When you think of the Batman: Arkham series, the chances are that stealth doesn’t pop into your mind. One might instead note the fluid rhythm-based combat, the delightful vocal performances of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, or the gritty tone that Batman media has mastered. But one mechanic that developers Rocksteady deserve more credit for is their blending of beat-em-up action and stealth with great effect, ushering in an era where games outside of the stealth genre began incorporating these sequences to keep gameplay fresh.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum was released by Eidos Interactive in 2009, it changed players’ conceptions of what a Batman game could be. At that point, the Caped Crusader’s most notorious interactive adventure was LEGO Batman: The Videogame, which came out the year prior. But duds like Batman: Dark Tomorrow had all but tanked the character’s gritty reputation – at least in the gaming landscape. But Arkham Asylum changed things.
Penned by veteran Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum felt like a grown-up successor to the popular 90s animated show, reuniting the original voice cast while telling a story brimming with tension and violence. Acclaimed by fans and critics alike for its tight combat, focused story and attention to detail, Arkham Asylum spawned two direct sequels, Arkham City and Arkham Knight, and a spin-off prequel by WB Games Montreal, Arkham Origins.
Arkham Asylum did far more than just breathe new life into a character whose videogame history was turbulent, to say the least. In an effort to break the constant flow of hand-to-hand combat, Rocksteady introduced Predator sequences. There are moments in the game where, confined to a sealed room crammed with armed grunts, the player must take them out one-by-one, going undetected. It’s the complete opposite of the game’s DNA, trading rough-and-ready combat for silent takedowns, but at no point does it feel shoehorned in. Dini and game director Sefton Hill manage to balance the two gameplay approaches excellently, creating smooth transitions in the plot that affords for the change of pace.
It’s best exemplified by the first Predator sequence: when escaped killer Victor Zsasz takes a GCPD officer hostage, and stealth is the only option – trying to fight him head-on would lead to the hostage’s demise. It’s details like this within the game’s writing that help the shift towards stealth mechanics feel so organic, ensuring it never goes down the route of a game like Watch Dogs where stealth sequences felt tacked on to shake up gameplay rather than to service the plot. Instead, it was more in the vein of 2007’s Assassin’s Creed, clearly an influence on Rocksteady’s plot-integrated mingling of action and stealth.
This combination of stealth and action was a purposeful move by Hill to change the DNA of Batman games, saying in an interview soon after Arkham Asylum’s release that the focus on action in the previous games meant audiences “[missed] some of the detective element” crucial to the titular character.
More than just shaking up gameplay, the Predator sequences revealed a different facet to Rocksteady’s version of Batman, as he’s“an incredibly powerful character who at the same time is still very vulnerable”. He’s untouchable in hand-to-hand combat but only ever a few bullets away from a game-over screen, adding a layer of risk and precision to how gamers approach the challenges. Evidently, it was a more intricate design choice than the button-mashing action that Batman’s LEGO adventure had introduced the year before.
Arkham Asylum’s blending of stealth and action is perhaps more significant than the first game’s legacy itself. Other games in the series came and expanded upon the Arkham formula – namely its 2011 sequel, Arkham City, widely heralded as the franchise’s best title, both a critical and commercial success. But Rocksteady’s boldness to incorporate stealth into the superhero genre cannot be understated. In fact, this new formula for action games wasn’t just limited to Batman games or even the superhero genre. Instead, Rocksteady’s gameplay design influenced action gaming in general, ushering in a new era for stealth, where games could include these sequences without being exclusively in the stealth genre.
The most obvious and notable example is Spider-Man, Insomniac Games’ 2018 revitalisation of the Wall-Crawler’s video game franchise. It felt hugely influenced by Batman, from the rhythmic two-button combat that Arkham Asylum pioneered to the Predator-inflected sequences where gamers played as Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales, in on-the-ground stealth segments where face-to-face combat wasn’t an option. The gameplay here was broadly similar to the DNA of Rocksteady’s games, with an emphasis on silently taking out grunts and staying undetected. Again, these moments didn’t feel tacked on, with the stealth sequences integrated seamlessly into the plot by forcing players to use characters who lack Spidey’s powers, and dedicated stealth challenges were available to players in the same vein as Arkham’s Predator Challenges.
There are plenty of examples outside of the superhero genre too: games ranging from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to The Last of Us blend combat and stealth seamlessly – particularly the latter, where ammunition is sparse and enemies have enhanced hearing, making near-silence a prerequisite of success. Perhaps that is the best marker of Arkham Asylum’s influence: could a game like The Last of Us blend bombastic shootouts with atmospheric horror without Rocksteady’s Predator system paving the way for it?
In the current landscape where most action games have some form of stealth in their gameplay, where does this leave the dedicated stealth genre? Batman: Arkham Asylum introduced a formula where developers could include stealth without having to focus entirely on it, but the good news is this hasn’t stopped the stealth genre from steadily growing. Recent releases like Dishonored, Hitman and Alien: Isolation prove there is still an appetite for games where silence is the only option, and while the action genre has adopted stealth as a new facet to the array of mechanics available, it doesn’t seem like stealth games will be going anywhere.
The Arkham series may be over and 2015’s Arkham Knight seemed to wrap up Bruce Wayne’s story in neat style – but Rocksteady certainly isn’t finished with DC Comics properties, announcing Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, due for release in 2022. It seems very different to the Arkham series, much bubblier and more light-hearted, but if the core mechanics remain the same, make sure you stick to the shadows and don’t get detected because stealth will certainly be included.