Be honest: when you hear the name of development studio Rocksteady, it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that immediately comes to mind, right? Maybe that’s just me, but that rhino and his similarly musically themed compatriot were cornerstones of my childhood. And, given how little anyone had seen from Rocksteady Studios back in the mid-2000s on up to 2009, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that I think “rhino” before I think “game development studio.”
Rocksteady is best known, today, for their stunning take on the Batman mythology in videogame form, kicking Batman: Arkham Asylum out the door in 2009 and following it up in 2011 with Batman: Arkham City, a free-roaminger sequel to the first game that managed to be bigger and better in the ways that counted, and even a few that were wholly unexpected.
Prior to that, though, Rocksteady’s only released title had come out in 2006, two years after the studio was founded in 2004 by Sefton Hill (whose earlier credits include point-and-click adventure game Discworld II) and Jamie Walker, who touts his involvement in the Harry Potter games on the Rocksteady website. I don’t know that the last is really something that inspires confidence, but it was apparently enough for Eidos, which tasked the fledgling studio with developing a new first-person shooter.
Eventually, this was attached to a nearly decade-old game called Urban Chaos, a sort-of sandbox third-person action game whose lead, despite being billed as a strong female character and badass police officer, wore body armor that still managed to reveal her cleavage. Y’know, the part of the body right over your most vital organ. Maybe they were going for name recognition of some kind? I dunno, Urban Chaos: Riot Response was the game’s third title, but I can’t imagine someone at Eidos thought, “Hey, remember that really obscure third-person action game we released in 1999? Well, it’s 2006; let’s say this game’s a spin-off!”
So Rocksteady’s first game had a crappy title, but the core of it was a fairly unique experience. Players were fighting on the streets of a modern American city trying to take down members of the Burners gang, which had assumed control. The action was tight and responsive, the concept was interesting, and the game was competently forged. Today, in particular, it would be a breath of fresh air in the face of the multitudes of war-time first-person shooters that seem to define the genre.
And then Rocksteady disappeared for three years. I can’t really envision how they snagged the contract for the newest Batman game. The last had been released in 2005, a tie-in to Batman Begins, and had, as one might expect, been completely in line with what one expected of licensed games at the time: junk. I’d love to see Rocksteady’s original pitch, what they told Warner Bros. that had the studio granting them the Batman license, that brought Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy on board as the Joker and Batman respectively. Rocksteady, in 2009, released Batman: Arkham Asylum and redefined licensed gaming. Rather, they showed gamers how well a preexisting world could be utilized by a company with the passion, intuition, and drive to do so.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a seminal super-hero game because it succeeds at the basic task at which every pretender to its throne has failed: It does everything in its power to make the player feel like the superhero they are controlling. Batman, in particular, is a modern-day ninja, loaded with gadgets, capable of cloaking himself in darkness and striking his foes down from the shadows, but equally comfortable in a one-sided melee against a seemingly endless slew of foes. With a smooth-as-silk combat system that balanced accessibility with depth, fights become a martial ballet with a palpable sense of rhythm.
The other core tenet of the Batman mythos, however, is that he’s human and, therefore, extremely vulnerable to lethal attacks. Specifically, guns. Batman cannot stand up to bullets for more than a few seconds. As one would expect, his body armor can protect him from a few rounds, but not sustained fire. This is fine, because he can instead stalk these enemies while they’re still unaware of his presence, until the last couple know he’s there, but are so frightened and jumpy that they have no hope of taking him down. That the game simulates even Batman’s intimidation factor is the icing on the cake that makes it truly exceptional.
That Rocksteady improved on this formula with Batman: Arkham City by making it open, adding additional layers of complexity to combat (while smoothing out some of the very limited kinks therein), and opening up the story to include a larger ensemble of the Caped Crusader’s rogues gallery makes them exceptional.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rocksteady should feel particularly exalted. Their combat system has been picked through for inspiration by Beenox and Square Enix London on The Amazing Spider-Man and Sleeping Dogs, respectively, though neither has managed to make it function as smoothly as Rocksteady. Even the Assassin’s Creed series, which actually preceded Batman: Arkham Asylum and featured a similarly intuitive group combat system, never achieved the greatness of Rocksteady’s. Part of that is that is that Assassin’s Creed’s combat has always stressed defense over offense, while Arkham Asylum and its sequel have rewarded an unbroken flow of techniques, both offensive and defensive.
To not only do justice to a franchise, but elevate it beyond anything anyone had previously expected of it or any other licensed property in the videogame sector is not a small feat. It takes inspired and creative individuals and a relentless passion for the craft and the fictional world around which they’re building their project. Further, Rocksteady has demonstrated the ability to put all of those inspired components together in a way that makes them truly sing, creating a final piece that is far more than the sum of its parts. They have done so not once, but twice. If that’s not special, I don’t know what is.