multiplayer with one person on the gamepad and the other on the TV is very cool. Yeah like imagine Chronicles of Mystara in where the master could summon different enemies and also being able to control the boss could be pretty hardcore (especially the dragon). Dang it, it could have been cool seeing a 4 player version of the Zombi U multiplayer.
  • shawksta - March 31, 2014 4:50 p.m.

    Who knows, maybe we'll eventually see the rising of this game concept.

Showing 1-20 of 27 comments

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