A strong opening act gets your audience's attention. An even better second act gives them the confidence that they're in for a great show. But what if, rather than building on that momentum, your third act merely retreads the high points of the first two acts? Is your masterpiece ruined? Or is it just a more predictable kind of fun? Join Gizmag, as we review the iterative third act in Warner Bros.' Batman: Arkham series of games, Batman: Arkham Origins.
You say you want an evolution
Arkham Origins has a couple of tough acts to follow. Although 2009's Arkham Asylum only needed to be "not terrible" to improve on the decades of Batman games that preceded it, it rose far above those expectations, won several Game of the Year awards, and showed us what a Batman game can be. Then 2011's Arkham City took the first game's formula, expanded on it, and gave the Caped Crusader a much bigger sandbox to roam around in.
Arkham Origins doesn't take a big leap forward from Arkham City. But more of the same isn't always such a terrible thing. In fact, when the thing you're emulating is arguably the best superhero game ever made, well, you're probably still making a pretty damn fun game. And that's just what Batman: Arkham Origins is.
Early Batman in a lifeless Gotham
At the end of Batman: Arkham City, developer Rocksteady killed off one of the most important characters in the Batman canon. So, rather than coming up with a far-fetched "I'm not really dead!" story to revive said character, Warner Bros. handed the franchise off to a different developer (Warner Bros. Games Montréal), and turned back the clock to an earlier point in the Dark Knight's career.
"Origins" really isn't the best title for this game, though, because there's no origin story here. He's already the Batman we know and love – martial arts expertise, utility belt full of gadgets, and all. The only real differences are that he's just getting to know some of his allies (James Gordon) and enemies (the Joker), and criminals aren't yet sure if he's a real person, or just an urban legend.
The plot begins this time with foe Black Mask putting a bounty on the Dark Knight's head. This launches a rogue's gallery of some of Batman's most well-known (Penguin, Bane) and lesser-known (Copperhead, the Electrocutioner) villains on a quest for Bat-blood. It's an intriguing enough setup, which flows into the customary twists and turns, and ultimately leads us to – guess who – the Joker.
The history of gaming is full of far-fetched plot lines thrown in merely to justify the structure of the game itself. But Arkham Origins throws us a real doozy. Like the walled-off section of the city in Arkham City, Gotham is barren, apart from gangs of criminals running amok. This is supposedly due to a major winter storm that's brewing, which prompted police to force citizens to head to shelters and stay indoors. Yet we spend most of the game seeing little more than a few flurries and gusts of wind. Gotham must have some very obedient (and naive) citizens.
It's always nice when a game's storytelling seems more plausible than this. But then again, this is the story of a grown man who dresses up like a bat, grapples across rooftops, and beats the hell out of criminals. And since the first two Arkham games gave us things like giant fireball-spitting plants, a man who looks like a crocodile, and at least two immortals ... well, we can live with the premise of a city where all the regular people can be easily herded indoors.
If you take Origins for what it is – a video game about Batman – and don't expect any award-winning storytelling to go along with it, then Arkham Origins is a ton of fun, and one of the most entertaining games we've played this year.
The highlight is still the game's predator rooms, where Batman is tasked with picking off swaths of machine gun-toting thugs while lurking above, below, and in the shadows. The gameplay in these rooms is mostly unchanged from the last title, but there are a few cool new additions, like a new remote claw that lets you knock enemies out by attaching them to nearby objects (or each other).
Combat is also little-changed from Arkham City, but that isn't a bad thing. The controls are simple (one button attacks, another counters, yet another jumps out of the way), but those simple controls launch Batman into a variety of ass-kicking animations so that it always feels lively, and never feels stale. It's the same fast-paced, fluid brawling that we've grown to expect from the first two titles.
Roaming around Gotham is also a lot like it was in Arkham City, only you have an even bigger playground to roam around this time. The lack of regular citizens may be absurd, but gliding and grappling through various rooftops, ledges, and towers is as exhilarating as it was in the last game.
This time there's a long bridge that you'll have to traverse many times throughout the game, to travel from one island to another. Some may find this annoying, and we understand. But we found that gliding along beside the bridge (sustained gliding was one of our favorite parts of the last game) kept it from feeling like a chore. Even if it does, there's also a fast travel mode that you'll unlock as you complete side missions.
Boss fights are the biggest change, and I found it to be for the better. In the first game, nearly every boss was a giant Bane-like brute with the same combat patterns. The second game mixed that up a lot more, but there were too many over-the-top supernatural opponents for my taste (I personally think Batman is best when you leave the magic and otherworldliness at home).
In Arkham Origins, many of the boss fights are based on bare-knuckles combat. Batman squares off in one-on-one bouts with foes who are also trained fighters, and the gameplay becomes a bit more like Mike Tyson's Punchout than Batman versus X giant or Y immortal.
The gameplay in these boss bouts becomes more Quick Time Event (QTE) based than ever before. Like when you're battling thugs, your success hinges on countering their attacks at the right moment, but here that moment is narrower. It requires quicker reflexes and a more adept studying of your opponent's moves. It's one of the biggest departures from the first two games, and I found it to be a welcome one.
The other big change comes in Batman's crime scene investigations. Like before, you're still scanning a small area for clues (which are conveniently highlighted for you). But this time Batman also recreates the crime, which you can rewind and fast forward to look for extra clues. It still holds your hand throughout the process, so there's nothing too difficult here, but it's a nice touch, and helps to put more focus on the Sherlock Holmes aspect of Batman lore.
Behind the cowl ... and the grin
Many hardcore Batman fans were a little concerned about the two lead voice actors from the first two games, Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (the Joker), being replaced for the latest outing (by Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker, respectively). But I actually preferred Smith's new Batman. Conroy's voice acting always sounded cartoony to me. Smith's Caped Crusader has a darker, grittier, growlier tone ... as if he borrowed more from Christian Bale's cinematic Batman than from Conroy's video game Batman. It fits the slightly rougher and edgier atmosphere of this game.
I preferred Hamill's Joker, but Troy Baker makes very similar choices with his version, so it isn't a huge difference. If you didn't play the first two games, then just imagine a talking snake who's high on prescription meds. Baker's Joker, like Hamill's, isn't nearly as frightening, funny, or effective as Heath Ledger's version in The Dark Knight, but we weren't expecting that.
Some supporting characters sound a little (or a lot) over-the-top, and the mindless thugs that Batman spends most of the game beating to a pulp still sound like "dumb gangster" stereotypes from a children's cartoon. None of this really hurts anything – remember, this series of games threw realism out long ago – but I do wonder whether a Batman game where everyone sounded a bit more human and nuanced would be more effective.
If you go into Batman: Arkham Origins expecting as big a leap forward as Arkham Asylum made from previous Batman games, you'll be severely disappointed. If you expect it to forge as much new ground as Arkham City did over the original, you'll also be let down. A groundbreaking game this is not.
But an entertaining game this is. If you appreciated what worked in the last games, and are happy to throw down US$60 to revisit what worked so well before, then Arkham Origins is an absolute blast to play. It puts you in the boots of the Dark Knight just as well as the first two games. And while it's the least revolutionary of the series by far, we think it just might be the best.
Batman: Arkham Origins is highly recommended for fans of the first two Arkham games who are more interested in entertainment than breakthroughs. It's available now for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and Windows (we played the PS3 version for this review).
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