Batman: Arkham Origins Review

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Let me start by saying that the Arkham games are my favorite franchise. Arkham City is the reason why I started writing about videogames. It was the first game that made me want to know the people behind it, the actual process of making a videogame. I wanted to know how it was possible to harmonize so many things in so many perfect ways; how it was possible to portrait so many different faces of a single character, from the best detective in the world, to the skilled fighter, to the relentless predator, to the worst nightmare and back to the man behind the mask.

So I studied, I read, I researched the world of videogames; I started to walk its back alleys. What I learned helped me to be a better informed consumer in the first place, and as a result a happier person when it comes to play a game I choose. I try to filter all the marketing non-sense and apply a little logic to every product.

This third game in the series, developed by a different studio, WB Games Montreal, features a young Batman; it is his second year as Gotham protector and for the first time he’ll be facing criminals on his same level. The likes of Deathstroke, Bane, Deadshot, Firefly, Copperhead and others I won’t spoil for you, even if Batman himself will make a list of names right at the beginning; but still I don’t want to ruin it for you if you managed to skip all the marketing about the eight assassins.

All of them are hired by Black Mask to kill the Batman. It is Christmas Eve and a winter storm is raging upon Gotham. All aspects of the previous games are back, in one way or another. The FreeFlow combat is always the same, you hit, counter, perform special moves and use gadgets in the middle of the fight. There are new animations and different timing involved this time. The big problem is that now enemies will track your position, so if you’re evading or striking a different enemy in a different position and you’re mid-air in a jump an enemy who started his animation will lock onto your position and fly all the way to hit you. In few words the FreeFlow Combat System doesn’t flow anymore. You may need a few rounds to nail it down and during that time you won’t feel like the Batman, at all; a pretty big sin for a Batman game.

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The new Martial Artist will counter your hits and respond, so you’ll have to be fast and react countering their counters. These guys are just annoying and will interrupt every action you’re performing. I prefer Ninjas if you must have a more agile enemy. The Enforcer is a gigantic thug, similar to the Russian twins from Arkham City, you’ll have to perform a beatdown to defeat them. They come in two variations: without armor or with armor which you can break with a beatdown after an Ultra Stun with your cape or using a special combo takedown, and then finish them off.

The Venom Users are like armored enemies when they are under the effect of the drug; in this case the beatdown or the special move will disable their venom tank. It’s real fun fighting this guys. The regular thugs with shields, stun rods, knives and Ninjas make a return as well.

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The Predator sections are really well executed. Every room has multiple levels and the enemies patrol patterns are faster than the previous games and when you take down one of them they won’t stick together for too long, giving you the opportunity to take them out singularly without having to wait too long for them to split. It may not be strategic from their part but it helps the fluidity of the game, cutting dead times.

The various gadgets have lower cooldown times, so for example you can use the Sonic Batarang various times without having to wait too long for it to recharge, helping you to better control the room. Now the disruptor can disable PA systems in the room, so if you take down someone the supervisor can’t talk to the rest of his men and you can chain various takedowns without alarming the others.

The only problems are the skill trees and the gadgets you can unlock. Some of the fundamental moves, even old ones you were using in the previous games, like the Sonic Batarang, the Critical Strikes or the Shock Wave Attack, can only be unlocked after completing challenges or side missions. The Dark Knight System, the lengthy list of tasks to complete, is even missable. If you don’t achieve certain goals during the main story and in specific Predator rooms you won’t be able to complete them while free-roaming the city because the game may count some rooftops with armed men as a predator encounter but it won’t count them for The Dark Knight System. Also, after completing the campaign if you enter a building to try and complete some other challenges you’ll find an empty space with no one in it. Be warned if you’re aiming for a 100% completion. This is just a cheap and maddening trick to increase replayability. Or just a poor design choice.

What drives me crazy is that near the end of the game I still can’t unlock my favorite special move: Disarm and Destroy! I’m literally at the end of the game and I will unlock it after the end game. This is insanity! You have to play the all game without this ability. Every time you are in a fight even one gun makes it way harder than it needs to be. You always have to come back to the one mobster who picks up the gun over and over again. The Critical Strikes? Same story. Half of the game and you still can’t double your multiplier with every hit. This is basic stuff, it’s what makes these games what they are. You can’t take them away! Complete Shiva’s Test of Worth and Bird’s side mission as soon as they show up on your map; it will always be too late but it’s better than nothing.

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Now the counter move can “strike critically” if timed properly; but it’s not enough to close the gap. I’m so mad for the Disarm and Destroy special move! The rule should be: I give you your last abilities and I build from them. They just rearranged the same things and they won’t let you unlock them the way you want. It’s useless because I already know them and I already know how to use and manage them; I don’t need skill trees. And don’t bring up balancing issues or learning curves for new-comers. It worked for Arkham City and it would work here as well.

What about continuity? After all this is a prequel. You can’t go there either, I already have the Grapnel Accelerator. Which is a prototype in Arkham City. The fact is that they really wanted it to be this way.

On the other hand they really added something new to some gadgets. Like the Disruptor that can disable PA systems and locks on weapon boxes. You can now perform takedowns when you’re walking on a wire. You can perform two special moves one after the other if you reach the sufficient multiplier. In other sectors they brought back stuff from Arkham Asylum that Arkham City left behind, like Multiple Batarangs or the automatic Explosive Gel when an enemy walks near it; this last one was useless and they left it behind in Arkham City. Because when you unlock the automatic upgrade the gel will explode as soon as an enemy walks near it; instead if I can wait and detonate it myself I could maybe knock two or three enemies out.

