Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins review


    Batman is one of the greatest fictional characters of all time and I am allowed to say this because, as a blogger, I can make unsubstantiated statements that I claim to be absolutes (he is, though). Thus, Batman can be many things: violent, anti-social, heroic, crusading, angst-ridden, driven, and even funny.   

    Never boring.

    Origins, the third installment of the popular Arkham Asylum series, is a driven by desire to capitalize on the previous installment's success. A shameless product of corporate desire for profit overriding artistic sensibilities. I'm not actually against that as long as it produces something but it didn't here.

   At all.

   Arkham City was a top contender for Charles Phipps'  Best Game of All Time. I say that as an unmitigated Batman fanboy and by no means an unbiased judge. Origins builds on Arkham City's engine, map, and even storytelling engine to create itself.

    The results are, unfortunately, underwhelming.

Deathstroke's appearance was most welcome.
    Arkham Origins is by no means a bad game, but this is damning with faint praise. So Okay, It's AverageTM (thank you, TV tropes) would be a good description of how I feel about it. After the tremendous success of Arkham City, Montreal game developers were always going to have a tough act to follow. Still, I think they could have done better as the haste in which this game was pumped out and it's myriad flaws show everywhere.

    The premise of Arkham Origins is little known Batman villain, Black Mask, has placed a staggering 50 million dollar bounty on our heroes head. This is considered ludicrous by Gotham City's criminals given Batman has only been operating two years in Gotham City and is considered an urban legend by most. Eight of the world's greatest assassins choose to respond along with every crook and corrupt cop in Gotham (the latter of which compromises all of them but James Gordon).

    The first problem with Arkham Origins is this premise isn't bad but it's lacking punch. In Arkham Asylum, Batman must rescue Commissioner Gordon. This is a personal motivation and works fine. In Arkham City, there's the layers upon layers of mystery to figuring out Hugo Strange's plot. As Alfred rightly points out, Batman could just stay at home and avoid this mess entirely. Batman retorts the villains are likely to hold Gotham City citizens hostage in order to draw him out, which is great but one which takes awhile to get put into effect.

The use of lesser-known villains is a welcome treat.
    There's also a twist with this premise I won't spoil but proves to be wholly unnecessary. The character of Black Mask suffers because of this twist as does the narrative. I understand Black Mask's not as popular as other Batman villains but the game could have waited to dump him in favor of Bane and a certain other famous Arkham alumni (whose still alive in the period this story is set).

    The next problem is Gotham City feels rather lifeless. I understand it's impractical to try and replicate a modern city of millions and the excuse of both a massive crime wave as well as an epic snowstorm make a reasonable excuse for why only criminals are on the streets. Still, I would have appreciated the level designers throwing in some acknowledgement Gotham City is inhabited. Have there been citizens traveling the streets who need to be rescued, lights on in buildings, and maybe the occasional scarred witness to the Batman's activities.

    Travel time is a problem in Gotham City as well. The game world is open from the very beginning, which is usually a plus, but the leaping from rooftop to rooftop in order to cross across the massive islands gets tedious after awhile. The fast travel system cuts down this frustration but it, honestly, feels like cheating. I would have preferred the game to open up the islands of Gotham one by one to make things feels tighter.

Gotham City during wintertime is quite the treat.
    Then there's the fact the game is bugged. Not so bugged as to make it unplayable, at least on my Xbox 360 but enough to be noticeable. Criminals get stuck in walls, the frame rate drops when you're traveling too fast, and I actually had to go back into a room to finish a boss fight because I thought it was over. These moments were rare but obvious enough to make me think this game was rushed out the door without sufficient testing.

    I have a few more irritations to the game but nothing really concrete. These things don't overwhelm the good in the game, which is mostly carried over from Arkham City but they are certainly notable. So what are the good points of Arkham Origins? The things which stand out as original compared to Arkham City?
   
    The first thing is Gotham City is gorgeous. The environments recycled from Arkham City are altered for their heyday and the dilapidated urban wasteland of the previous game is re-envisioned as a thriving urban metropolis.   The new environments are equally entertaining, showing a Gotham City which is in its height of economic prosperity but still an Art Deco nightmare containing a corruption impossible to extirpate.

    The Boss Battles of Arkham Origins are a massive improvement over Arkham City's own. Missing from the previous games is the appeal of a Gotham City super-crook showing up and Batman beating the crap out of him. In Arkham City, you have to sneak up on Deadshot and take him out in one blow.  In Arkham Origins, you have to beat the crap out of Deadshot numerous times before he finally takes a hostage. THEN you have to take him out in one blow.

