[Game Review] Batman: Arkham Origins [2013] by Bea Harper

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Platforms: Wii-U, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, OS X

After the enormous wrecking ball of “Arkham City” with dozens of untold stories, loose ends that required tying up, I was more curious about seeing a continuation. Rocksteady had really out-Batted itself when “City” swept up awards left and right, garnering massive praise for its gameplay, story and character work. Like so many other admirers, I was anxious to see what would happen next. What emerged was a bit of a double-whammy.

* Rocksteady would not be returning to make a third, handing over its creative duties to the fledgling Warner Brothers Montreal.

* The next game would be an origin story, not a sequel.

This confused me- what with all of the promising leads that “City” left gamers with, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to tell an origin story concerning the character of Batman because we have seen it countless times. I admit, I was disappointed that all of this fertile ground would not be reaped in favor for a tale all of us know. But, I wanted to be fair in my assumptions, which is why I chose to keep up to date. I had never heard of WB Montreal before and I found it interesting that Rocksteady would bestow its next Bat prestige on an infant company. If WB Montreal fouled up, that would possibly mean that the Batman game universe would be wounded. As time went by, we all found out the latest Batman game that would be creatively entitled “Batman Arkham Origins”, and that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would not be returning to their most beloved characters Batman and the Joker respectively.

Naturally this caused a massive reaction amongst fans, and although I wouldn’t say I was disgusted, I was a little let down- Conroy and Hamill gave such dimension, such passion to their roles that it would be difficult to get worthy replacements to fill the younger versions of the character’s vocal boots. And then I found out that Ezio Auditore da Firenze (aka Chris Redfield aka Roger Craig Smith) and Albert Wesker’s kid (aka Troy Baker) would be fulfilling Joker duty. Now THAT was intriguing. More details about the story itself came to light- although the game would not chronicle Batman’s most infant stages, it would focus more on him forging key relationships that would influence him in years to come. Villains such as the aforementioned Clown Prince of Crime, Bane, Firefly, Deathstroke, Copperhead (rowr), the Penguin, Deadshot, Black Mask as well as the corrupt Commissioner Loeb would be rearing their good for nothing heads during a Christmas Eve that Gotham wouldn’t soon forget and rather it did. Wait, this takes place in Gotham City?! Holy heck!

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My tentative anticipation began to elevate and when the world got its first major sample of gameplay at EB 2013, yeah, I think I was pretty much sold. October 25th 2013 really couldn’t come soon enough when it’s August. The way Gotham looked on this snow storm-ridden Christmas Eve looked amazing, plus we got to see how the city looked before Arkham City was built. The dimension established by the classic animated series were in these graphics, and it was such a welcome sight to see.

This game concerns the things that define Batman as the Dark Knight in his youth. Young, brash, unrefined and at times unrelentingly violent, Bruce Wayne’s formative years as the Bat are presented here on a night that will shape the rest of his dangerous career. Gotham’s most fierce gangster Black Mask for one night only has placed a massive bounty on the Bat’s head and has sent eight dangerous and skilled assassins on his tail. Whoever slays the Bat gets the money and the glory of offing this costumed freak. WB Montreal had a lot of weight resting upon its shoulders, and you know what? They did a great job.

Despite the obvious wonders of “Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City”, neither game truly had Batman change as a character by virtue of the fact he had been doing this gig for a while. In “Origins” however, he realises that he has to learn how to be before being. This game was undoubtedly all about Bruce’s journey and his evolution rather than simply reacting to the events taking place around him. He’s young, cocky and over-confident before he understands that he simply will not survive if he does not grow and harden up. Smith portraying Batman was a heck of a gamble, but in my estimation it paid off. His heavy, rough cadence reflected young Bruce’s black and white notions of justice and when the time came for him to realise that his ideas could no longer remain stagnant, it’s an important moment. Baker’s Joker I think was the voice that people were dreading the most- Baker is one of the best voice actors out there (plus, according to a friend he looks like a Gucci model), but Hamill had left such a deep, searing impression of the Joker that for Baker to even try to match up, it would be a killing challenge. Baker pulled it off, boy did he ever. He doesn’t try to be Hamill, he is reverent to the actor’s work, but he does not make an effort to ape it.

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The same can be said for Smith- he just happens to sound like he could be a younger Conroy without actually trying to be. Nolan North returns as the Penguin, and while his role is dramatically smaller than it was in “City”, North always plays Penguin up as the filthy, desperate, mock-sophisticate crime facilitator Penguin should be. Another huge standout was Brian Bloom assuming the role of Black Mask- Black Mask had been long anticipated in the game series and he has finally come out of the woodwork with great results. Roman Sionis (what Mask’s mum called him) is iron-fisted, fiercely competitive and will stop at nothing to get results, and Bloom is more than simply adequete for such a character. His coarse, violent and plosive growl of a voice makes me thankful that Bloom knows what sort of character he is giving life to.

Another huge, hulking surprise is J.B Blanc who voices Bane. Up until now, Bane had been portrayed as a bellowing locomotive, but in “Origins” he is finally revealed to be the intelligent and dangerous combatant that will eventually break the Bat. He was INCREDIBLE, no mere words can describe how impressed I was with the life he gave the character. I feel it is safe for me to say that “Origins” gave me new-found respect for Bane as a character.

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Martin Jarvis returns to his role as Alfred after “City” and is utterly unflappable as Bruce’s loyal butler and closest friend. That’s another element I really enjoyed- the struggling relationship between Alfred and Bruce- Alfred is proud of the fact Bruce wants to make a difference and does his duty to assist in his master’s crusade, but he is also frightened that he will have to bury the last Wayne. Although they try their best not to argue this point every time, there is that underlying tension that is just waiting to explode.

A pre-Riddler Riddler appears in the form of a fast-talking, attention-whoring, Ivy-league reject who goes under the alias of Enigma. He possesses very sensitive information about various individuals around the city and unless Batman can track down this data, he will reveal it on Christmas morning, thusly making Christmas Lunch a very sad affair for everybody of importance in Gotham. Now while corruption runs rampant in Gotham, the consequences would be dire for all.

Gotham itself looks as spectacular as it could be. Neo-noir architecture, art-noveu and slums all combine elements here to form the look of Batman’s booty-stomping ground. A constant blizzard litters each street with snow, you can hear the wet crunch of it under Batman’s boots as he stalks the streets , dealing out justice to multitudes of criminals who have taken this cold night as the perfect opportunity to boost as jewelry store or rob a bank. The soundtrack has the faint sound of demented Christmas bells that chime as Batman travels from district to district. Winds howl and rack through Batman’s cape as he glides over the rooftops like a dying banshee. “Origins” looks and sounds just the way a Batman game should. It was wonderful to see how Gotham looks as a whole as opposed to parts of it. A nice new feature involves Batman’s forensic/detective vision. At various intervals, Batman will come across a crime scene that he must gather evidence for and reconstruct so he may apprehend a suspect. He can piece together clues, review an interface from the Batcomputer of the crime taking place and can pick up additional clues before he can fully solve the mystery. At first I thought I was gonna be frustrated because of how precise it sounded, but when I play it, it’s not challenging at all, and I still feel like the World’s Greatest Detective while doing it. I really liked how Batman’s detective skills are put to good and practical use here rather than to just find points of entry in a building or highlighting objects of interest.

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And some of the boss fights? There are more than two big bad battles that are actually challenging! You are given certain sets of skills each time before you face a boss but you need to figure out for yourself how to use them when you face a particularly potent enemy. The fight with Deathstroke is an example of this- in order to defeat him you must incorporate appropriate methods you have learned up to that point. There are bosses you will fight several times throughout the game, such as Bane, who once again surprises because of his rather sizeable role. Boss battles are meant to be challenging and I was delighted that the baddies in “Origins” are no exception to the rule. I also highly appreciated the smaller details about what Batman saw and what he did here would later return in “Asylum” and “City”– they are subtle but if you know what they are, they are sure to make you smile. In addition to this, side missions return, and if you develop a certain onset of OCD, this will likely be the cause. Crimes to solve, incidents in progress, drug busts, weapon caches to be destroyed.

