Rocksteady Studios is an insanely talented game developer. If they didn’t single-handedly prove that you could make an amazing AAA superhero video game, they sure as hell get the lion’s share of the credit thanks to the deservedly beloved Batman: Arkham trilogy. But they left Batman behind after 2015’s Arkham Knight, and…we haven’t heard from them since (hat tip to the fun little 90-minute Batman: Arkham VR experience that launched alongside the PSVR1 in 2016). Eventually, we got the official word as to what the studio was doing next: Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, a four-player co-op live-service third-person shooter.
Individually, none of those descriptors make my skin crawl, but together? Yikes. And unfortunately, after last week’s extended Suicide Squad gameplay showcase at the Sony State of Play (yeah, I know, this is an Xbox column, but it’s an Xbox game too so just roll with me here), those adjectives all describe Kill the Justice League, a game in which the primary objective of the game appears to be <checks notes> “shoot and/or punch anything purple.” Oh, and it’s also got a Battle Pass and it requires an online connection at all times, even if you’re playing solo.
Let me get my disappointment out of the way here before I get to my point. Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham trilogy didn’t just raise the bar for superhero games. They were each also valid Game of the Year contenders (and in some cases winners) in and of themselves. This studio has set an extremely high standard. The Arkham trio had top-shelf stealth gameplay, detective work, free-flowing melee combat that was so good that other games straight-up ripped it off, moody art direction that made Gotham City as much of a character as Batman or The Joker, fun vehicle gameplay, and incredible voice acting. Suicide Squad has…the confounding ability for any of these four wholly dissimilar characters to grapple anywhere they f*cking want in the middle of open Metropolis plazas, somehow. I guess…
Point is, I have yet to see any of the inspired design in Kill the Justice League that elevated Rocksteady to the top of the industry with the Batman games. And I’m not alone here. Look around IGN, Reddit, and social media and you’ll read a lot of the same disappointed takes from critics and players alike who watched the same Suicide Squad gameplay I did. And the same few games keep coming up in comparison: Marvel’s Avengers, Crackdown, the recent Saints Row reboot, and Gotham Knights. Is that really the kind of company Rocksteady, of all studios, should be keeping? Good lord no! I guess it boils down to this for me: we’ve waited eight years for the next game from this decorated studio. And the game we’re getting is yet another live-service co-op shooter? Sigh…
You cannot, by design, seriously play more than one live-service at a time
Look, live-service games are not inherently bad. Heck, Destiny is still going strong in Year 9. The Division had a good run there for a while. But the problem is, you cannot, by design, seriously play more than one of them at a time. They are meant to consume all of your time and attention, so that, of course, you spend more money in those games instead of any other game. As a result, the genre as a whole is probably not sustainable – a hypothesis at least somewhat supported by the recent rash of live-service games whose servers are shutting down, often after not being on the market for particularly long. Guess what? I can promise you that there are going to be more. Lots more. I take no joy in saying that, but it’s just the inevitable reality. No matter what, there will only ever be 24 hours in a day, and so only so many live-service games can survive and thrive.
Thus, I see Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League as a litmus test for the live-service genre. If its sales numbers end up matching its current hype level (meaning: quite low), it’s not only going to make major game publishers think twice about committing years of a AAA team’s time and talent – not to mention the premium cost that entails – to building one of these things. To be clear, I harbor no ill will towards Rocksteady. In fact it’s quite the opposite. I want them to wow me. And there’s a huge chance I’m dead-wrong about this, that plugged-in core gamers like you reading this are disappointed now, but we’ll all change our tune when we get to actually play the game. And even if we don’t, it’s still entirely possible that the more casual majority of game-buyers pick this up and love it.
But maybe the stink in the air around Suicide Squad right now is exactly why the co-founders of the studio dipped: they wanted to distance themselves from something that they felt could put a dent in their sterling reputations before it was too late – particularly as they might look to start a new studio and have to drum up some of that sweet, sweet venture capital in order to do so. In that hypothetical (but quite feasible) scenario, they’re going to want to go into those VC meetings as “the Batman Arkham guys” and not “the Suicide Squad guys.”
Now, that last bit about Sefton Hill and Jamie Walker is pure speculation on my part. It’s probably unfair. But whether I’m right or wrong about them, I do genuinely believe that Suicide Squad could very well be the game that ends up chasing big publishers away from the live-service business: because if Kill the Justice League flops (and again, I hope it doesn’t!), it’s going to be an extraordinarily expensively and painful lesson for WB – and the entire industry.
Ryan McCaffrey is IGN's executive editor of previews and host of both IGN's weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked, as well as our monthly(-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He's a North Jersey guy, so it's "Taylor ham," not "pork roll." Debate it with him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan.