Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game likely to be mentioned in many a ‘Game of the Generation’ deliberation – I know it is high on my own personal list. After an arguably diluted stretching of the formula in Arkham City, can the transition to Warner Bros Montreal inject some new ideas and energy into the formula? The, somewhat predictable, answer is that the new studio decides to play it safe yet, in doing so, crafts a solid game that is well worth your time, but may leave you feeling a sense of deja vu if you are familiar with the series.
The game starts off quite abruptly, with Batman being thrown into the action with little fanfare or context, simply given a remit to rescue Gotham City’s corrupt police commissioner Loeb from the nefarious Black Mask, who has taken over the city’s infamous Blackgate Prison. A standard tutorial is present and correct, and oddly jarring for anyone who has played the previous games; it’s a difficult problem to solve, as Warner Bros clearly want to attract new players but surely know the vast majority of people engaged at this point would be used to Batman’s tool set. Similar to the previous games, this wonderful range of abilities and gadgets are doled out piecemeal. This being a prequel, you would think it would easier to swallow that Batman is picking up these skills as he goes; it was a problem that the first game sidestepped by having The Caped Crusader isolated and cut off from his usual equipment. Here, as this Batman is a shadowy figure who the various thugs populating the environment doubt even exists, is already a powerhouse who has a wide variety of his toys to play with, resulting in some disparity for those familiar with the series.
Arkham Asylum did a great job of making you feel like Batman, with it’s use of limited space and a gradually increasing power set, contributing to a growing sense of power over the foes thrown in your path. Oftentimes in Arkham Origins, it can feel like you blunder or just force your way through encounters. It can be difficult to elegantly make your way past groups, and some gadgets, such as the Concussion Shot, are unintuitive to the point of disrupting the flow of the action. Much of the backtracking seems unnecessary and there are maybe one set of steps too many in some places. It just doesn’t feel as tight as Arkham Asylum, a criticism that was also levelled at City, and it feels like a gradual expansion of the series that leaves the game feeling less solid and cohesive.
Another thing that is a little jarring is the insistence on locking most upgrades behind progression in the challenges that Batman can complete whilst in combat, exploring the world or solving crimes. Visually unlocked as you progress the story, as in they are there for you to see in the upgrade paths, they are unavailable until you reach certain goals, such as, for example, managing an eight times combo multiplier in combat. It is a system which encourages variety in play, but can disrupt the flow of the scene to scene action, as it forces you to look in your menus, and find yourself wondering if that combo unlock might be useful for difficult encounters later in the campaign. It depends on how you play these games, but the RPG elements do appear to to have taken a stranglehold. The amalgamation of the story quest and the various side missions on offer often feel a little Ubisoft-ified, with a sense of having so much busy work, and key points need to be unlocked to gain access visibility on the map. Experience points are constantly doled out. As well as giving you XP for for each combat encounter, dishing them out based on your predator or combat skills, you are also now graded, handing out judgmental A-D assessments, making you feel elated or disappointed in equal measure.
The game also seems to have little of the gothic flavour of the previous games, with an art style that can be said to be veering towards more of the conventional. It even feels different from Arkham city, with a sense of a greater use of steel as opposed to stone. To stretch the metaphor, it creates a sense of artificiality, as opposed to the latter’s natural warmth. This feels like it could be Chris Nolan’s world of glass and steel from his cinematic interpretation of the Caped Crusader.
The conceit of the previous games was that the city had been annexed as part of the super prison ,and gangs of affiliated thugs were roaming around. It at least made contextual sense. Here, the lack of civilians in the game does not. Helpfully you can fast travel around the map using fast travel points that call in the batwing, taking you to your chosen area via a loading animation taken straight from Mass Effect. Unhelpfully, these fast travel points are only available once you have located and destroyed Enigma’s jamming stations, reinforcing the sense that Ubisoft open world adventures have been some source of inspiration.
One of the banes (pun intended) of this series has been it’s boss fights. This is something Warner Bros generally get right, and without wanting to spoil too much, Batman encounters two bosses in the same arena that are fairly memorable. One is a challenging but fair encounter akin to this year’s Metal Gear: Rising Revengeance; fast, full of counters and blocks. Another is memorable for different reasons as it requires you to press a single button after a conventional build up. On the whole, and this is not necessarily a fault of the game as it is of the genre’s convention, the boss fights feel stale and contrived.
The villainous cast feels like it is being stretched a little thin. One of the delights of the first game was that the cast menagerie of characters was filled out via the clues, symbols and data you pick up on your explorations. It fleshed out the world and gave it depth and mystery. Here, each of the database entries are for characters you meet and dominate, removing some of their power. The story takes some interesting turns, and the writers do well with the relationship between Batman and the Joker and Bruce Wayne and Alfred. It’s a shame some of this good craft does not extend to to the general dialogue, which is often excruciating. The main quest line itself takes Batman into very linear boxed off areas. Similar to the previous games, Origins doesn’t really feel like it opens up until the quest is complete and Batman has all of his available tools. It’s here that the game feels more at home.
Once complete there is still plenty to do in Gotham, as there was in previous installments. The Riddler or Enigma, still have collectibles littered around the city, this time in the form of data packs, a mere reskinning of the Riddler trophies from the past. As well as this particular cryptic criminal to contend with, a variety of villains have a number of tasks for you to complete. To be fair this is where is the game shines a little brighter, though like many an open world game that has gone before it, the motivation to engage in this busywork is subjective.
There is multiplayer to be enjoyed, and what I experienced was surprisingly fun. Each match is split into two teams of thugs, one led by the Joker, the other by Bane. Each map contains the usual control points and each team has a limited number of respawn tickets. The third person shooting is functional at best, but the tension is increased by the inclusion of a third faction – the heroes. During each round up to two players take on the role of Batman and Robin, who stalk and take out the gang members as they fight their war. It does add a little extra dimension to the usual multiplayer proceedings, and kudos to Splash Damage for trying something a little different, but is difficult to see it having much of a long life span.
Batman: Arkham Origins is a solid game. It feels like a huge bout of deja vu, but in a pleasant way. It takes no chances, plays it very safe and sticks rigidly to a formula well established. Despite the numerous criticisms outlined above, this is an enjoyable outing, lessened only by the shadow of Rocksteady’s previous superior entries.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Format: Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 / PC /Wii U Release Date: 25/10/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Batman: Arkham Origins for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 4 days on a Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.