Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins

As I have previously established, I am a fan of Batman. I am currently reading Scott Snyder’s take on him in DC’s why-is-it-still-called-the New 52, which I really like reading, and I’ve seen a few movies about the character. While not all of his movies have really been that great, his more recent games are. Rocksteady’s Arkham games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, have been hugely successful by defying all conventions and being licensed Batman games that are actually good, helped by the fact that the entire dev team clearly put a lot of care into the story and gameplay and showing their love for the Dark Knight. Following Arkham City, which I consider to be a perfect video game, I was pleased to learn that there would another entry called Arkham Origins. To my surprise however, I found out that it would not be Rocksteady handling the latest game, but rather WB Montréal, the people who ported the previous game to the Wii U. I knew that Arkham City would be a really tough act to follow from the get-go, but knowing that a different developer would be handling the game made me a little nervous about how it would turn out. While Arkham Origins came out in October, it wasn’t until I received it as a Christmas present, and did some other stuff, that I was able to get my hands on it. Having played the game for a few days now, I’d say that WB Montréal is very competent, but the end result is not without its own share of problems.

Befitting the title, Arkham Origins is a prequel to Arkham Asylum, though at an unspecified point in time (all we know regarding this is that Batman’s been around for about two years). On Christmas Eve, Batman intervenes at a breakout in Blackgate Prison instigated by Black Mask. After prevailing against Killer Croc, the caped crusader discovers that not only has Black Mask placed a $50 million bounty on his head, but eight of the world’s deadliest assassins have gathered in Gotham to try and collect it. At the same time, some of the GCPD’s corrupt cops want to claim the reward themselves. Now Batman must learn why Black Mask wants him dead, defeat the assassins and prove himself as a hero that Gotham can trust. Not far into his investigation however, he also finds out about a mysterious new criminal named “the Joker” and tries to figure out how he fits into the equation.

The eight assassins after Batman's bounty. Only six are plot-relevant.

While Paul Dini has no involvement with the writing this time, the story is actually very well-written. It follows a nice arc for Batman, showing him in a somewhat harsher light as someone who wants to work alone, but as the game goes on he learns the value of teamwork and being able to depend on others for help when he needs it most. There are some moments that show him in a more vulnerable state, as in more human, which is fine because these moments are a good source of his character growth. Black Mask, from what I can tell, is also portrayed well and is a very competent villain, though eventually the spotlight is given completely to the Joker, who is very much a true monster. His antics are very in-character and finding out his past before and with Batman, at least in the context of the Arkhamverse, was very interesting and fleshed out his character a little more.

Despite my praise though, there are a couple of things which stand out. There are a couple of continuity errors that go against what was established in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, the most noticeable one being how Joker and Harley Quinn first met, or even in the Arkham Unhinged comics, that being the first encounter between Batman and Black Mask. I was able to let these go for the sake of this game’s plot, but in the long run I find it bad that WB Montréal couldn’t take the time to go through the other games or the comics and try to stick closely with the canon that was already there. There is also at least one plot point mentioned that never really goes anywhere, though the one that immediately comes to mind is the fact that Calendar Man is set free at the beginning of the game but there is no special story revolving around him, which would actually have been quite interesting.

Black Mask (center) is a formidable adversary.

While I’m at it, I might as well talk about the character selection. The game establishes that there are eight assassins within Gotham, although a few of them are only accessible through side quests (more on that later). As the game mentions, the assassins are Killer Croc, Deathstroke, Firefly, Copperhead, Deadshot, Electrocutioner, Shiva and Bane. Other villains in the game include Penguin, The Riddler (as Enigma), Bird and Anarky. Thanks to having played the previous Arkham Games and seeing quite a bit of The Batman when it first aired, as well as passing knowledge of Beware the Batman, I was able to identify some of the villains (at least those who weren’t already heavily in the public eye). However, I must say that some of the ones chosen are quite obscure (to me), since I had absolutely no idea who Copperhead, Electrocutioner, Bird or Anarky were before now. Maybe it’s my fault for not watching Justice League or reading any pre-New 52 Batman comics, but I get the feeling that WB Montréal scraped the bottom of the barrel for new villains to face. On top of that, the boss fights are kind of a mixed bag, with some being really fun (Firefly, Deathstroke) or just plain ridiculous in the setup (Deadshot).

Deadshot does sniper work with his wrists (?!) and
feels a compulsive need to ricochet his shots.

