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.