Batman: Arkham Origins Review (PS3)
If you had never eaten ice cream, then you tried your favourite flavour first, afterwards all other ice cream might be a bit of a disappointment. “Hmm, this pistachio sure is deliciously nutty, but I thought things could only get better after strawberry and this just isn’t as good.” This is the Arkham games for me. They served me my favourite flavour first with Arkham Asylum. This newest game is vanilla; it’s Batman with a lot of the fancier bits removed, but the basic gameplay is still creamily delicious. Or at least it is until you get to the occasional bug, and no one likes bugs in their ice cream.
Arkham Asylum was a near perfect game for me. It had a clear through line – a focused story set in a single location that took place in a single night. It was a Halloween horror story – tightly scripted, brilliantly paced and punchy as Hell. Being in one location, using your wits and detective skills, no game had ever made you feel more like Batman. You could argue that with its single location (varied though it was), it had the same pace and scope as the perfect action movie: Die Hard.
Arkham City was different. More oblique in its storytelling, it left you to piece the plot together. The world was bigger; not exactly a whole city, but not just an asylum either. It was more of everything: more bad guys, more riddles and more gadgets, but it was also a bit less. It lost it’s focus and suffered, and I often felt overwhelmed with the number of conflicting objectives I had at once. Looking out over a city absolutely littered with Riddler question marks sapped the urgency of the game and made the world seem less like a coherent real place and more like a playground. I still loved it, but not as much.
With Arkham Origins, declining returns are definitely in effect. In this stopgap installment, rookie studio Warner Bros. Games Montréal take the reigns, and early on Arkham Origins feels like a timid, stuttering start for a team that have big (bat) boots to fill. In truth though the game improves as you get deeper into the story and its structure crystalizes. It seems like Warner Montreal gained confidence as they went, and by the halfway mark the story has kicked into gear and you’ll enjoy taking on the insane cast of villains as you surrender yourself to the thrill of being Batman again.
The first thing you’ll notice is Arkham Origins is a very monochrome game. There were a few parts of Asylum or City that were garish and looked like a comic, but here the palette is so muted, it looks like you’re playing on an old black and white telly at times. The occasional splash of bright colours of the previous games seemed to have been pared back, but it’s not an improvement. Muddy and low rez textures abound, and as I ran around I often wondered if I was running on snow or cement. There were no footprints. It’s like all the neon, bright highlighting of the previous games has been stripped out, and the game looks poorer as a result. It doesn’t help that the early locations see you go from the the sewers to the steel mill. Dull dull dull.
While the visuals disappoint (at least compared to the previous games) the game doesn’t impress technically either. I experienced a lot of bugs and glitches. Level geometry didn’t fit together properly in some of the less obvious parts of the city and there was some slowdown. Although the framerate wasn’t too much of an issue during most of my play time, there was one section at the top of a tower with lots of enemies where the game slowed so much I couldn’t play properly, and I had to run away from the enemies here to continue my adventure. It just happened one time, but it hardly instills confidence that the new studio are on solid footing when it comes to the game engine. Other little glitches included a couple of hard locks on my PS3 and NPC’s mouths not moving during dialogue.
And now that I am thinking back, I remember another bug. When I finished a gang fight and had to interrogate an enemy, because that fight also triggered some police dialogue, the game went nuts and I just stood, holding this guy by the throat and staring into his eyes for about 30 seconds. It was very erotic, but hardly a Batman moment.
While this all sounds quite negative, the truth is that Arkham Origins makes some very clever design choices and crafts the smoothest, most satisfying Batman experience so far, if not the most revolutionary. There’s less annoying Riddler puzzles littering the landscape (although they are still there). The map works better, with a fast travel system available via the Batwing. The combat makes some reasonable changes, with a few different gadgets and enemies. Ninja-types require double counters, while you can now attack knife wielding enemies from the front. There’s a broader range of big tough guys to fight, but they’re less frustrating opponents than the big guys you could ride like a horse-ape from the previous games. The combat as a whole is still fantastically satisfying, and there’s a broader range of moves and animations this time round.
And the setting really grows on you as you play. The beginning of the game is a bit abrupt and Batman’s first reveal is anticlimactic, but when you realise that this is a game all about Batman’s first encounter with his ultimate nemesis, the story achieves a cohesion and focus that pulls you in. As you go about recreating a particular crime (which is a genuinely arresting mystery and is told brilliantly in flashbacks and reconstructions) you can feel the plot gain momentum. It’s also nice to have a game set at Christmas, and as your main companion throughout your adventure, Alfred plays a prominent role as your lonely festive buddy/over-concerned paternal stand-in.
