Batman: Arkham Origins: Review

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Batman is back and it’s Christmas for Halloween in Arkham Origins. Controversially, WB Montreal takes the mantle of the Bat from Rocksteady in this prequel. Did WB deliver a worthy continuation to one of the best franchises of this generation, or did the new developer break the Bat?

There is a multitude of reasons why fans of the Arkham series were worried about how Origins would turn out. Mark Hamil retired as the voice of the Joker in the previous game, Arkahm City. Kevin Conroy, the similarly iconic voice of Batman was also not going to voice the character for this game. WB Montreal is not Rocksteady, who seems to be renting out the series while they create a more ambitious sequel for the franchise that will likely release for the next generation of consoles. All these off-putting considerations add up to this uncomfortable challenge for WB Montreal: If they screw up anything in Origins, the game runs the very real risk of seeming like a cheap knockoff of an Arkham game, rather than a “real” entry in the series.

Luckily, there are only a few instances in Origins when the player is reminded of any one of these dubious facts. But they are indeed there and can’t be ignored. Roger Craig Smith (mostly famous as the voice of Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed series) takes over the role of Batman and while his take on the character is solid, it is noticeably not Conroy and almost feels like a different Batman instead of a younger version of the same Batman that we all know from the series.

Joker is now voiced by Troy Baker. Troy had a hell of a year voicing Booker Dewitt in Bioshock Infinite and Joel in The Last of Us. Troy’s Joker sounds a lot like Hamil’s, but his impression of Hamil is maybe too accurate for his own good because occasionally he comes  out of it a little and it is jarring. The voice-work is strong but the casting is not ideal. This shouldn’t make or break the game for anybody, however.

The story of Arkham Origins also is a bit odd for a prequel. Year Two Batman is forced to meet many super-villains (and even a couple allies) for the first time when the Back Mask puts a bounty on his head. Eight assassins come gunning for Batman on the night of Christmas Eve. Despite its prequel status the technology in the the game is noticeable modern with texts, cell hone chips and Batman’s expanded use of his detective vision to rewind crimes in a CSI-like fashion all being at the forefront of the story. It seems a little odd and while I like the increased focus on Batman’s detective work, I really would have preferred it to me more low tech than this hyper- modern version of Gotham we get in Origins

This is a minor spoiler so just skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to be surprised: Despite the fact that he hardly seems involved in the story at first, Joker once again hijacks the narrative and is the driving force of most of what you do. He was also this in both previous games so I’m wondering if it would have been better to let sleeping clowns lie and explore the other villains more. Fans of Black Mask, in particular, may not like how his character gets pushed aside for the Joker story. This is basically a Joker origin story at its heart. It is interesting to see how Batman and Joker came to be the perfect enemies of each other that they are but this game still makes it three straight Joker-focused Batman games in a row, and the ending of City really seemed like a good way to at least give the clown a break for a while.

Overall, the story isn’t terribly surprising but it is compelling enough to continue, especially the last third of the campaign.

Like Arkham City before it, there are many side missions and Riddler secrets (now Enigma extortion data-packs) to find and unlock in Origins. Origins does a better job than City at justifying the existence of the data packs and the case-file system organizes the side missions a bit better, as well. The side missions make up almost as much of the game-play as the main story missions, so it would be a mistake to ignore them. There is a lot to do in Gotham City.

But what of this Gotham city? Is it really all that different than it was in Arkham city? Yes and no. About half of the map is the map from Arkham City, with some minor tweaks. The flooded section of the city isn’t flooded, for example. Origins’ city map is bifurcated by a long bridge which connects to an all new section of the City to explore that is roughly the same size as the old section is. To avoid tedium fast travel hubs enable traversal of this bigger map via the Batwing. Sadly, riding the Batwing means little more than watching a cutscene that seems straight out of Mass Effect or Metroid Prime. However, before you are able to fast travel to an are, you must liberate a jamming radio tower from Enigma’s control in that given area. These radio towers are a nice combination of light puzzles and some combat. This new feature makes the fast travel a reward worth earning despite the fact that gliding around is fun and quick enough to make fast travel somewhat irrelevant.

The streets and rooftops of Gotham are loaded with enemies and Enigma data packs. This may not be the most expansive or realistic open world in gaming, but it has great gameplay density.  There are things to scan, crime-scenes to solve, things to destroy, and enemies to fight. New to there series are random crime events that happen form time to time. Batman can venture off to stop the crime when he hears about it on the police radio or he can ignore it and do whatever else he’s doing. These crimes mostly involve going somewhere and beating up some enemies, but it still is nice to have dynamic events occur in the city.

