This rough, early Batman is actually the most polished entry in the series yet -- for better and worse.
By Tim Colwill on October 25, 2013 at 5:30 pm
Reviewer’s note: As multiplayer was not appropriately testable prior to release, we’ll address that in a separate article.
After the release of Arkham City, and with developer Rocksteady clearly at the top of their game, it was a little bit surprising to see Warner Bros. take Batman off them and hand it to their own internal studio at WB Montreal to pump out another one.
What’s not surprising — it turns out — is that when you hand a complete game engine and piles of game-ready assets to a developer and say “make another one of these”, you get… well, you get another Arkham game.
That’s what Arkham Origins is. That’s the bottom line, only I’m giving it to you at the top. Did you like Arkham City and Arkham Asylum? You will like Arkham Origins. If that’s all you care about, you can pretty much stop reading now.
Still with me? Good, because there’s more to it than that.
A reckless love
Arkham Origins was designed from the ground up to show a younger, more reckless Batman, and one quick to jump to the most violent solution possible. In fact this young Batman’s reliance on violence is actually a little bit distressing, and throughout the game he not only takes part in a number of unusually violent interrogations but even threatens to remotely access someone else’s pacemaker and send their heart into near-lethal overdrive.
(Origins doesn’t quite work in terms of timelines, because this Batman has all the gadgets — better gadgets, even — than the Batmen in Asylum and City do, and that doesn’t make sense because they take place after Orig- oh, whatever. Video games.)
It’s clearly a game made with love, by people who love Batman, and with a number of delightful hat-tips to the comics, which is good — because it would have been all too easy for a new developer like WB Montreal to get lost along the way trying to recreate what Rocksteady have done and end up with something that ultimately felt like a cash-grab. This is not the case here: this is a genuinely worthwhile addition to the Arkham franchise.
But welcome though this addition is, it has the unfortunate side effect of showing just how much work Rocksteady put into improving Arkham City over Arkham Asylum — and how little of that same drive WB Montreal have put into this.
All the Bat-ticks in all the Bat-boxes
A cynic might say that Arkham Origins feels and plays like Arkham City 2. They might point to the the fact that the world is almost entirely the same (filled with random groups of gangsters, with no civilians to be found, ever). They might point out how the city is absolutely stuffed with endless (excellent, but endless) amounts of side quests, crimes in progress, bonus content Riddler/Enigma things to collect, timed challenges, and so on.
They might point to the inclusion of the obligatory you-are-drugged-and-must-stumble-around scene. They might point to the scenes where you have to use the Batclaw to latch onto a hook and pull your little floating raft around (hnggghgh). They might point to the bomb countdowns where you have to race across the city. They might point to the scenes where you have to track a signal through the city by travelling in the direction of its highest wavelengths. They might point out how all the gadgets are the same, or how the animations are pretty much the same, or most of the upgrades are the same.
That cynic would be correct.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game — there’s a lot to be said for spit and polish (and holy PC gaming, Batman, did they ever polish it, as we’ll discuss later) but this is, very clearly, the result of a publisher directive: “Make another one of these popular Batman games, and don’t mess with it too much”. There are some new additions, but none of them are as sweeping as the change was from Asylum to City. This is iteration; not innovation.
New toys, new gadgets
Most of the improvements to the game come in the form of new things to play with. You can now drop smoke pellets when you’re under fire, which allows you to escape and reposition. There’s a concussion grenade to daze people from a distance, and the remote claw, which you’ll take off one of the eight assassins, is an awesome new toy that you can use to rope two enemies together Just Cause 2-styles, or use to drag an explosive barrel into a mook’s head from across the room. Between that and the new quick travel system which makes getting around the city a snap, it’s easier and more fun to be the post-pubescent half of the Dynamic Duo than ever before.
The biggest change is the much-hyped ‘Detective Mode’, which supposedly plays to the theme of the World’s Greatest Detective, but means that ultimately every mystery can be solved by playing the “find the red triangle” game. Detective Mode opens automatically when there’s a mystery to be solved, and finding and scanning the triangles reconstructs the crime scene for you. You then need to rewind forward and back until you spot the clue — helpfully pointed out by an unmissable glowing red line — which allows you to complete the mystery.
Frankly, the World’s Greatest Detective is really just the World’s Greatest Man-With-A-Sweet-Computer-On-His-Wrist, and there’s zero thinking or guesswork involved on the part of the player at all. It’s a great addition to the game and helps to build a lot of the atmosphere around the crime scenes, but it’s a huge missed opportunity to actually offer the player the chance to do even a little bit of puzzling or even, you know, feel like a detective for once.
Old faces, new places
WB Montreal have also done a bang-up job of re-inventing some of the older or more obscure DC villains into updated Arkham bad guys, with Firefly, Deadshot and Copperhead in particular being some of the best. The only problem with this approach is that the game starts to quickly feel like a rogue’s gallery of “hey-look-at-this”, which is something that is always going to be an issue with licensed properties, but using the more obscure villains instead of relying on the Big Hitters is a clever way to mititgate this effect.
