The joke’s on us
Fandom. It’s a weird little concept, but it can add color to so many different elements of our lives. For me, my fandom centers mostly on Batman—and has since I was a little boy watching Adam West in reruns of the campy ’60 TV series. After that, I worshipped Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. And now, I still swear up and down that Batman: The Animated Series is one of the greatest cartoons of all time. To this day, I adorn my apartment with Batman paraphernalia.
All of this makes reviewing a game like Batman: Arkham Origins a potentially enjoyable or maddening endeavor, however, because my lifelong obsession has me feel the highs and lows more than a casual observer might. And, at points, Arkham Origins goes very low.
The story is a simple one. The Caped Crusader has been cleaning up the streets of Gotham City for just about two years now, but just as we learned in the movies with Batman Begins, when you introduce an element like Batman into the world, there’s bound to be escalation—an evil to counterbalance the good that he represents. In Arkham Origins, the world’s eight best assassins have come to Gotham to try to collect a $50 million bounty that mob boss Black Mask has put on the Bat’s head. And when you get that many criminal elements converging on a sprawling urban center, “escalation” might not even begin to describe it.
This script is a brilliant breakdown of how everyone in the Arkhamverse reacts to this growing conflict when it first happens—and how Batman finally begins to transition from urban myth into a hero in the limelight. Though the story may start off a bit slow, once it hits its stride around the midway point, the twists and turns are worthy of any Batman story we’ve seen in print or on a TV/movie screen before. Dooma Wendschuh and Corey May—best known for their work on Ubisoft franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia—have proven themselves adept at handling the Dark Knight as much as any comic-book writer. And Christopher Drake (a veteran of several animated Batman films) delivers a chilling soundtrack, highlighted by some truly creepy Christmas-themed music, that sets the tone for a classic Batman adventure.
But there’s a lot more to a game than just the plot and atmosphere. Even though Warner Bros. Montreal took Arkham Asylum and Arkham City developer Rocksteady’s basic framework for much of Arkham Origins, it’s clear they wanted to put their own stamp on the franchise—but in the process, they’ve sullied several cornerstone elements from the first two Arkham games.
The first huge disappointment comes in the form of the boss battles. The game’s already scraping the bottom of the barrel with its many C-list villains, but Warner Bros. Montreal does most of them no favors from escaping that label. For every great boss encounter, there’s a horrible, pointless one that makes you question the character’s presence in the game in the first place. And even though the game touts eight assassins, not all of them are actually woven into the story. Instead, they’re relegated to side-mission status—but some of these conflicts are actually better than the story-related ones. It makes you wonder why Warner Bros. Montreal didn’t just trim the number of assassins down in order to deliver the consistent quality of encounters that players expect.
The biggest mistakes are found in the gameplay, though. The highly touted Detective mode crime reconstructor turns out to be a dud, since there are fewer than a dozen instances that you actually use it—and most of those are during the story. It’s an interesting idea that I would’ve loved to have seen more fully fleshed out, but at least the new Detective mode works.
The same can’t be said for combat, due to two of the new gadgets in Batman’s arsenal. The first, the Remote Claw, throws a tightrope between two points, allowing Batman to cross large gaps not normally traversable by the Batclaw. This gadget can also throw objects in the environment at thugs—or even slam two baddies together by attaching to both of them.
But when you give the Remote Claw its two upgrades via the new XP system, you can spam your attacks to make the stealth-based predator rooms far easier than they should be. At that point, you can use the Remote Claw to actually string up three thugs to gargoyles from a distance, never leaving the room’s opening perch, and whittling down the numbers from a daunting six to eight gun-touting thugs to a much more manageable three to five.
This is also a good time to mention that the AI in these rooms seems to have taken a step back from previous entries. You can easily lure all the henchmen in the room back to a gargoyle with a suspended thug, cut down the strung-up one with a Batarang, swing around the room, and string up a new thug to the same gargoyle. I could do this with an entire room, whereas in previous games, not every foe would go to these same spots over and over—they’d catch on to the trick sooner or later. Instead, now I have a pile of eight bodies in one location, which makes it very easy for the janitor to clean up after Batman leaves all the bad guys huddled together.