    There's also the fact battling Deathstroke is like fighting a katana-wielding Captain America, nearly impossible for our hero to defeat and totally awesome. Bane, never used well by these games, is combined with his movie characterization to be the Joker's equal.   

Black Mask is an intimidating guy. Too bad his role is usurped fairly early on.
      I also give the game props for excellent voice-acting. Despite the absence of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, both Batman and the Joker are still recognizable. Bruce being younger and angrier makes the story's character progression more interesting.

      There's even a Breaking Bad reference where Batman explains to Alfred that, no, Gotham's criminals do not knock on his door--he knocks on theirs (the actual line is far more badass, however). It's also wonderfully subverted when someone, I won't say who, most definitely does knock on the Batman's door.

    In conclusion, Arkham Origins is a game which could have been so much better if it had been edited and tweaked as well as properly play-tested. There's flashes of genius in the game like the absolutely breathtaking Joker level in the Gotham City hotel.

      Unfortunately, these are interspersed with long boring periods of grappling around the empty city. Weirdly, I felt like Spiderman since I was doing so much of it. Batman: Arkham Origins is a disappointing game but it's still decent and worth a look at.

7.5/10

Buy at Amazon.com

2 comments:

  1. Well, that's too bad, but not entirely unexpected. When I heard Rocksteady pawed this off on another developer so they could work on Arkham City's actual sequel, I feared something like this might happen. Then the New Console Generation hype machine climbed to full speed and the whole project began to smell like a desperate cash-grab. Like someone said, “We need another Bat-game before Christmas. Full speed ahead – damn the optimization bugs!”

    On top of all that, it's tainted by the Original Sin of being a Prequel. Meaning it's sick to death with prequelitis and, in the end, throws up its hands to become Yet Another Origin Story for the Joker. No need to be coy – we Bat-fans figured that one out months before the game shipped through the simple logic our master detective skills revealed. To wit: If the General Game-Buying Audience is a pack of shiftless, twitchy narcissists who'd rather eat a bowl of glass than spend time with characters they haven't seen in movies...and if the Big Bad is supposedly Black Mask...well, then, he should just go ahead and change his name to Red Herring because this is Joker territory. And his comeback party's gonna set the whole town on fire!

    I hate begin right all the time. Except when it saves me money. You mentioned Spider-Man in that last paragraph, and I immediately flashed back to Spider-Man 2 (the game). It looks like bricked shit today, but back when it first came out, that that game and I nearly wore out my PS2 less than a year after I bought it. It did what precious few superhero games managed and made you feel as much like Spider-Man as a collection of pixels could. The story was crap, but swinging around, swooping down, beating up random muggers and leaving them tied to street lights, like neighborhood festival banners, made all the tedious, fan-service-driven missions worth it.

    A truly “Next-Gen” Batman game (which I guess I have to call “Current Gen” now, but it's taking me forever to get used to that...same way it takes me at least three months to put the correct year on my checks) would combine those randomized, open-world mechanics with a decent script, powered by a slightly-less-obvious mystery and facilitated by a better way to get around. Yes, the grapple gun is a staple, and gliding continues to grow on me, but Batman has plenty more ways to get around town. How about a game where we get to drive the Batmobile? Or any of his various Bat-cycles? Or Bat-submersibles? How about flying the Batplane instead of just using it to drop off ordinance (or trigger cut scenes)? Or crashing the Batplane into a giant, man-eating plant Ivy's cooked up in Robinson Park? Just a series of thoughts.

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    1. You're absolutely correct, DDM. There's no point in hiding the story's main twist since the game all but telegraphs it in the opening level. I, who had mercifully kept himself unspoiled, figured it out the moment "Black Mask" shoved the corrupt Comissioner Loeb into the gas chamber and it emerged a suspicious shade of comical green. That's about the developer's limit for subtle foreshadowing and, unfortunately, is still the best bit of concealment they managed to do in terms of the plot's twists and turns.

      I don't demand much from my superhero games. I merely expect my developers to stand in the middle of the gladiator arena, much like Maximus, and shout, "Are you entertained?" To which I will, hopefully, be able to shout back, "YES!" Arkham Asylum represents my personal goal post for storytelling, not Arkham City. The Joker takes over the asylum, he has an army of goons, he's kidnapped someone important, and Batman has to stop him.

      Cut and print.

      This isn't me saying developers can be lazy, far from it as the above illustrates, but they should learn to trust the material. Captain America: Super Soldier was a naked knock-off of Arkham Asylum but surprisingly enjoyable for my Steve Rogers-loving heart. I'll address the makings of a good "comic book game" in my upcoming articles on Playstation's Infamous series.

      Oh, and one thing you may be interested in--the Batmobile will finally be making its appearance in Arkham Knight.

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