Review: 15%, Batman Arkham Origins

WARNING: While I generally try to keep reviews spoiler-free, there is a slight chance that the below information may contain some. Apologies in advance but  you were warned.

Batman: Arkham Origins is the second game I found myself pre-ordering for this year; the first was, of course, Grand Theft Auto V. It is the first time in my life that I pre-ordered a Collector’s Edition, since generally I avoid those EUR 100 traps like the plague. However, I wanted the little statue from the game that shows us how the Dark Knight meets his nemesis, the Joker, since these events essentially shape the Batman of the future. Bats is my favourite hero, simply because he is the most human. Arkham Asylum had seemingly set the bar for any developers looking to put Batman in the hands of the player, and with Arkham City, Rocksteady just about outdid themselves, creating a vision of the infamous prison that seemed like the pages of a graphic novel come to life. When Arkham Origins was handed to WB Games Montreal, I admit I felt a flutter of confusion; like many fans, I didn’t think they could handle the weight of the torch passed to them from Rocksteady.

Two days and 15% completed of the game, and I’m about ready to eat my words.

I’ve done my best to stay away from same-day/day-after reviews of this title, giving myself time to enjoy the game for a solid weekend before writing my own thoughts; as you may well imagine, this has been very hard to do, but more on that later. As I said before,  I’m only 15% done, and that’s not because the game is slow on the action or not engaging enough. With that in mind, I didn’t go into this game expecting an enormous overhaul where major changes were made to the core dynamics that made the Rocksteady titles so much fun to play. WB Games has certain elements from Arkham Asylum and City, and have applied a varnish when and where they found it necessary. The combat system, for example, is smoother than it was in even Arkham City; the PR machine promised a younger and more athletic Batman, and it seems they delivered, because combat allows for the player to hit a high combo-multiplier earlier than in the previous titles. The graphics have undergone equal enhancement; you could cut diamonds on Batman’s jaw, even on an XBox 360 and everyone from Joker to Killer Croc has an updated feel to their appearance. These Batman titles have taught us one thing, though: the real star, whether from Rocksteady or WB Games, is the set piece. And Gotham City makes for one impressive set piece.

It is Christmas Eve, but there is nothing jolly about Gotham tonight. The artists put in some serious effort into creating this nasty, gritty city against the backdrop of what should be the happiest time of the year. There is one particular mission where you have to rescue a police officer who is dangling over an electrified pool in a room stuffed with decorated Christmas trees and cheery lights. It was pretty cool gliding over areas that were fenced in as part of Arkham City, seeing them as they were before Hugo Strange’s appropriation of them as part of his prison city. The art book that was included in the Collector’s Edition sheds some light on the design choices made by the team, describing their own take on what a crumbling Gotham should look like. The Bat Cave is also an important set piece, allowing Batman to fly home every now and then to get a new gadget or have a chat with Alfred. A very welcome addition to the game is the Fast Travel system, made possible by the Bat Wing (I did have to wonder why we didn’t get the Wing in the first two games, but eh, details). Arkham Origins doesn’t just hand this system to you, however. You need to free up some communication towers that have been locked down by Enigma (soon to be The Riddler) before you can access those areas by fast travel. Everything is a game in Gotham, and you’d do well to remember that, particularly when characters such as the Mad Hatter pop in to fulfill their own twisted fantasies.

Arkham Origins is a prequel, but if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss the certain little ways in which WB Games lets you know that it’s a prequel. Inside the Bat Cave, for example, is a bulletin board, on which is written the question “Who is the man in the red hood?,” which any Batman fan will tell you is the Joker before he became the Joker. It’s a nice touch that may go unnoticed by many who play Origins, but helps build the overall ‘newness’ of Batman. Alfred is an almost entirely different person; hesitant and desperate, he pleads for Batman to return home and spend Christmas in Wayne Manor at several points, and I’m only two days into playing this! Bruce Wayne is also different; far from the cocky playboy he was in Arkham City (“It’s billionaire, Vicki. Millionaires are so last year), he is brisk and unpolished, giving a reporter the cold brush-off after she asks why he’s spending Christmas alone, again. He is still Bitter Bruce, not yet comfortable in the world his brand of wealth socializes in, but trying nonetheless.

If I had to pick one gripe about this game though, it would be that this game shipped with a crash problem that more than once has made me scream at the heavens, simultaneously asking WHY and then thanking said heavens for the autosave. After checking out Twitter and various other social media, I found that WB Montreal are working on a patch for a separate issue that PlayStation 3 players are experiencing with the fast travel system. I’m hoping an equal fix is being sorted out for the XBox 360 users. It is the one disappointing thorn in my side in what is otherwise a beautiful and exciting game.

So remember those reviews I accidentally-on-purpose came across? Some have criticized WB Games for keeping is Basic Black with this title, citing the fact that they stuck with the existing combat and upgrade systems as their reason for this rating. I can get where they’re coming from, that with this being the third game, you would expect something new, something revolutionary. I’m not sure how a prequel can deliver on new gadgets or new dynamics without feeling utterly contrived and like a betrayal of the first two titles (see: Bat Wing). I think the “prequel” parts of this game are to be found within the story itself, as Batman encounters a man who will become a defining presence in his life, a riddle he cannot solve because he cannot break his one rule. This game tells the story of why we cannot hear the word “Batman” without automatically conjuring up an image of the Joker in our minds. I’m just 15% in and I realize this; can’t wait to see how the rest of the game plays out. I’ll update this review once I’ve completed the game, so be sure to check back when that happens.

Next Up: The final title I’ve pre-ordered for this year is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I’ll try to put in two days playing time before I toss up a preliminary review of that title as well. Until then, peace!

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