Boss battles with those villains run the gamut from uninspired to excellent, with Deathstroke — who has been heavily built-up in all the pre-release marketing as a sort of evil counterpart to Batman — being notably disappointing, vomiting out some of the most insipid, cringeworthy dialogue as he moves slowly and carefully around. Sometimes the game throws you a genuine curveball too, like the battle with Electrocutioner which made me laugh in delight, but others feel somewhat crowbarred in and others are just genuinely boring such as the repetitive fights with Bane.
The story isn’t much to write home about, but it’s a real shame that the twist — if you can call it that — is painfully obvious and telegraphed about a mile away, with anybody able to put two and two together quickly coming up with four. I won’t spoil it for you here, but I was left feeling quite puzzled as to why it was meant to be such a big reveal when it happened. Additionally, by the end of the game the whole thing just feels worn out and overplayed. By the time the credits rolled I was just rolling my eyes at every cutscene and muttering “I get it! Yes, I get it already”. It’s just… it’s nothing new. And it doesn’t even care to try.
There’s a few neat additions in terms of locations, however, and things like being able to take the Batwing to the Batcave and Batwalk around talking to your Batbutler while you use the Batcomputer are Batgreat. Many of other locales you’ll explore are a nice mix of old and new, with Penguin’s very BioShock-esque ship and the GCPD in particular being standouts. There’s the obligatory sewer and warehouse levels, and Gotham’s inexplicable obsession with gargoyles in every large room is as handy as it ever was, but overall it’s a solid lineup.
The prettiest vigilante
If there’s one area of the game where WB Montreal deserve unequivocal applause, it’s in the graphics department: the PC edition of Origins is hugely impressive, and packed with enough rendering options to make anybody who thinks this is a lame console port weep in shame. From the way PhysX-powered papers and debris swirl around you as you move to the way footsteps appear in the snow, it’s a gorgeous piece of work and shows just how much effort has been put into improving the engine.
Cranking everything to max, I was still able to pull a good 70 frames per second out of Origins, but it was taking its toll on my machine which was putting out a lot of heat. Here’s a little video for you so you can see how it looks (download the video in HD from our file library here).
I’ve also had a chance to play with the PS3 version of the game, which just looks like a pile of bat droppings by comparison. WB Montreal haven’t messed with the keyboard controls either, which were perfect on PC for Arkham City and are just as good here, but the game does support the Xbox 360 controller if you’d prefer to play that way.
My only complaint is that the minimap is infuriatingly hard to navigate because you have to do it with WASD rather than just dragging to pan with the mouse, and lining up the cursor perfectly on a tiny icon of the Batwing so you can fast-travel is utterly, utterly infuriating. No such issues with a controller, natch.
The problem with making the game look so good is that it actually looks better than the pre-rendered cutscenes, which means that every time the game activates a cutscene the screen goes blurry and drops down to 720p. It’s a relief to go back to the beautifully crisp, high-detail game models, and it’s a shame that the cutscenes aren’t delivered in full HD (although with an install footprint of 18 GB, that’s probably for the best).
You have eaten well
There’s something of a parallel in the young studio of WB Montreal taking on the story of a young, inexperienced Batman, but where the young Batman is reckless and brash, WB are almost frighteningly safe and conservative.
Arkham Origins is littered with missed opportunities — from the same empty world of Gotham populated exclusively by angry criminals in masks, to the same lazy solution of “pour more bad guys into the room every time a cutscene ends”. The infiltration of the GCPD is a perfect example of this — rather than mixing it up by creating an environment of forced stealth, tripwires and alarms, they simply opted to make it a case of Batman almost casually strolling through the station and just punching cops in the face.
The cops are all corrupt of course, which makes them interchangeable with bad guys and so it’s okay to have a big brawl with them, and then the prisoners get out, and you have to fight them too, and then fight some more cops, and you know, despite how stunningly fluid the animation is, and despite the fact that the combat is better than ever, it’s all just a bit disappointing.
Origins is a superb game, and great fun to play, and will make every Batman fan very happy — but if WB make another Arkham game, and chances are they probably will — it will need to be a lot braver than this. I don’t know if people will want to play Arkham City for a third time when 2015 rolls around.
- It’s basically Arkham City 2
- Same great Arkham City gameplay, only with more gadgets and more stuff to do
- Good cast of characters, stays away from the ground trod by the previous two games
- Looks genuinely great on PC, large range of graphics options
- More areas to explore
- The violent, reckless young Batman is handled well
- It’s basically Arkham City 2
- Dialogue is really quite bad
- Heaps of missed opportunities to actually do something new and interesting
- The much-hyped Detective Mode is just for show
- Pre-rendered cutscenes look worse than actual game
- Some very bad checkpointing
Batman: Arkham Origins is available from Green Man Gaming for $50, or a ridiculously good value $37 if you use the code GMG25-GRV7N-YY833 before 11:59PM AEDT on tonight, Friday 25 October.
This review code supplied by Warner Bros. Screenshots used in the review taken by the reviewer.