Back in 2009, I read all the raves reviews and scoured the message boards in excitement for Batman's big intro on the current generation of consoles, Batman: Arkham Asylum from developer Rocksteady. Like most, I am a fan of the caped crusader. Further, I love Batman: The Animated Series which the Arkham games shares DNA: the writers, the indispensable Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker and an art style that borrows heavily from the Burton films.
I was thrilled at the opening of Asylum. Batman is escorting Joker into the asylum, but the Bat knows something is up. "It was too easy," he mutters. In the first few minutes, all the player does is walk Batman down long hallways. Simple, yet with Paul Dini's writing brought to life by Conroy and Hamill's verbal sparring I was enthralled. Then the gameplay took over. After about thirty minutes, I was still just beating up goons over and over with the square button to attack and triangle to counter. Make no mistake, the gameplay was tight, but I wasn't having any fun. Two years later Arkham City arrived, but only managed to keep me engaged for a few hours.
Looks like third time's the charm.
Batman: Arkham Origins is the most fun I've ever had with a comic book-based videogame. I can't wait to play it all over again. The writing is sharp, Gotham feels like Batman Returns, and best of all, it's hard to put down. (Even when I wanted to out of frustration). The past four days I have been on Batman overload. Origins impressed me so much I ended up finally finishing Arkham City. (I intend to do the same with Asylum.) Before I do that, I am writing this so that those who loved the Arkham series in the past - or were as skeptical as I was - can go and pick this up.
To the GameStop Cave, Robin!
Here are nine ways Origins still puts up too many fights, but ultimately rewards fans of the Bat. As usual, minor spoilers...
Let the Origin Begins!
9. Batman Year Two: Younger, Angrier.
Kevin Conroy sat this one out. Honestly, I doubt most will notice. Roger Craig Smith is our ill-tempered Man-in-Suit. (Most notably, Smith was Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 6.) I think the official word from Rocksteady is that since this is a younger Batman, they wanted to use a different actor. Fair enough, although for the most part, he really just sounds like Conroy. I'm not complaining, just an observation.
Batman and the city of Gotham are more about the mood than brute strength, and about how the world's greatest detective outsmarts his enemies with his bat brain. Does Batman get his hands dirty? Can he be unrelentingly violent? Absolutely. I'm just saying it's more about what that means, that we're rooting for someone like that, than the thrills from any particular smackdown. (Try and name even one memorable fight scene from the Nolan ones.)
Here, I really like Batman in his early years. Gotham City PD hates him, the public fears him and deputy Gordon is a pain in his cape 24/7. His only real ally is his dutiful butler, Alfred who - as the player goes through the main story - tries to get Batman/Bruce Wayne to realize that he can't protect Gotham as a one-man army all the time. It works perfectly.
8. The Eight Assassins Are Tough, Even on Easy.
Full Face Bane.
I read this someplace and still believe this: once Batman reaches his enemies it's a forgone conclusion that he'll prevail. Here, the main thrust of the story is that someone named Black Mask has hired eight of the best killers to take out the Bat for a whopping $50 million payday. The first battle is Killer Croc, then the Electrocutioner, Deathstroke and so on. Eventually, Bane shows up. What this means is that you'll enter a building (*cough* dungeon) take out baddies, solve a few puzzles and then the big battle. The structure is as old as Zelda and unfortunately, it can feel like it.
The big problem is that the bosses battles usually have at least three stages. (Thankfully, there are checkpoints!) As a player, though, it's still mostly just square, triangle and timing. This is fine for a fight that lasts only a few minutes. My encounter with Deathstroke took over 30 minutes... and I played on easy. That is so not cool.
I think if you're the type of person that plays on hard and wants these encounters to be intricate and long, hey, go nuts, enjoy yourself, but if I'm playing for the story, a battle where I mindlessly button-mash takes me out of it. I'm too aware that I'm doing the same thing over and over. (The true sign of insanity).
I can't stress how much I wanted to just throw the controller against the wall in pure frustration.
This is the downside to an otherwise a wonderful experience.
I understand the need for a learning curve in games. If a new skill becomes something I use a lot it makes sense. (The Metroid way, if you will.) For example, there are several new gadgets that Batman acquires along the way that make him more formidable. My go-to accessories were the shock claws; I would swiftly make them a regular part of my arsenal. However, it didn't matter much in boss stages, which usually relied on the same three moves - or worse, tossed in an environmental puzzle that I'll never do again.
7. Why Was the Control Scheme Switched?
Was it ever just this?
At least on the PS3 version, the basic handling of your batgear used to be with the L1/R1 to aim, then R2 to execute. Origins has reversed the controls scheme so now you use L2/R2 to aim and R1 to execute. Why? I have no idea.
6. Burton/Dini Influence Is Wonderful.
I love The Dark Knight, but my personal favorite is Tim Burton's Batman Returns. A big reason is that I think Burton's take on Gotham at Christmastime is pretty magical. The setting for Origins is Christmas Eve and you can feel that Burton/Dini influence everywhere, even if Selina Kyle never shows up. (At least in the main story).
Little things leave an impression: the music that swells like an Elfman score as Batman rises up to the top of a snowflake littered rooftop, or all the department stores that are empty of shoppers, but filled with all sorts of demented products. There's no shortage of weirdo eye candy.