The second gadget in question breaks the other key gameplay element: hand-to-hand combat. When you get the Electrocutioner’s Shock Gloves, you can throw out any semblance of strategy. You see, the Shock Gloves are unblockable. So, when you activate them, instead of having to balance your attack against shield foes, armored enemies, and stun-baton thugs and actually strategize how to keep your combos going, you can just whale on them with the Shock Gloves for easy massive combos and no longer worry about performing cape stuns or dodges and attacking from behind. What was previously an intricate fighting system becomes a standard button-masher when using the Shock Gloves.
Of course, these gadgets—like everything in Batman’s arsenal—are wholly optional, so if you want to avoid using them to give yourself a more authentic experience, that’s entirely up to you. But, should you choose to use them, they’re clearly overpowered.
Now, I mentioned the new XP system before, and this is actually an addition that works pretty well. It makes every fight and action Batman takes mean something, since you’re constantly working toward leveling up and unlocking new abilities. It also does a better job breaking down how you get XP than what we’ve seen in previous games.
There’s another addition called The Dark Knight System, however, that’s irritating and locks some useful items behind it. In all, 60 specific tasks fall under being Gotham’s protector, thugs’ worst nightmare, being the best vigilante possible, and working toward becoming the world’s greatest detective. Each branch has 15 items in it, but only by completing each item in order can you unlock the next one, with rewards being given at different levels (like the Sonic Shock Batarang). I just couldn’t help but wonder why I needed to do the tasks in order, considering how hard the later ones are; if you accidentally pulled off task No. 14 while still on task No. 12, you’re out of luck and need to do it again. This is incredibly frustrating, especially because it’s an interesting idea that falls flat in execution.
Speaking of frustrations, glitches abound in Origins. This stuff could be patched at a later date, I suppose, but plenty of technical issues hindered my experience—and even forced me to restart many checkpoints. Thugs would suddenly start to hover 10 feet off the ground, so I’d have to do a dive attack from a higher perch to knock them off whatever invisible box they were standing on.
The controls froze up in several instances, preventing me from hurting any of the bad guys—but, interestingly enough, they couldn’t hurt me, either, which forced a checkpoint restart. Other times, I looked to Batclaw up to a higher point, and I got the RB button prompt to do so—but I instead launched across the room in the opposite direction.
And, of course, Arkham Origins also includes your standard bugs like the camera getting stuck on corners. Finally, there’s my personal favorite, lag and screen tearing in the open world. Not a lot of it, but enough to be a nuisance—and the frequency definitely spikes later in the game as more thugs are on the streets. Sure, it’s not like any of this is foreign to games, but it’s also stuff I didn’t see in the previous games.
Arkham Origins also includes something else we didn’t see in the previous games: versus multiplayer. Heck, I didn’t even know about it until I got the game. This is another example of an interesting idea from Warner Bros. Montreal that’s horribly executed—and completely unnecessary.
Eight players are split into three teams: three players on the Joker’s team, three on Bane’s, and the other two play as Batman and Robin (who doesn’t appear in the story at all). If you play as a Joker or Bane henchman, the game takes on a third-person-shooter viewpoint where you try to kill everyone on the other team. Each team has 25 respawns, and when these are exhausted for one side, the other team wins.
Besides kills, you can also capture three points in the environment. With each capture, the opposing team loses a reinforcement. Batman and Robin’s objective, then, is to perform stealth takedowns—like in the predator rooms—on as many thugs as possible in the hopes of filling up an intimidation meter in order for them to win. If they get shot and die, though, the meter is depleted. Players can also race to become their team’s inspirational boss midway through the match, bringing the Joker or Bane onto the field and giving one team a decided advantage, since most of Bane and the Joker’s powers are one-hit kills. What’s more, you can’t be Batman and Robin two matches in a row, since a randomizer selects who’ll don the cape and cowl after each match.
