I miss Rocksteady. The British game studio has essentially gone dark for the last five years, since the release of Batman: Arkham Knight and its VR spin-off game. Every now and then, a rumor leaks out that they’ve spent years working on a live service-esque Suicide Squad tie-in, which couldn’t be further from the type of single player action games they made their name on and which seems like a dubious business decision at best.
I’m certain that, whatever their next game ends up being, it’ll have mind-blowing visuals. In spite of releasing way back in 2015, Arkham Knight still looks incredible. I’ve been revisiting it this week, and I’ve had a hard time picking my proverbial jaw up off the proverbial floor.
The series already had a strong visual pedigree, thanks to a masterful use of Unreal Engine 3. Both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City set visual standards on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and in spite of some small performance struggles, they rendered their highly-stylized visuals with a robust level of detail and a largely seamless game world. Both games were also enhanced for PC, with fully-accelerated PhysX particles adding increased destruction and bits of debris that could swirl around in the wind. They were also remastered for PS4 and Xbox One on Unreal Engine 4, but that’s a tale for another time.
Arkham Knight kicked every visual aspect up a notch, and it’s probably the best that an Unreal Engine 3-powered game could ever hope to look. It has a strong resemblance to Epic’s famous “Samaritan” tech demo, created way back in 2011 as an example of what the engine could theoretically do someday on high-end PC hardware. Whenever one of these demos comes out, no one really expects a game to look like that for years, or maybe ever, but Arkham Knight delivered on its promise.
Rocksteady smartly stayed on the platform they knew well, sticking with Unreal Engine 3 in a generation filled with new technologies and bespoke engines. As other teams struggled to update their workflows to new tools (I’m looking at you, Bioware), the team at Rocksteady focused on content creation and pushing their existing framework to its limits.
Every single inch of the game world is covered in micro details, enhanced by hyper-stylized lighting, numerous post-processing effects, and hundreds of bespoke animations and cinematic camera moves. The game lavishes art resources on things that most people will only see for a few seconds as they drive by, from storefronts to sewer grates to neon signs. If you’re a completionist and you decide to pour over every inch looking for the hidden collectibles and puzzles in the game, you won’t find any hints of cheapness or stretched resources.
The rain is the final frosting on the graphical effects cake. Each drop of rain is a unique particle impacted in real-time by nearby light sources. Multiple layers of animation and texturing also allow the rain to run down all of the surfaces in the game, and pool on the roads. Most of it isn’t computational simulation, but rather skillful deployment of artwork, and it’s awesome.
On top of all the excellent effects work and environmental detail, the characters here got a big boost in quality. Many of the side characters in the earlier Arkham games looked like sad deflated balloons, with models that were essentially one half of a person copied and flipped to make a whole character. Not so in Arkham Knight. From Batman all the way down to random NPCs, characters have realistic skin, great facial animations, and detailed clothing. They need to look good, because the cutscenes integrate even more seamlessly into the gameplay than in the past titles. The free- flowing camera gets right up in the characters’ faces to show you their digital pores.
In spite of its relatively big world and included optional content, the game is also impressively focused in a market full of open world time-wasters. The core storyline is easy to follow without getting bogged down, and the game is hilariously goofy in spite of being a gritty M-rated Batman adventure. In the span of a few minutes, you’ll witness a horrific and violent act, then turn around and complete a platform jumping challenge inside the Batmobile. Everything is handled with the same level of serious gravitas, no matter how ridiculous it is. This underlying silliness makes the gritty tone more bearable, and will help carry you through the game as you laugh at the increasingly absurd things Batman is tasked with.
I remember thinking that Arkham Knight was the best-looking game I had played so far back in 2015. While I’d lean in a different direction if asked to pick my favorite-looking game today, Arkham Knight still stands out as a landmark moment for the current generation. It was a wonderful taste of what a veteran developer could do on a proven engine platform, and it made me excited about the prospect of more games of this visual quality on the PS4 and Xbox One.
While there have been a number of excellent-looking games this generation, the vast majority of current titles haven’t quite shared Arkham Knight’s visual ambition. I’m still excited to see what Rocksteady will do with newer hardware whenever they manage to finish a game again. I’m also hopeful for Warner Brothers Montreal’s rumored followup to Arkham Knight. If it’s just a new game built with this same visual platform, that would be more than enough for me.
New engines, ray tracing technology, and other advancements are very exciting, don’t get me wrong. But when the relatively-ancient Unreal Engine 3 can power graphics this good that still hold up after five years, it’s a strong case for detailed art and optimized design being just as important as the rendering technology.