Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montréal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2013)

It's always a risky prospect when a different team takes over a popular franchise. Will they take it in exciting new directions? Will they destroy everything that made the series unique in the first place? Will they just put out more of the same and never innovate? Will they change it too much so it's no longer recognizable? There are innumerable fears and possibilities, and with good reason. Over the years there have been both hits and misses. Bioshock 2 is generally considered the least enjoyable of the trilogy, Metroid: The Other M strayed too far from the winning Prime series formula, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has been getting a fairly luke-warm response. It's not always bad news though, as Halo 4 showed that the series could live on without Bungie, Capcom made some well regarded Legend of Zelda games, and Guitar Hero 3 broke sales records not just for the series, but for the industry. But what about Batman? In the world of cinema, Batman Forever completely shattered the image created by the Tim Burton films, and even fans of the modern Batman movies are more than a little worried about the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. But, I'm not here to talk about movies. I'm here to talk about games, and specifically, I'm here to talk about Batman: Arkham Origins.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about Batman: Arkham Origins is that a lot of care was obviously put into recreating the feel of the first two games. All of Gotham City is open to you to explore this time, so it has the open world grand Theft Auto meets Legend of Zelda feel of Arkham City, but there are also plenty of sprawling indoor locations to investigate bringing out the claustrophobic Metroid inspired feel that the original Arkham Asylum had. Overall it's a great mix of both games made into something new.

Arkham City ended with the death of one of the main characters of the series leading many to wonder how the story could continue on. For the time being at least, that question was side-stepped since Batman: Arkham Origins is, as its name would suggest, a prequel to the existing games of the series. The origins of Batman have been told many times in various media. We've had two separate movies about Batman's early crime fighting adventures, several graphic novels, flashback scenes in the cartoons and comics, and even an ongoing TV series about Bruce Wayne's early years. This game offers a rare chance to play out these early days in an interactive format. Sure, 1989's Batman and 2005's Batman Begins both had games base on them, but in those you were mostly following a script, rather than existing in a world. There's just an amusing feeling you get when creeping along a roof ledge eavesdropping on a group of criminals as they debate whether or not you exist moments before jumping out of the shadows at them.

While we're on the subject of listening to the dialog, it should be pointed out that Batman: Arkham Origins has an entirely new voice cast. The previous games reassembled the voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, including Mark Hamill delivering an amazing performance as the Joker. When I first heard that this game was recasting all of the parts, I was worried that it would be going in a different direction, but luckily this was not the case. The new actors actually sound a lot like the old cast, and deliver the same dark mood the series thrives on. While Troy Baker might not be quite the scene-stealer that Hamill was, he still manages to deliver a powerful performance, even if The Joker does have a much smaller role in the story this time. Roger Craig Smith does such a great job filling Kevin Conroy's shoes voicing Batman himself, that it's hardly noticeable that we have a whole new cast. Granted, about a year and a half had passed since I'd played Arkham City, so playing through the series back to back may lead to a more offsetting experience.

So, other than the cast, what's new this time around? Actually, not all that much. It seems that the new developers didn't want to rock the boat too much in their maiden voyage, focusing instead on delivering a new story within the comfortable environment of familiar gameplay from the earlier games, which was probably a pretty good call on their part. There have been a few new additions however. One of the most innovative aspects of the Arkham series has been the Detective Mode which lets you analyze your environment and follow clues to help you throughout your adventure. This has been updated with a new Crime Scene Investigation mode that lets you recreate the events and view them from any angle as a holographic reenactment. I'll admit I had fun playing DJ with the playback as virtual explosions sent shrapnel flying across the room and back.

A s a Batman game, an assortment of bat-gadgets is always available, and this game is no exception. The standard Batarang, Batclaw, Explosive Gel, and Cryptographic Sequencer of previous Arkham games make return appearances along with a few new toys such as the Remote Claw and Shock Gloves. Nothing that changes the formula in substantial ways, but these new tricks do manage to help the game feel fresh.