Generally the city is fun to traverse and explore with many interesting new nooks and crannies and a few little bits of Batman lore hidden throughout the area that is roughly twice the size of what it was in Arkham City. Sadly, the real skyscraper section of Gotham seems to be on a distant island in the background, so you still don’t get a sense that you’re exploring all of Gotham. There also are a few irritating invisible walls that don’t make a lot of sense. The City is on a curfew so while it is highly inhabited by enemies, there are no functioning cars or citizens going about their lives in this Gotham and the city can occasionally feel lifeless. It is familiar, yet new, and there was no way you should have realistically expected a living GTA-sized play area that would retain Arkham’s graphical fidelity and the density of puzzles and enemies that makes Arkham’s Gotham so compelling. Despite this, some open world fans may be disappointed by these limitations.

Gameplay remains quite similar to how it was in Arkham City, with a few key differences. As expected in the series, you are led in a rather linear fashion by the main story through the open world and in and out of several separately loaded indoor environments. Unarmed thugs are dealt with in large numbers with series’ rhythm and counter based free-flow combat. Invisible Predator sections are the stealthy alternative that Batman must employ when facing groups of armed enemies. If you played Arkham City, then you know how these work, little has changed here with the exception of a few new gadgets and enemy types.

The Predator sections are almost exactly the same as they were in Arkham City, except for a game-changing gadget alteration. The line launcher is no more, replaced by the remote claw. A pair of specific anchor points on walls can be attached to with the remote claw, which then creates a line Batman can grapple to and then zip-line or walk on, essentially functioning as a slightly more clunky version of the line launcher. The remote claw’s more interesting use is as an offensive weapon in the Predator areas.

It can attach to enemies on one end and any number of harmful things on the other anchor point and then pull them together, stunning or taking out the enemy altogether. When fully upgraded, you can remotely eliminate three armed thugs with this gadget in one area. Couple that with the fact that this game’s version of the disruptor (which jams enemies’ guns from afar) can be upgraded to having three disruptions available per area and you can essentially neutralize six thugs without having to do much of anything.  The game compensates for these new overpowered gadgets by grouping higher numbers of armed thugs together in one section, but overall it seems like the Predator sections were made to be a bit easier this time around.

The free-flow combat, on the other hand, was made to be much harder. Playing on hard difficulty makes the enemies strike noticeably quicker than Batman can, which threw off an Arkham veteran like me who was used to beating them to the punch. Most of the enemies and abilities from Arkham City remain intact in Origins, but the electric charge gun is now replaced by a relatively useless sticky stun flare. I always used the quickfire electric charge to knock down armored enemies,so its absence was noticeable to me in the free flow combat.

The big changes occur with the several new enemy types introduced in this game, all of which seem specifically designed to make it harder to maintain a free-flowing combo. The martial artist will counter your strikes and your counters occasionally, so hitting them often requires you to stop for an instant and try to react to what they are going to do next. They also can string together multiple strikes at you at once, so you have to hit the counter button the appropriate number of times to avoid getting hit by them. Large Enforcer enemies can only be damaged by cape-stun beat-downs and have a few uncounterable moves that must be evaded. Venom users have unblockable grabs, can only be harmed by beat-downs or you can rip off their venom packs with take-downs. Giant venom users (or maybe just Bane) are invulnerable to everything, have unblockable attacks, and only can be harmed by the ultra-cape-stun followed by a beat-down.

If all of this seems unfair, it kind of is- at first. It was a smack in the face for me as an avid Arkham player who could get in the top thousand ranked on most of the challenge maps in previous games that I was dying in the first half of the campaign from simple free-flow encounters. Once you get past the learning curve, it is manageable and none of it feels cheap, except maybe the martial artists, because they really mess up the timing involved whit the combat.

However, the game takes back all of its new difficulty with the addition of a new gadget that you unlock about two thirds of the way through the main story: the shock gloves. These allow you to forget all those rules and punch through everything. It seems curious that the game trains you to deal with such difficult enemies only to reward you with a way to make it all much easier. Still, it takes a bit of a combo for you to activate the shock gloves and they do lose their charge after some time. The gloves also allow for shock baton and shield strikes to be countered when fully upgraded, but those upgrades are likely the last abilities you will unlock in the game. Overall the free flow combat at first seems exactly same as it was in Origins, but the new enemies make for an added challenge while the new shock gloves make things quite a bit easier.

