Batman: Arkham Origins Review
Batman: Arkham Origins is one of those games that feels like it has a split personality. On the one hand, it features the dark yet oddly attractive style that is unique to the Batman character; on the other, it’s like dealing with a cocky individual who knows he has skills, but isn’t always willing to prove it. In other words, while the latest Batman effort is undoubtedly a solid, entertaining game, it lacks that “wow” factor we enjoyed in previous iterations. Maybe it’s because we’re not sensing anything new and the stakes are higher with each new entry…?
Strangely, one feels somewhat underwhelmed right from the start. The graphics are good but for whatever reason, I’m not anywhere near as impressed as I was with Rocksteady’s productions (remember, Warner Bros. Montreal handled this game). The animations are wonderfully fluid, most of the special effects are slick and refined, and the character modeling is awesome. But really, it’s the design that I find seriously lacking, as the so-called open-world setting just doesn’t cut the mustard in my eyes. Plus, they superimposed a lot of linear plot-advancing missions over a pseudo-sandbox format and frankly, it doesn’t work well.
The sound benefits from a decent yet surprisingly sparse soundtrack, and a set of accomplished effects that add a sense of urgency to every situation. The voice actors (particularly Troy Baker and Roger Craig Smith) do a great job with the admittedly amateur-ish writing and overall, the audio presents us with an engaging atmosphere that is very reminiscent of the comics. More could’ve been done with the music and some of the scenes are just a tad too hammy for my liking, but that’s okay. We accept a certain level of cheesiness when it comes to superheroes, don’t we? The technical aspects are good throughout, but not advanced enough to blow you away.
Here’s the premise— Villain Black Mask has put a $50 million bounty on the Caped Crusader’s head and as a result, eight super-villains have come to Gotham in an attempt to cash in. As you might expect, Batman is besieged on all sides by freakish enemies, which means the player must always be vigilant. Vigilantes bein’ vigilant, right? Get it? …okay, moving on; the game features well-planned pacing that allows you to familiarize yourself with Batman’s skills and gizmos. Such pacing adds a sense of balance to the adventure, but I really wish our surroundings were less…bland.
At the start of the game, you play through an initial sequence in Blackgate Prison, which isn’t all that invigorating, and then you hit the streets of Gotham. But unfortunately, it’s relatively small (especially after seeing recent virtual open worlds like Grand Theft Auto V) and at first, there really isn’t much to do. Bear in mind that I’m not comparing this game to GTAV, but I believe it makes sense to mention other games that feature freedom via sandbox territory. That’s what WB Montreal attempted to do with Origins; it just takes a while before icons begin to populate the map. And even when they do, it’s nothing all that special.
Also, I find it odd that many of the story missions aren’t always taking place in the exact streets you’re exploring. Story missions often occur away from those streets, in pre-set levels with a special location – such as Gotham City Police Headquarters – at its core. It’s almost as if one part of the development team really wanted to create a more linear narrative, while the other part insisted on an open-world setting. Eventually, the two were forced to meet each other halfway and that’s sorta what we get: A game that doesn’t fully embrace either style but tries to effectively utilize both linear and freedom-oriented systems. It sort of works but it still feels unfocused.
On the plus side, Batman is as deadly as ever, and he’s always fun to use. In addition to gliding silently through the dark, foreboding environment, Batman has the grapple hook, batarangs, smoke pellets, explosive gel, and his extremely helpful detective vision. You gain access to many of his most effective abilities and gizmos pretty quickly, which means you’ll never feel outmatched. It’s just a matter of practicing; get a hang of those nifty gadgets and get your timing right with the hand-to-hand combat. That extremely fluid, free-wheeling style of combat is still as invigorating as ever, even if it can feel slightly repetitive at times.
I’ve always liked the fact that you don’t have to be an action game master to be a bad-ass in the Batman games. You don’t have to memorize a series of complicated combination attacks, and you rarely feel helpless. Simply press the attack button at the correct time and watch Batman rip through a series of hapless victims. Administering the deadly final blow never gets boring and countering is simple and mostly straightforward. I still wanted some form of long-range weapon but then again, that’s not really Batman’s style. Either you take ‘em out silently while lurking in the shadows, one by one, or you rush right in, fists flying.
It’s just that the freedom aspect isn’t fleshed out enough. As I said, the story missions are quite linear, and you’re not always allowed to select an approach; i.e., stealth or up-close-and-personal combat. With tougher enemies, you’re forced to take them down in face-to-face combat because stealth is often useless against such foes. Then you toss in the fact that the map doesn’t feel like a living breathing world, but more of a hemmed-in playground, and you start to wonder if the designers had a cohesive aim. I don’t want to take away from the control and general combat and stealth mechanics, though, because those remain as great as ever.
There are plenty of side missions to unlock, too, and they don’t seem tacked-on or boring. The Riddler is always up for a game or two, and it’s fun to build your character abilities by completing various platforming and other action-based challenges. Yeah, you remember gliding through rings, don’t you? However, in another slight downside, you may notice that Batman’s skill tree isn’t all that exciting. His default equipment and capabilities are sufficient, and much of his best stuff is automatically unlocked via story progression. So the tech tree almost feels superfluous, to the point where I actually forgot to go in there and unlock stuff.
Oh, and I have to mention the boss fights. They’re okay but they’re not all that well designed, and some of them are downright frustrating. Then I remembered that WB Games Montreal is the same team that outsourced the boss encounters in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which represented that game’s biggest shortcoming. Maybe there’s a reason they did that; maybe boss fights just aren’t one of the team’s strengths, if the tough fights in Origins are any indication. Weirder still, they actually seem to get easier as the game moves forward. Well, at least Batman never stops feeling like the total bad-ass he is, and that's important.
The stealth is great, the combat is fantastic fun, the character designs are excellent, the story has a few high points, and Batman’s prodigious skills are impressive. Being able to reconstruct crimes by retracing events is a cool development of the detective feature, and maneuvering through the dark landscape and stalking enemies with superhero glee will make you grin. High production values enhance the immersion factor and despite doing little that is actually new, you’ll soon find yourself ensconced in another engaging quest. It’s easy to overlook the quality of the foundation when your expectations were so damn high.
That being said, Batman: Arkham Origins is a bit of a letdown for me. That’s mostly because the previous two titles from Rocksteady Studios weren’t merely great games, they were legitimate Game of the Year contenders. Although Origins has a lot going for it, most of that was expected and in truth, I anticipated much more. And this really feels more like a hybrid open-world/linear game, which is a little disconcerting. Like so many games that try too hard, it feels as if it lacks direction. Still, if you’re a fan of the superhero in question, and you’ve always loved the combat and stealth mechanics (which are freakin’ awesome), then you definitely have to give this one a try. Just don't expect singular greatness.
The Good: Slick effects and fluid animation. Some great voice performances. Stealth and combat mechanics are still fantastic. Batman has plenty of cool gizmos and highly effective abilities. Diverse, entertaining villains. Plenty of entertaining content if you play long enough.
The Bad: Feels somewhat unfocused. Boss fights can be frustrating. Tech tree skills aren’t all that exciting. Not enough freshness, a lot of the same ol’ same ol’.
The Ugly: “A little emptiness in an open world goes a long way…unfortunately.”
10/28/2013 Ben Dutka