Visually, Batman: Arkham Origins is a bit of a departure from the dirty grit of the series. Sure, there are some dirty gritty environments that you'll visit, but most of the game's world is actually pretty nice. Rather than being secluded to an overgrown penal colony, you are in Gotham City itself. Being a snowy xmas eve night, most of the citizens are safely at home and out of your way, leaving only the cops and the criminals, not mutually exclusive, out to play. If you have fond memories of any of the Batman Begins games of the early 90s then you might feel a bit of nostalgia as you swing the Caped Crusader among the fully decked halls of this festive winter wonderland.

While Arkham Asylum was mostly linear with a few scattered collectibles, Arkham City introduced the idea of more fleshed out side mission quest chains. Arkham Origins expands on this with a number of ongoing optional objectives to keep you occupied wherever you go. Some of these have practical purposes such as unlocking fast travel locations, but most are simply opportunities to gain additional experience points to put towards upgrading your equipment and abilities. While the previous titles provided customization through learning additional moves, you're presented here with a full skill tree rivaling many RPG titles.

One issue that has been bugging me more and more lately has been pre-rendered cutscenes. This game isn't alone in this issue, it did put the issue in the spotlight, especially later on in it. You see, there are two types of cutscenes, pre-rendered, and in-engine. Back in the 2D days, it was simple, either your sprites moved on their own with dialog text, or you saw custom images that looked much more detailed than the actual game. In the early 3D days, N64 games would generally just animate the game characters and camera in a more cinematic way, while the PS1 and its CD-ROM allowed for playing back video files that were put together beforehand using advanced lighting and rendering techniques. At the time, this provided a whole new view into the worlds of our games, and we didn't mind that everything looked completely different than during the levels. Now that the games themselves already look detailed and realistic, using pre-rendered cutscenes has a new effect, it points out how much better the game could look, but doesn't. After hours of playing Arkham Origins, your mind starts to accept it as reality. When the cutscenes suddenly have drastically different lighting, and the room you were just in looks far more detailed, you think maybe it didn't look as good as you thought. When you're then thrown back into the level, the amazing graphics you were so immersed in before are suddenly a disappointment. This isn't unique here, but it's something that I think needs more discussion.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Batman: Arkham Origins. It had the same addictive combat/exploration/stealth/puzzle solving combination that made the series such a hit, with just enough new ideas to keep things interesting. It's not a ground breaking entry to the series, but it does prove that even without Rocksteady Studios behind it, the series can live on. I'm looking forward to seeing what Arkham Knights can add to this formula next year. Before I end this, I figured I'd add an interesting youtube compilation I stumbled across featuring nine different on-screen portrayals of the moment that created Batman...

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

When Nintendo first announced the 3DS with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D as a launch title, my mind quickly began racing about the possibility of new original 3D Legend of Zelda adventures utilizing the Ocarina of Time engine. At the time, it was still a closely guarded secret that Majora's Mask 3D was also in the works. Years later, when the first 3DS exclusive Legend of Zelda title was finally announced, I was admittedly surprised that it bore little resemblance to Ocarina of Time, but I was even more caught off guard by how much it looked like another Zelda classic, A Link to the Past. This game of course was The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

The Legend of Zelda is a confusing series to follow. Not only are the games released in a different order than they take place, but there are also multiple timelines that run parallel to each other. While the occasional direct sequel does happen, it generally involves exploring a new area far from the events of the previous game as in Wind Waker to Phantom Hourglass or Ocarina of Time to Majora's Mask, or revisiting the same area so long after the events of the previous game that the world is unrecognizable as in Ocarina of time to Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass to Spirit Tracks. A Link Between Worlds breaks this mold by returning us to the world of Link to the Past, released more than two decades earlier.

Although the graphics are presented in 3D polygons rather than 2D sprites, it's remarkable how well the look and feel of the Link to the Past map presents itself in this new format. If you're one of the many who has completed this classic SNES adventure on multiple occasions, you'll feel like you've returned home as you wander through familiar environments noticing the subtle changes that have occurred during the generations that have passed between these games. In addition, many of' the boss battles from Link to the Past have been reimagined in 3 dimensions, to make it that much more of a nostalgia trip.