The other new thing to note whit the combat are the boss fights. These add some variation to the gameplay and are often a combination of the standard free-flow combat with some quick-time event countering scenarios. There are a few instances where predator stealth combat comes into play, as well, but it never quite is as fully realized as the much heralded Mister Freeze boss fight from Arkham City. The Firefly boss fight is something else altogether, a bit like the Ivy fight from Arkham Asylum. The boss encounters are a fun way to mix up the gameplay, but some are quite a bit better than others.

Arkham Origins has a newly organized way to level up and unlock gadgets and abilities for Batman. Some can be unlocked by simply spending XP but others require you to complete specific Dark Knight challenges. These challenges ask you to do things that you may organically do during gameplay, but there’s no guarantee that you will. Because of this, you can easily beat the game and all of the side missions and still have some abilities locked for you because you haven’t lured an armed guard to a take-down with a sonic batarang three times yet. While these challenges are an interesting incentive to vary the way you play, it is inexcusable that these challenges must be completed in a certain order. It doesn’t matter how many times you have achieved some of the higher ranked challenge situations, it won’t register until you complete the ones before it in ascending order. Like many of the new features introduced in Origins, the reorganized ability unlocks offer a slight change of pace with some awkward quirks that fans of the series may not particularly appreciate.

One of WB Montreal’s worst sins when compared to Rocksteady is simply a lack of polish. There were many instances of glitches and crashes in my play-through of Arkham Origins, which is something I don’t recall ever experiencing in the Arkham series before. Enemies will occasionally get stuck in objects, I got an unearned achievement, the costume selection in the new Batcave hub sometimes breaks, and no fewer than four times the game has frozen on me while trying to load something. Luckily the game auto-saves any time you do just about anything so I never lost too much progress because of these freezes, but the frequency of these technical issues is troubling. This, more than anywhere else in the game, is where WB Montreal dropped the ball. Luckily, it didn’t detract too heavily from my enjoyment of the game.

The New online multiplayer is by far the most ambitious feature that WM Montreal introduces in Arkham Origins. Invisible Predator online is a unique combination of third person shooter gameplay with the predator combat familiar to the Batman series. The three-on three-on two dynamic is already interesting enough, but the characters involved and their interesting specific abilities make this new multiplayer very compelling and the feature that makes Origins stand out on its own.

The two teams of three armed thugs are led by Joker and Bane. They must take over certain rally points and kill the other team of henchmen in order to drain them of a set number of lives and win the match. Meanwhile Batman and Robin are lurking around, above, and below every corner, taking out both teams’ thugs to build their own intimidation meter. The vigilantes don’t kill, so when they take out another player it doesn’t take away from their reinforcement count, but instead builds the vigilantes’ Intimidation Meter. If the heroes fill this meter before either team of henchmen can wipe out the other, then the heroes win. Another monkey wrench is introduced by the fact that during specific circumstances, one player on each villain team can take control of Bane or Joker, who have enhanced abilities and much more health than a normal player. Also the thugs can take out a hero to lower the intimidation meter and to gain reinforcements when they have none left.

All of this makes for a tense, dynamic, and fun multiplayer experience unlike anything else you’ve ever played before. There is a learning curve as certain abilities and weapons need to be unlocked before you can do much damage online, but even when you are losing, it is still fun to play cat and mouse with Batman and Robin. The heroes are randomly selected each game, though you can choose to opt out of the hero selection process if you want to focus on leveling up your thug character.

Invisible Predator Online does have some quirks and problems, however. There are only four maps and just the teams of Bane and Joker. Hopefully some expansions are down the road to add some needed variation to the experience. Also, considered alone, the third person shooting is mediocre since the look sensitivity is a bit slow. But by far the biggest problem with the online multiplayer mode is that it takes forever to get the required players to start a match. It has taken literally a half hour of waiting in the lobby on some occasions. This may be due to the fact that so few people are playing it, or maybe the matchmaking is just terrible. Whatever the reason, hopefully it gets better because if people are ignoring this feature of Akham City, then they are missing out on one of the most interesting new online games that has come around in quite some time.

Arkham Origins may not be the most expansive or ambitious sequel ever created, but it does add some tweaks to the system with varying results along with its compelling new online mode. Despite a few missteps, none worse than the technical issues, the core Arkham combination of atmosphere, smooth action,stealth, puzzles, and character authenticity still make for a game that is better than just about anything else that has come out since Arkham City. It may not be the best Arkham game, but that only pulls it down into the realm of a very good game, rather than an all time great.

AYCG Score: 8.5 out of 10

 

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