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.
5. All-New Crime File System a Highlight.
Remember earlier when I said we were playing as the world’s greatest detective? One of the best moments comes when you investigate a crime scene at Lacey Towers. Batman has a newly tweaked Crime File System that not only allows you to focus (um, hit X) on a victim’s fingerprints, but also create a virtual staging of the crime’s timeline. It’s a neat effect: you can go through the moment backwards and forwards until you find the clue you need.
The downside is that this new feature is barely used in the game, but when used at the apartment where a double murder took place, evokes chills. Especially when certain evidence pops up which has Batman thinking, “Who is the Joker?!” Woot!
4. Just Who Is the Joker, This Time?
Troy Baker is, that’s who! Baker is one the best voice actors in the biz. This year, he’s the voice of Joel in The Last of Us, Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite and now he’s the Joker. Hamill is deservedly the fan favorite, but Baker does the Clown Prince justice. He’s got the laugh down, which is no small feat, but more importantly, his take on this younger, still-forming criminal has a dizzying effect as the story delves deeper into just who just this madman is. It’s fascinating to see Batman’s nemesis coming into focus.
3. Illusion of Options Is Annoying.
In GTA or Skyrim, an open world doesn’t just mean a large map to wander aimlessly. Well, it DOES mean that, but it usually also means giving the player several options to tackle a single problem. Arkham games are not that. That’s not an issue for me per se, since pretty much all action games are like this: Tomb Raider, Dead Space, etc. About halfway through the main campaign Batman needs to get into Gotham Merchants Bank. The front door is locked. “It’s locked, I’ll have to find another way in,” says the B man. Okay, but this is a huge building complex with many windows, doors and grates. In Skyrim, the challenge would be, “the front entrance is blocked so do you take your chances with A, B or C?” After looking up and down for ten minutes, I finally came across an entrance that needed to be hacked with my Bat-Crypto thingie.
I don’t have a problem with the hacking. What I find annoying is that a game as linear this would rather have me be aimless than just have Batman say something like “Wait, the rooftop usually has a weak fence.”
Consider that in The Last of Us there are plenty of times where Joel will come to a boarded up house or fence and need to get in. Wisely, Joel will say something like “that ridge is too to high to climb” so I don’t waste time trying to scale it. Batman saying the door is locked is NOT that same thing. It should be about presenting the player with options, sure, but also about player economy.
2. Why Can’t I Quit Side Missions? Well, I Can (Sort of).
|One down, 199 pigeons to go! – GTA IV
I liked that the Riddler’s tasks are a part of the main tale this time. You won’t be just collecting Riddler Trophies. Known only as Enigma, the arch-villain-to-be has scrambled various radio towers in Gotham, hampering your ability to use the Batwing. Did I mention that this time Batman can use the Batwing for fast travel? The problem is that Enigma’s scrambler means the Batwing can’t be accessed until Batman finds those towers and hacks them, and at each tower there’s a fun exchange between Batman and Enigma. Essentially these are mini-games, but it works.
There are side missions (real ones) that aren’t connected to the main campaign at all, and I ended up doing one for the Mad Hatter. You’re put in a Wonderland world that has you moving side-scroller-style. The visuals are great and Hatter is a hoot, but the gameplay is clunky. Yet, when I looked to quit, I couldn’t. So I kept at it until I finished. Later, I realized that if I had quit the game entirely I would have been out of Mad’s clutches. So technically, you can quit a side quest, but having to jump out of the game proper is ridiculous.
And yet with all these ups and downs the reason I really enjoyed my time in Gotham and look forward to going back…
1. This Origin Is Extremely Memorable.
On Christmas Eve, Batman must hunt down Black Mask, defeat the assassins and uncover the truth behind it all. Throughout, Batman is in constant communication with Alfred, who supplies a lot of the game’s best humor and warmth. The previous titles have used the butler less with Oracle taking up a lot of the phone calls. Any fan of the Batman knows Alfred’s promise to the Wayne’s which is used really well here; there’s a sense that Alfred is afraid of losing Bruce altogether to the night. We feel for the old (though not THAT old, he’s got some brown hair still!) man.
In Arkham City, Batman and Joker were both on a mission to cure themselves of a deadly poison. That was pretty much the whole game and it didn’t hold together. Too many times, Batman would simply get sidetracked to getting the cure. It felt like the game was giving us filler. Origins has a few filler moments too, but character-wise, I always felt like I wanted to do what he wanted.
Verdict: There’s nothing like an “Ah, I get it” moment and Origins is filled with them. The highest praise I can give is that right after finishing, I drove to my local GameStop and re-purchased the previous titles. This Dark Knight has truly risen in my estimation.
NOTE: for this review I played on PS3. There were some frame-rate issues/glitches in the last few hours, but yesterday there was a patch, so fingers crossed those issues have been addressed.
Previously by Peter Paras:
Beyond: Two Souls – Seven Reasons to Play, Three Ways Eyes Will Roll
Grand Theft Auto V: Ten Things to Love and Two Teensy Gripes
The Last of Us: Nine Ways It’s Unforgettable