Yes, we’re still talking about Batman. Remember that it’s not a horrible game, I’m just magnifying its flaws. In fact, I’m not even sure this next bit is criticism or not. There’s something off with the art, and I don’t know if the art is of lower quality, if they shifted the art style, or if I’m just picking up on old existing problems because I’m looking at the game more closely.
I leave the final judgement on this up to the reader. Let’s talk about…
Really good artists are hard to find. If the style your concept art calls for is (for example) “slightly Frank Miller-ish comic-book with a dash of Bladerunner”, then you need a team of accomplished artists to pull it off. Art teams these days are big, and the larger the team gets the harder it is to get enough people that can nail a really specific point on the stylistic spectrum. It’s even harder when you consider that most artists are youngsters who are paid crap. (I’m not suggesting this is the case with WBGM. I know nothing about the inner workings of the company.)
But while stylistic nuances are hard to get right, just about all the artists at least have technical proficiency. They might not be able to create “an Arabian Nights-themed techno-fortress of the future”, but if they know how to use their tools they should at least be able to make basic real-world stuff.
This is probably why so many games are ending up in the photorealism rut. While Rocksteady gave the first two Arkham games a slightly comic style, I think WBGM has moved closer to reality for Origins. Compare Bane:
|Arkham City bane.|
|Arkham Origins bane.|
I could be wrong here. As I’ve stressed elsewhere, I Am Not An Artist and I have an amateur’s eye when it comes to appraising game art. Worse, it’s hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison, because the Origins Bane is a younger and smaller version of the character, back before his drug abuse turned him into the Pink Hulk. But this isn’t just about his physique. Note the color vibrancy, texture detail, model complexity, and character proportions.
I’m thinking that this is a shift away from the more unreal comic aesthetic to the washed-out grimdark realism we see in more grounded games. This is important because the shift makes the eye expect more realism from everything else. Nobody would mind or even notice if Mario sat down in a double-sized novelty chair, but if Sam Fisher did that he would look like a doofus. Art style isn’t just about tone or color, it also sets the tolerances and expectations of reality in the minds of the audience. Don’t promise more realism that your artists plan to deliver. If your gameworld is made of nonsense vents and sewer levels, then don’t choose an art style that screams out “THIS IS REALITY”.
Perhaps because of this, I’ve been noticing a lot of scale problems with the scenery. I know this is supposed to be a “younger, more inexperienced Batman”, but unless he’s six years old then a lot of stuff is too dang big:
|I guess this is how the city builds the doors of their sewer tunnels? They have handles at chin height and a window about three feet higher than the 6 foot, 4 inch (193cm) Batman.|
|This door is a lot smaller than the previous one, but still way too large. The funny part is that when you walk through this door you emerge from the previous one.|
Some doorways are normal, and some of them are gigantic doors like the ones above. Were the earlier games like this? I poked around Arkham City and Arkham Asylum looking for badly scaled stuff and I didn’t find any, although I admit I didn’t play all the way through both games just to audit the art. Is Origins the only game with scale problems? Or has the art always been like this, but I didn’t notice until the change in art style?
|Are those really supposed to be poker chips? They’re the size of coasters!|
|Does Batman have a keyboard the size of his arm so he can type while wearing his Bat-gloves, or is this keyboard just scaled improperly?|
I don’t know. I can’t condemn the art team outright. After all, I think they did a great job on…
New Old Gotham
|In Arkham City (the game) Old Gotham (the place) was renamed to Arkham City (the prison) but in Arkham Origins (the prequel) it’s still called Old Gotham.|
Arkham City gave us a slightly goofy set-up: At some point Old Gotham was flooded and ruined. And then it was turned into a huge open-air coed prison-city by way of a ridiculous conspiracy that isn’t even worth analyzing. (They left the specifics and details as vague as possible, which was certainly for the best. Justifying all of that at once would bury the player in exposition.)
But then we came to Arkham Origins. WBGM couldn’t just dump the open world stuff and drag the game back into the titular asylum. They couldn’t re-use the same setup. And trying to go bigger and include all of Gotham would be insane. And no matter what they did, setting it in a public place would introduce a ton of risks and problems, since that would also necessitate the need for civilians and street traffic. They had their hands full just getting up to speed on what they had already. The last thing they needed was a bunch of new technology challenges.
|This is the gameworld of Arkham City. The red restricted zone blocks line of sight between the two halves. (The dark tunnels that go through the restricted zone are actually subway tunnels.)|
It’s worth noting that Arkham City was a bit of a cheat, map-wise. There was a literal wall around the city, and a gigantic no-access zone right in the center. The outer wall let them depict Gotham city proper using nothing more than a skybox, and the restricted zone in the center was a huge help with polygon culling. The walls of the restricted zone were taller than the buildings, which meant that it was impossible to see the east side of the city when you were on the west side, and vice versa. This solves a bunch of loading and rendering headaches. I know Rockstar makes it look easy, but open-world cities are still a major challenge – particularly if your protagonist can fly OVER buildings. If they can get over buildings then you can run into situations where you have to draw basically everything and you can’t count on some buildings blocking the view of others.
So WBGM was faced with the problem where they needed a city at least as large as the previous game, plus they couldn’t use massive vertical walls to keep the player in and control polygon count. Given these constraints, I think what we have in Arkham Origins is about as good as you could hope for and a lot better than I would have expected.
|This is the map for Arkham Origins. It covers the same space as Arkham City, only now we don’t have handy prison walls all over the place to limit our view. Note also that this is only half the city. A bunch of new stuff is available to the south. Sheldon Park in the center is right where the Restricted Zone was in the previous game.|
We can still see a few seams between the old and new. If you play Origins you’ll notice that there are some buildings Batman can’t go over. These are certainly there to replace the old prison wall concept. While they’re a little annoying (and hard for players to understand) they’re less obnoxious than the restricted zone in the center of Arkham City.
What we have in Origins is a revitalized version of Old Gotham. We get to see the city that would eventually become a prison, and we get to see it lit up and in use instead of crumbling into the ocean. The city now has sidewalks and street lights and all sorts of street-level detail that was hidden beneath the flood in Arkham City. Yes, the “snowstorm” is a bit of a cheat to avoid having street traffic and it’s ridiculous that the city seems to be inhabited entirely by criminals, but still. WBGM made a bigger game than Rocksteady, they made it without the handy “prison city” conceit, they did it using technology that was new to them, and they finished the job without getting caught in development hell.
I think WBGM has topped the previous team here. I’m impressed, although I’m REALLY curious what they’re planning for the next game. This is the third time the series has painted itself into a corner, setting-wise. Assuming that giving us open-world access to all of Gotham is too expensive and complicated, where can they go now?
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
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