The lights are on
WB Montreal’s Batman: Arkham Origins is the successor to the previous two games in Rocksteady Studios’ critically-acclaimed Batman: Arkham series, a position that carries with it massive expectations, from critics and fans alike. 2011’s Arkham City massively expanded the scope of its predecessor, to the point of being widely considered “the best licensed video game ever made”. Rather than attempt a continuation of the story and a similar leap in innovation, WB Montreal (developer of the Wii U “Armored Edition” Arkham City port) has opted for the prequel treatment, thus shifting the premise to a previously unexplored area while making various tweaks to the existing structure and mechanics of the previous games.Arkham Origins sees a relatively fresh, inexperienced Batman – in his second year of crime fighting, no less – facing members of his infamous rogue’s gallery for the first time and solidifying his resolve as Gotham’s sworn defender in the process. The action begins on Christmas Eve, as Roman Sionis – AKA Black Mask – offers “One Night to Kill the Bat” for a sum of $50 million, enlisting eight elite assassins to carry out this task. As promising as this premise is, however, its execution leaves something to be desired. Though the altered dynamic resulting from Batman’s developing urban myth status initially makes for a dramatic tonal departure from the previous games, a sense of aimless wandering seems to accompany the plot early on, with the threat of encountering each assassin vastly underplayed by other narrative elements. Many of the purportedly standout moments of the experience simply recycle similar such moments from previous games. Furthermore, the plot’s basic premise is undermined through a questionable twist midway through the game, at which point the story’s overall thrust is radically altered. Ironically, it is at this point that the tale becomes truly compelling and begins to realize the potential inherent in a Batman prequel story.Despite the uneven quality of most of the plot, Arkham Origins dishes out a number of well-executed character moments, particularly between Batman and Alfred (including one sequence that seemingly channels a similarly powerful moment from The Dark Knight Rises). Furthermore, the relationship between Batman and Captain Gordon stands out as a major dynamic in the plot, albeit one that could perhaps have been explored more fully.Naturally, the villains are a fairly major focus, and the Joker easily steals the show in this regard. Through one incredible sequence (which won’t be spoiled here), WB Montreal dives more fully and intimately into the Joker’s psychology than perhaps has been attempted elsewhere, providing the game with its most memorable and groundbreaking moment. By and large, though, the other antagonists feel more like narrative obstacles than equally well-realized characters, serving mainly to provide boss fights and side quests. Some characters – particularly the Electrocutioner and Firefly – are so underwritten and poorly utilized that their mere narrative presence is almost comical (and childishly annoying, in the case of the latter, who spouts off the worst character dialogue yet to be featured in an Arkham game).Outside the story, Origins is structured much like City, featuring many of the same mission types (villain-centered side quests, AR Challenges, and numerous reward-granting puzzles), with several small additions, including “Crimes in Progress” – basically, spontaneously-occurring gang wars for Batman to thwart – and jamming towers that must be disabled in order to make use of the new “Fast Travel” feature (allowing rapid citywide transit via the Batwing). The latter is particularly helpful, given the expanded scale of the city, which now includes access to South Gotham and the Pioneer Bridge, in addition to the entire existing environment featured in Arkham City (which has been modified in various ways, featuring a drastically different visual aesthetic, courtesy of the mid-winter storm enveloping Gotham throughout).In terms of gameplay, nearly all of the previous games’ mechanics have been preserved, with new additions – both moderate and minor – cropping up in nearly every facet. Though the Remote Electrical Charge and Line Launcher gadgets have been axed (a small degree of their functionality being applied to other gadgets), the full arsenal from Arkham City returns, alongside several new gadgets, including the Remote Claw – which enables Batman to attach certain objects in the environment for navigational and stealth purposes – and the Shock Gloves, which effectively lift the “B.A.T. Mode” combat boost from the Arkham City: Armored Edition to the combat system’s general detriment. Enabling Batman to plow mercilessly through any enemy’s defenses, the gloves undercut both the carefully-balanced Freeflow combat of the previous games and render the varied enemy types (to which there are several additions) effectively useless in driving strategy. This unfortunately deprives the Freeflow combat system of the spark that makes it uniquely suited to Batman’s character, leading to a series of disappointing encounters throughout the game’s final quarter, as well as in continued play.In terms of the stealth-based “Invisible Predator” portion of the experience, the brilliance of both previous iterations has thankfully been preserved, although the combined use of the overpowered Remote Claw, increased Silent Takedown speed, and the reintroduction of the first game’s Triple Batarang do seem to somewhat dilute the challenge. The encounters, however, are bolstered through increased variety, which is particularly apparent in Challenge Mode, each map featuring unique enemy types and villain-centric set-ups.The “World’s Greatest Detective” scenarios, meanwhile, have never been a strong focus in the Arkham games, despite Rocksteady’s seeming conviction otherwise. WB Montreal, however, has set out to expand this aspect of the game through expanded forensics sequences and the implementation of a “Playback” feature that allows Batman to comb through a virtual reconstruction of a crime scene to discover additional clues. Though the detective work is as scripted, simplistic, and unchallenging as before, the expanded scope of its content and modestly increased interactivity succeed in adding up to a stronger and more involved experience.Most of the focus on Batman’s detective abilities has previously come in the form of Riddler challenges, and these are mostly preserved in Origins through the introduction of an earlier version of the antagonist – here, a rogue hacker known simply as “Enigma.” Though the riddles themselves are disappointingly no longer featured, the hidden trophies have been resurrected in the form of “Enigma Datapacks” that are, somewhat comically, attached to various puzzles as before, conveniently drawing on the abilities of Batman’s gadgets in their solutions. The Datapacks, however, are mostly restricted to the city environment, and regrettably make no appearance in certain interior-set missions, including the game’s finale. Despite the resultantly diminished scope and robustness of the concept, the lengths travelled to preserve this side of the experience – within the altered premise – are nonetheless more than welcome in practice. However, without further innovation, the Riddler-connected gameplay is likely to grow stale in potential future entries.In terms of production values, Arkham Origins is somewhat of a mixed bag, in comparison to its predecessors. In terms of scoring and vocal performances, the previous high standards are upheld – Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker fill the shoes of Batman and the Joker, respectively, far better than many had hoped (the latter often being nearly indistinguishable from Mark Hamill in delivery), and a number of actors are retained from earlier chapters in the franchise. The visuals are mostly striking, but a certain level of polish and detail seems absent in comparison to Rocksteady's efforts. Meanwhile, the gameplay seems plagued by imperfections and annoyances to a degree previously unseen, particularly in regards to occasionally uneven navigation controls (including often imprecise grapnel gun targeting). These sorts of imperfections hardly compromise the experience, but nonetheless moderately drag down this entry, given their previous nonexistence.Arkham Origins, ultimately, preserves much of what made the previous games worthy of widespread praise, but is somewhat short on innovation in comparison to its predecessor, despite compensating to a moderate degree through by venturing into previously unexplored – and at times, unexpected – narrative territory. While its execution is not uniformly high, Origins does occasionally soar – particularly when viewed independently of the previous Arkham games – and it is a worthy, even if not standout, entry in the series.
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