The gameplay of Arkham Origins is largely the same as Arkham City, which isn’t too surprising considering that WB Montréal developed Arkham City: Armored Edition. There is a strong sense of familiarity because of this, which isn’t bad all things considered since I like the gameplay of Arkham City, but at the same time I can’t help but feel like it isn’t as polished. Combat doesn’t feel as strong and the gadgets that are at Batman’s disposal are essentially slightly weaker versions of what he had in Arkham City. The Freeze Blast and Freeze Cluster, for instance, are both replaced with the weaker Glue Grenade, and the Remote Grapple, while very useful in Predator situations, doesn’t have as many viable places to use it as the Line Launcher. I understand that this would make sense in the context of the game’s placement as a prequel, so Batman isn’t as strong, but a game should still be polished to the fullest anyway and the combat generally wasn’t as fun or tight as its predecessors. Despite this shortcoming, Free Flow combat is still fun enough that you feel like a badass and the Shock Gloves from Arkham City: Armored Edition help with that feeling a lot.

Gotham City is still very impressively detailed, though there was a huge sense of Déjà vu from the fact that about half of the map in Arkham Origins is Arkham City but presented at a different point in time. This makes sense due to the nature of the previous game and if anything Gotham is now bigger than ever by being able to explore the other half, opening up new possibilities for side quests. While I liked being able to explore the city again however, I did find it a little less fun to go through this time around, which isn’t really a good sign, although this is mitigated somewhat by the integration of a Fast Travel system involving the Batplane. I hope that the inevitable next game either takes the story to a new location or makes going through Gotham feel fun again.

Since I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, I think I should talk about the sidequests. These make a return from Arkham City, though naturally they are a bit different. A running one involves thwarting Enigma and by collecting his extortion data and taking out his radar networks to access his HQ and stop him from exposing the darkest secrets about Gotham’s citizens. Another involves finding out the perpetrators of certain murders through an awesome new mechanic where you reconstruct a crime scene gradually and scan the evidence that you find over time by doing so. Overall, the sidequests are a bit fun, though I’ll admit I haven’t played all of them since I have idea how to trigger events which lead to certain assassins and at least one path was severely glitched anyway, which is a shame because otherwise I would have really tried to do everything barring the Enigma stuff.

Reconstructing a crime scene is actually pretty cool.

A lot of praise I might give the game however is overshadowed somewhat by the number of big glitches still in even after extensive patching. I’ve had situations where enemies clip through walls after I knock them out and a time when the Triangle button absolutely would not work, necessitating quitting the game and reloading. The biggest glitch of all however was when I tried a side mission to track down the character Bird and the first mission would not execute properly. After beating the game I tried it again and it failed to go off at all, meaning that I’ll now have to start all over again just to try that one mission. At that point I felt like I had played enough to write this review.

This game is so glitchy that they removed this awesome Worst Nightmare
skin from the game, which they even waited until SDCC to announce!

The visuals are easily among the game’s strong points. Everything is magnificently detailed and the stylized look of everyone and everything still looks good the third time around. I also liked the costume designs of the characters, since they pretty much fit the overall tone and setting of the story. However, there are a couple of snags. There is sometimes quite a bit of texture loading, more than was present in Arkham City, which was a bit distracting when it did happen and did nothing but elicit a laugh from me (I also laughed hard at some of the funnier glitches). Also, there is a point in the game where the fire is frighteningly low-res, which is enough to take you out of the immersion and try and figure out just why it was so difficult for WB Montréal to program fire in an otherwise detail-oriented game.

Apart from the great sound effects in the game, I should also mention the voice acting. Everyone is good in their roles and I have no real complaints, but two voices in particular that need addressing are the roles of Batman and Joker. Rather than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the respective roles are played by Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker. Both are very competent at what they do and I respect their decision to try and emulate their predecessors, just sounding younger in the process. This, to me, helps the characters sound believably younger, as they have a continuity to uphold, but I think that even if another great Arkham game was made and they couldn’t get Kevin Conroy again, these voice actors could still work as incredible substitutes. Heck, even if they got Kevin Conroy back, they should still keep Troy Baker on standby because of his uncanny ability to channel Mark Hamill in his depiction of Joker; unless you knew beforehand that Hamill retired the role and Baker took over, the difference is nearly indistinguishable and I love the voice even more for accomplishing that.

Troy Baker does an excellent job voicing Joker.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a great game and a strong entry in the Arkhamverse, though not quite as good as the Rocksteady titles. It has a very good story and the gameplay is still good, though the combat is a little less polished and more time could have been spent ironing out the texture problems and numerous bugs. I would recommend this game to existing fans of the Arkham games so that they can form their own opinion about the voice acting and change of studio, but for new fans I would say that there are two routes ahead of you. If you want the experience in chronological order, begin with Arkham Origins. If you want the highest quality Batman games around, begin with Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

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