Despite the fact this game really is a massive success for WB Montreal, it’s not perfect for reasons I will state now. Given WB Montreal had a massive undertaking and duty to uphold after Rocksteady handed them this massive responsibility, the game feels afraid of itself. That’s not to say it doesn’t try new things, because it does. Combat remains the same, but Batman is given new gadgets and skills that he can obtain when you level up XP. But the issue with me is that some of the controls in previous games have been altered for no probable reason. Throwing a batarang, using detective vision, spraying explosive gel, using the batclaw, they now have different buttons to press and I can’t imagine why. In the previous two games, they were very easy to learn and to utilize in combat, so why on Earth go back and change them? I also wasn’t wholly won over by the reward-gaining system. I found that in order to obtain new skills and equipment the XP bar wasn’t as charitable as it was in “City”. You really need to go out and pick a fight with criminals in order to buff it up. Granted, the game isn’t impossible to accomplish without all upgrades, but in “Origins” it seemed you needed to kiss with your fists a lot more just to get the XP bar up that little more before your next upgrade. I personally would have preferred it if Batman could have done more crime solving as opposed to just vigilante brutality, but that’s just me.

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I also felt that some of the side missions were either too short or did not add much in terms of consequence to the game. Sure it was nice to see Mad Hatter, but he didn’t leave much of an impact on Batman’s journey, same could be said for Deadshot. He’s meant to be one of the world’s greatest assassins, so why is he being regaled (AGAIN) to a side assignment? He deserves to be presented as a bigger threat to Batman because of the fact he is an expert marksman who also happens to be a loose cannon. I just wanted more of the assassins in general. Copperhead’s battle was a lot of fun, but she was such a charismatic villainess, but she didn’t get that much of a chance to truly shine. Nice tats though, girlfriend. I also felt that regular enemies were not particularly interesting save for the fact that their bitching, moaning and ranting were highly entertaining, if bland. None of them have any defining individual looks, but that’s just because they are nothing but punching bags for Batman. The inclusion of the martial artist type of enemy were a nice thought, but they didn’t present that much of a challenge in terms of combat- they were quite easy to beat in brawling situations. I think if Montreal had more time to work on the street blues in the game, they would have been suitably more down and dirty, but that is just my words coming out of my mouth.

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Although the reason for the lack of regular civilian activity is explained in the game (it’s one of the worst snow storms on record, apparently) I would have felt the stakes of the game were upped if Batman had to travel from place to place without being seen by the public who at this point think of him more as an urban myth. You do deal with hostage situations, but it would have been a lot more of a Caped Crusader experience if you had to stick to the shadows in order to move about. More ninja!

Going back to my point about WB Montreal being a little apprehensive about what it could do, I put that down to the fact they knew they were only standing on the shoulders of giants and they needed to build a good scaffolding on top of that in order to survive. I can feel they wanted to push themselves, but they feared if they did, their attempts would blow up in their faces. I hope if they plan on making more chapters to this series they will take more risks. That being said, I can’t fault them on being respectful to their source material by still making the game seem like the others. For a major freshman effort, “Origins” has earned the money it has made and the praises that have been sung to it. Is it as epic as “City”? No, but then again, it shouldn’t be– “Origins” has made the wise move of telling a self-contained hero story as opposed to overreaching and underestimating the personality of Batman. You can’t tell an epic tale if you are just focusing on one core aspect about a character, and in terms of “Origins” it’s all of what truly defines Batman in his most early years.

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Batman Arkham Origins” is a worthy game, revolutionary it not, but then again, it doesn’t truly need to be. We know who Batman is, what motivates him, but it sure was nice to see how he came to establish his future connections. I am very supportive of WB Montreal if they choose they will continue with the franchise because really, trying to live up to such high and almost impossible standards is , well… impossible. Great work, folks, you have my vote! 

Fun Factor: 8 – By default, playing as Batman far exceeds any questions. You’re Batman and that is that.

Graphics: 8.5 – Much the same as the previous games, inspired detail has been put into this and it shows.

Sound: 8 – Pretty darn clear. I do love hearing the sound of crunching bones when Batman breaks some sorry yutz’s limbs and some of the boss battle themes? GREAT.

Control: 8 – Although the some of the alternative control schemes are baffling due to the lack of reason, they are easy to learn no matter how conditioned a rabid fan of “City” is. If you are a first time player, I honestly doubt you will have an issue.

Lasting Appeal: 8.5 – This game holds up well when stacked to the other two, and although it is not an instantaneous classic, it still properly respectable and worth the time you invest.

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