Saturday, November 2, 2013

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Origins.

An open-world brawler action game, Batman: Arkham Origins is the latest in the brilliantly successful Arkham franchise, spearheaded by Rocksteady with 2009's Arkham Asylum and 2011's Arkham City.

Arkham Origins is the first game in the franchise not made by Rocksteady Studios - it was developed at the newly-purchased Warner Bros. Montreal studio.  And it shows.


Prior to 2009's Arkham Asylum, it was fair to say there had never been a great Batman game. We all had the same response when we heard it was actually excellent - "seriously?"  A great Batman game did not compute - but Rocksteady really pulled it off.  It was interesting, beautiful, intelligent, original in its mechanics and absolutely bursting at the seams with love for its source material and little details, while cleverly applying the classic Metroidvania template to the compact but open world of Arkham Asylum's grounds.  Its story wasn't particularly interesting, though.

2011's Arkham City cranked everything to eleven, offering a broad swath of city to fight crime through and a much more accomplished story, including everything from Two Face and some excellent Catwoman content to Hugo Strange, Talia al Ghul, Mr. Freeze and a spectacular Joker arc. It did this while fleshing out and honing Rocksteady's already accomplished mechanics and still offering up a mini-city thick with gorgeous art choices, rich in character.

Arkham Origins... tries.  One must admit it tries, God bless it - but the secret sauce is indeed missing from this latest adventure.  Origins is to Rocksteady's Arkham as Sanzaru's Thieves in Time is to Sucker Punch's Sly trilogy, if that makes sense.  At first glance it looks the same.  At first glance it even plays the same - punch and run and grappling hook are all mapped to the same buttons and your success in combat still hinges on your ability to ping-pong back and forth between enemies, never failing at a counter - but no, it's not the same.

Like Sanzaru's Sly, WB Montreal's Arkham reveals that a tactful, graceful exploration of mechanics, comfortable challenge gradient, genuinely engaging, rich visuals and a thoughtful design and rhythm to a game's proceedings to not simply materialize out of thin air - and that this studio is not quite up to the challenge of matching Rocksteady's high water mark.


Take this sign, for example.

"Furniture company," it reads in two-foot-tall letters.  "Furniture company."  Someone at Warner Bros. Montreal looked at that sign and decided it wasn't an opportunity to add a touch of Batman-specific character to the world.  Instead of the countless Gotham landmarks, characters and businesses they could have referenced, someone decided it didn't need to have any character at all, and that "furniture company" was enough.

That is my problem with this entire game.  It feels like this studio acknowledged that there are aspects of Batman that their game needs, but didn't take the time to discover - or simply didn't care about - what makes any interpretation of the Dark Knight (WB's own animated series from the '90s, Tim Burton's work and Rocksteady's own) memorable.

Origins leans on the framework Rocksteady set down in Asylum and City without actually understanding the point and purpose of it.  It bows to the choices Rocksteady had made without appreciating why - and so, it ends up tripping up in both the details and the broad strokes.


Boss fights, instead of being exciting tests of skill feel more like downright-unfair wars of attrition (Bane) when they're not simply tedious, and boring (Deadshot, Firefly).  Rocksteady quickly learned from Arkham Asylum how not to design a boss fight, but WB Montreal has enjoyed no such education.

The combat, polished to a mirror's edge in Arkham City, takes a step back from that smooth fun factor in Origins.  While Bats stills springs back and forth between enemies, evading, countering, punching and going wild with gadgets, Origins takes cruel pleasure in thicker crowds, more aggressive enemies and attacks from offscreen foes. Quick-fire gadgets are 98% reliable, but those two percent of times when they don't fire are infuriating.

Just as frustrating are the moments where the game communicates that you have an opening - an enemy moves in to strike, the counter prompt appears above his head and you tap triangle.  There's a guy with a gun on the other side of the room and you need to deal with him, but as soon as Batman finishes that counter, another thug steps forward to be countered, and another, and another.  After four or five counters, there's a moment where no thug is coming towards you and the opportunity seems clear - you fire off your Batclaw into the corner to yank the gun-toting thug towards you - but as you do, another thug runs up during your Batclaw animation, the counter prompt flashes above his head as you are helpless to do anything about it and he smacks you in the face, knocking your combo counter down to zero.

At times like that it's like, man, fuck this game.


Other times it manages to be downright lovely.  As Batman, you can retire at any time to your Batcave - which, all alone, is awesome - to throw down in training simulations, swap out your Batsuit to a DLC version or just chat with Alfred to gain some of his sage, proper wisdom for a big XP gain.

The narrative is... uneven, but calling it uneven at least acknowledges that there are some highlights, here.  The opening third I found downright boring, encumbered as it is by a molasses-slow plot and play-halting bugs like hard freezes and main story quest markers that disappear, which deny the player the ability to advance the plot without resorting to YouTube to find out where they're supposed to go in the huge city to find the next crime scene.

After say, the first half, it actually becomes pretty interesting as the Joker begins to take center stage in an origin story of his obsession with Batman.  For his part, Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite) does an admirable job of recreating Mark Hamill's Joker - but as in The Last of Us, Baker's performance is most interesting in the quiet moments, and here he makes layered choices you know Hamill never would have.  When it's not simply trying to recreate what Hamill would have done in his place, Baker's performance is characteristically intelligent and, as partial as I am to Hamill's Joker, I found myself wishing Baker had simply done away with mimicking Hamill's interpretation and given us his own.


Kevin Conroy is, of course, missed in the lead, but Roger Craig Smith does a halfway decent job of offering up a younger Batman.  Nolan North, as ever, is a chameleon in his guise as the Penguin (less so as random street thugs), and there's another excellently nuanced performance from Tara Strong to enjoy.

The Joker's story aside, though, Origins often feels like a piecemeal cobbling of stories we should have spent more time with, and side-jaunts in to taking out assassins feel far shorter than they should.  Michael Gough often feels pretty weak as Jim Gordon, but that may be because the Gordon sub-plot of Origins feels downright hackneyed.


Despite boasting more than twice the real estate of Arkham City, it often feels like there's less to do in Origins, and the main campaign is over in about half the time.  I do love the totally-linear crime scene investigations and hunting down the murderers, but the game pads itself out with a suitably insane amount of Riddler items to track down (they get marked on your map long before you have the tools required to retrieve them - very frustrating) and a ton of backtracking.

You'll glide back and forth across Pioneer Bridge so many times you'll start to hate that monstrosity of suspended stupidity - and will be doubly disappointed when you discover you can't actually scale it to the tippy-top, and look down over Gotham from that glorious height.

You want to.  There are countless tall buildings in Gotham you wish you could get to the top of, the better to explore with, but the game won't let you.

Why not, WB Montreal?  I suspect - as in the quick-draw Batclaw foible, as in the furniture company sign, as in the rather pallid, soulless interpretation of Gotham and the inept pacing - because they simply didn't ask themselves if it could have been done better, or bother to care.


I've been abundantly hard on Arkham Origins, but it's worth noting that my concerns regarding its quality are simply a result of the sky-high standards Rocksteady set for the franchise.  If one were to go back in time and play Origins before Asylum and City happened, we would be downright thrilled with Origins.

It's a huge game with nice graphics, decent gameplay, a huge map to explore, unique mechanics and, hey - it's Batman.

It's okay.  It's not bad.  It's a good game, which is only a real disappointment because the Arkham name had established itself as synonymous with excellence.  It can't make that claim any more, but we can hope that, as Rocksteady did, Warner Bros. Montreal will be able to learn from their efforts here, and apply them to something a bit more refined in the future.

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