The new Concussion Detonator is useless; it takes the place of the Remote Electric Charge, but it doesn’t knocks armored enemies down and it makes thugs wave around their arms, hitting you when you’re doing other moves.

The Remote Claw is real fun, changing things a little in predator encounters. You can hang a thug to a gargoyle remotely, or knock him out with a propane tank. The Glue Grenade takes the spot of the Ice Grenade that Mr. Freeze gave you in Arkham City, it works exactly the same way, blocking an enemy or a group when you unlock the Cluster Grenade upgrade. The only problem is that you’ll see one ugly looking texture when you’ll fire it.

When you venture outside a new Gotham is revealed before you. The Old Gotham is the one we visited in Arkham City, with some familiar places you’ll visit during the main story. The New Gotham features many tall buildings; maybe this way you can’t see the empty streets down below.

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There’s a curfew in act for the storm and the only inhabitants of the streets are criminals and dirty cops. The entire city is big but not very interesting, the Local Surveillance is back, so you can listen to what’s going on while navigating the world. But do not expect the level of love and detail of the previous title.

The street thugs barely react to what is going on in the world. They will simply comment on the events and you won’t find new dynamics or encounters like the street wars starting in Arkham City after defeating Two-Face and The Penguin or after changing a big event. The world feels alive only when you enter buildings and you face specific scenarios. On the streets little change. This could pull you out of the experience.

The new Detective Vision can reconstruct crime scenes to search for clues. An evolution from the old one where you only had to analyze specific objects. Don’t get me wrong, you still do the same thing here, it’s a guided and on rails process but it gives you a little bit of context and if feels right. But there’s no challenge because you’re not solving a puzzle but watching a video with marked objects to scan.

In each district there is a Radio Tower you have to re-activate in order to use the Batwing to fast travel; these towers work also as the latest (or should I say the first) attempt by Enigma to challenge the Dark Knight, with network relays to destroy and data packs to collect. Anarky joins the party, too; leaving tags to scan for information about corrupted places in the city. They’re not marked on the map and I’m really sick and tired of this “old school” style of collectibles not appearing on the map. It seems like many developers are bringing them back. We want nice little icons for everything, please.

Speaking of Anarky and side missions a couple of assassins are relegated in this sector. So do not expect a real boss fight. These Most Wanted missions are basically reinterpretation of the old side missions, with the one about Black Mask being basically the same as the previous Bane’s side mission in which you had to destroy Titan’s containers, instead this time they are drugs canisters.

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Regarding boss fights, apart from the one featuring Deathstroke, which lacks a due “gravitas” and consists in hitting and countering without any specific strategy, we have really fun and cinematic boss fights. The Firefly fight is my favorite, with a perfect building of the tension, defusing bombs and saving hostages while the bridge is collapsing, until the actual showdown on the higher level. Same thing with Bane. I have to give them that they are masters in building dramatic tension.

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The story is the real jewel here, perfectly paced and with enough twists. The promises about first encounters have been kept. The cutscenes fit perfectly the spirit of the Dark Knight and the dialog is top-notch and on point. The presentation of The Batman as an urban myth is well portrayed, with everyone rightfully freaking out seeing him, or even only his shadow, for the first time. The beginning inside the Blackgate Prison is an obvious homage to Arkham Asylum and the stealth tutorial is an obvious tribute to the one inside the church in Arkham City.

The first encounter with the Mad Hatter and the Wonderland sequence, alongside the therapy section of The Joker are two perfectly designed and written nightmares which you’ll have to navigate in all of their dreamlike glory. The first to survive and rescue Alice, the second to understand the birth of the parasitic bond The Joker establishes with The Batman. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker do a wonderful and believable job in delivering a younger Batman and a younger Joker, respectively. The relationship with Alfred showcases how this version of Batman lacks humility and how he will learn to trust others and seek for help when he can’t do it alone.

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To recap, there are some new elements, even if some of them are just old friends in a new suit, new gadgets, a bigger and unfortunately emptier city but a well written story that deserves your attention and overall makes justice to the characters and treats them the way a fan would expect it to. The great disappointment for me was that for every step they took forward they took two back. If the game were simply “more of the same” of the previous title it would have been still excellent but sometimes the final result is less than that.

The game is also full of bugs; I have an Xbox 360 copy and near the end of the campaign I run into the “falling bug”, where the checkpoint loads the character outside the gameworld in an empty space where it falls until the game reloads the checkpoint in a vicious circle. The only solution was to create a new save file losing all my progress, including challenge maps, and restart the campaign. This is unacceptable! People play Frisbee with their discs or re-sell their games for much less!

I hope they can fix this with an update and I can come back to my previous save file. But not only this; the game crashes, there are frame rate drops during fast travel animations and one time all my enemies were invisible and the textures didn’t load at all.

As I said at the beginning this franchise is my favorite and the Arkham games were the reason I wanted to know more about game development, to understand and relate to those talented people that were able to imagine mechanics capable of changing the entire genre of action/adventure videogames.

So, as much as I wanted to give this game a ten out of ten only for being a Batman game there are some aspects and technical issues which drive you out of the experience or simply make the game unplayable.

I wanted to show to others with my same level of love for these games the true value and characteristics of this particular game in the series, given the fact that there might be a new developer but they still have a legacy to bring forward and use as a starting point for improvement.

 

+ A mature, intense, cinematic and fitting story for The Dark Knight
+ Predator rooms

– Combat timing
– Empty and uninteresting city
– Basic upgrades locked behind challenges or side missions
– The game will crash and corrupt your save file and it will make your frame rate drop while gliding through the city or during Fast Travel animations (Xbox 360)

 

SCORE 6.0

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