Just typing that made my head hurt. There’s way too much going on in any of these matches, and the term “clusterf***” came to mind frequently during my playtime. The shooting controls feel way too loose, the maps are far too small for Batman and Robin to ever be truly effective, and their stealth techniques are nearly impossible to pull off throughout an entire match because it’s so hard to predict human nature. Plus, they’re completely negated as long as teams stick together, since Batman and Robin can only take one guy down at a time. The two partner players will often immediately turn their guns on Batman and Robin as soon as something happens, since many of the takedowns also take far too long to complete.
But my biggest complaint about this mode is that Batman is the last character who needs a multiplayer component in his game, and I fear something like this could lead to co-op with Robin, Nightwing, and Batgirl down the line.
The addition of multiplayer shows where this game went wrong: from the get-go. Instead of trying to appeal to the core Batman audience, it feels like WB and DC rushed this game out the door in order to try to maintain the accepted two-year development cycle that’s become a standard for most franchises in order to maintain the widest audience possible.
And by asking Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker to impersonate former Batman and Joker actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill—instead of having them do their own takes on the characters—I think WB and DC are scared of upsetting an already precarious status quo that sees Marvel thumping them in almost every single media endeavor. Even though Smith and Baker do a stellar job for 90 percent of the game, that other 10 percent—where they sound like they’re struggling to get in the spirit of Conroy and Hamill—shatters the immersion. It’s so jarring, it’s like if I were watching Christopher Walken in Batman Returns, and then suddenly, Jay Mohr is there in his place instead. But the only reason why you’d have them do impersonations in the first place is because you’re scared the casual fanbase won’t be able handle change of any sort. You make a game for the lowest common denominator—the kind of player who needs multiplayer.
But most Batman fans are better than that. It goes back to that fandom thing: The diehards are amazingly in tune with their favorite characters and everything going on with them. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a huge clamoring for multiplayer. And there wasn’t a change in voice actors because WB felt they needed “younger-sounding versions” of these characters—especially because they got everyone else from the previous games to reprise their roles.
This all leads to my main problem with Batman: Arkham Origins: It’s nothing more than a stopgap game to keep Batman fresh in the minds of the casual consumer. With Rocksteady hard at work on whatever they’re doing for next-gen, whether it’s the Batman game we want that picks up right after Arkham City (and hopefully follows Hush) or some other DC-related property (there’s always rumors of them taking a crack at Superman), Warner Bros. felt they had to put something out there. In order to not rock the boat even further, they even figured out a way to work the Joker back in with the idea of a prequel.
At its core, despite the flaws, there’s a decent Batman game here, since it still has the basic mechanics of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. But the game could’ve been so much more if WB Montreal had really tried to carry the series forward instead of trying to do their own impersonation. And at least then—if this effort had been in the name of wrapping up the series on this console generation with a truly magnificent bang—they could be forgiven a little for all the things they broke when it comes to gameplay. Instead, it feels like they cut corners, slapped a Christmastime coat of paint on Rocksteady’s previous framework, built a second island that looks strikingly similar to the first, and hoped that making a couple of references to the previous games would keep the fanbase satisfied. Because of all this, the game falls short of the lofty expectations established by the first two Arkham games—and my expectations as a lifelong Batman fan.
|Developer: Warner Bros. Montreal • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 10.25.13|
Batman: Arkham Origins is a massive step back from Rocksteady’s Arkham efforts due to countless technical problems, poor gadget balancing, and a needless addition of versus multiplayer.
|The Good||The story, atmosphere, and music are all worthy of the Arkham series.|
|The Bad||Many of the new elements Warner Bros. Montreal introduces are wholly unnecessary—or ruin Rocksteady’s cornerstone elements.|
|The Ugly||The lack of faith WB and DC has in its fanbase.|
|Batman: Arkham Origins is available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.|