Outside of combat, the best addition to the game is the crime reconstructions. A further development of the detective sections from previous games, these now have you playing time back and forward to identify specific clues and build a timeline of how a crime occurred. They’re a bit like the memory sections from Remember Me (in fact, they’re a lot like the memory sections from Remember Me), and they’re a great tool for storytelling. Between these and the brilliantly directed cut scenes, Arkham Origins has just enough of the Batman universe to pull you in even when you know the game is being a little too safe and unambitious.
You see this Batman game is till doing all the things we loved. It still does the battle damage on your bat suit. It still does the Riddler clues you have to solve and the Riddler collectibles you have to find. It still does the swooping, gliding, vertigo inducing traversal of the levels via your floaty bat cape. It still does the thing where you collect gadgets that let you open new areas. It STILL does a lot of things the previous games did. Pretty much everything in fact. They even include a variation of “that bit” from the previous Arkham Games where they mess with Batman’s mind, but in this case it’s less original and less of an extreme change. The problem is that in these sections (I’m tiptoeing around spoilers here), they reuse art assets from the rest of the game. Exploring a crazy alternate universe setting inside Batman’s mind is less convincing when the little metal rings you bat claw onto look the same as the ones you just saw in the sewer in the “real” world. A later section involving poison is far more successful even though its less ambitious. During this part of the game, you really do feel like Batman is in danger; that’s something that happens quite rarely in the Arkham franchise.
What little changes exist in the games structure and gameplay systems are mostly good, like how the combos are scored and rated, with a higher rating giving you bonus experience. Also, one of the cleverest new features is the Dark Knight Challenges. A bit like the bonus objectives in an endless runner, these are basically mini goals that you can pursue while taking out enemies with stealth or in combat. They incentivize you to try different gadgets and techniques, and they’re an unobtrusive way of making you vary your play style.
If you ever got frustrated or annoyed with how formulaic or arbitrary the puzzles could be in Asylum or City, you won’t find Origins much better. Sometimes gadgets just won’t work when the game doesn’t want them to. Your zip line won’t connect with a fixing on the wall if there’s something the game wants you to do first. There’s an order to all the puzzles, and there’s no freedom to approach them in a variety of different ways. While the combat, story and predator sections (stealth sections where you take out enemies from the shadows) all work as well if not better than before, the puzzles are probably a little worse.
If there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting, it was a decent multiplayer mode. I was not at all prepared for how much fun I had with it. From how it showcases your customised character in cut scenes at the beginning and end of matches to the way it shows how you died (with a little stylized diagram displaying where you took damage and what killed you), it’s all surprisingly well put together. You would expect that playing as Batman would be fun, but customising a Joker henchman then playing a third person, cover based shooter is not something that sounds appealing. And yet it really is enjoyable. The amazing thing here is that when playing as one of these characters, it feels like a different genre of game completely, but it’s still a competent, enjoyable one. Who saw that coming? Not me.
Multiplayer mode has some very cool videos for each faction, where you’re briefed by one of the games key baddies and told you’re the best and most henchy of the henchmen. The set up is that you have two teams battling for control points, with Joker’s goons facing off against Bane’s mercs. While a standard cover based shooter scrap takes place, Batman and Robin will be stalking both teams, taking out enemies from the shadows. It’s that Splinter Cell mode, but (I’m gonna say it) better. It’s better because the teams are distracted fighting each other, so keeping an eye out for the caped crusaders is tougher. While the two heroes are ruthlessly efficient at stealth and adept in the use of traps and gadgets, if caught in the open they will be torn apart in a hail of bullets.
Add in Bane and Joker as playable super characters who can join the action if certain conditions are met and you have a frantic, original form of multiplayer that somehow works. It’s sad therefore that the multiplayer, while solidly constructed, is beset with technical issues. It crashes often, but it also has some strange decisions which highlight the developers lack of experience with competitive mutliplayer. There’s a 30 sec countdown timer to choose a map, then a 30 sec countdown timer to start a game, and if any one of the 8 players leaves then the timer resets. There’s no need for this to be so long, and you’ll be stuck in lobbies for ages as players leave and join again, frustrated that they can’t get a full team.
Still, with Mass effect style mystery packages full of goodies maybe Warner Montreal will support this mode and fix some of the bugs. When I could actually play, I had a great time with it, although I suspect the small number of maps would make it repetitive unless they add more in future.
Reading back through what I’ve written so far, this review is very up and down. My experience with Batman: Arkham Origins was far more up than down though. I think it’s a good game. A very good game. It is not original though, nor is it essential. Buggy, occasionally bland and often pedestrian, it nonetheless is built on some very solid foundations. And crucially, it still makes you feel like Batman, and that feels good. Fun as it is, they can’t make another game like this. We need something new now. This big bowl of vanilla ice cream still tastes good, but if we get one more serving we might start to feel sick.
3.5 scoops out of 5Batman: Arkham Origins Review (PS3),