It's worth noting that as consistently universally acclaimed as console Zelda titles have generally been, mobile titles of the series have been much more hit or miss. Oddly, it's generally been the Capcom produced mobile titles such as Minish Cap and the Oracle series that feel the most like true Zelda games, while Nintendo's own attempts such as Link's Awakening and the DS titles tend to have more of a lighthearted, childlike, and comical approach. With A Link Between Worlds, the big N has finally bucked that trend by actually taking a mobile Legend of Zelda game seriously, and producing something as emotionally moving and meaningful as many of the "real" games.

Okay, that's enough pretext into what the game isn't, but now let's talk about what The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds actually is.When you really look at it, A Link Between Worlds is a classic 2D Zelda game, simply rendered using modern technology. If you grew up on the old-school Zeldas, you'll feel right at home with this one. On the other hand, if you tend to think of Ocarina of Time as "the first one" and never could figure out why people made such a big deal out of the classics, then maybe this isn't the game for you.

While it would have looked a little different, most of A Link Between Worlds could have easily existed on the SNES or GBA and still been just as enjoyable. The exception to this is the game's biggest new feature, the ability to turn into a flat painting and travel along walls. Reminiscent of the indie platformer Sideway, Link can become a piece of living graffiti opening a hidden world within the world. Surprisingly, by becoming flat, the world becomes more 3D as the camera zooms in and follows you to allow movement around objects, letting you finally see what the backs of all of these houses look like. Paintings of hearts or rupees become real items in this mode, but so do painted enemies. The most inventive use of this ability is how it relates to exploration allowing you access to new areas of the overworld and dungeons, as well as the magical slits that lead between the two parallel worlds.

The parallel worlds scenario has been a staple of many Zelda adventures. Ocarina of Time and Oracle of Ages used time travel, while Oracle of Seasons presented four versions of the world, one for each season. A Link Between Worlds follows more along the path of Twilight Princess and, unsurprisingly, A Link to the Past by presenting a light and dark world. This dark version of Hyrule is called Lorule. Yes, it's a bad play on words, but luckily it's a rare exception. Unlike the previous dark world examples, Lorule has its own bustling population with their own problems and issues. The story focuses closely on the citizens of both kingdoms and how these worlds interact. Parts of the story reminded me of the second and third seasons of the show Fringe in how it handled this delicate balance.

In case you've played the DS titles and have less than fond memories of fumbling about with the stylus, you can rest assured that this time Nintendo has remembered how to use buttons again. Sure, the touch screen is still utilized for navigating menus and switching items, and works smoothly for those tasks, but for the most part you'll be using the hardware's actual controls for playing the game, which allows it the tight and responsive controls you'd expect from an action adventure game. No more having to blow into the microphone in the middle of a boss fight!

A Link Between Worlds does do its share of experimenting though, especially when it comes to the items. Ever since the original The Legend of Zelda, it's been the standard that each dungeon contains a new item, and usually these items allow you to reach the next dungeon's location in the overworld. These new goodies are acquired one at a time, giving you time to master each before getting distracted by your next new toy. And, as they say on Wheel of Fortune, once you win a prize, it's yours to keep. This time around, things are a bit different. Early on in the game, Link's house is converted into an item shop, but at first you are unable to purchase these items, only rent them.

This changes things up in a few ways. More items are available earlier on in the game, but you only have them until you die, making the prospect of running out of hearts much more threatening. Later on you also get the opportunity to purchase the items, if you have enough rupees that is. One of the problems Zelda games have had in the past is that at a certain point you simply run out of things to buy unless you're in a hurry to refill your ammo, and then the rupees become meaningless. This new approach allows you to have access to what you need, but still gives you motivation to save up towards it, making the economy of the game stay active longer.

But what about buying ammo? In past Zelda games I'd almost always have the boomerang equipped as my secondary item, at least until I got a hookshot. It made sense, a ranged weapon that could be used as often as I want without worries of resource management allows for more carefree gameplay. This Time, I tended to use the bombs and arrows much more than I had in the past. Why would this be? In the Zelda games, arrows and bombs are more than simply weapons for dispensing your foes, they are keys to unlock solutions to the puzzles blocking your path so you can continue on in your adventures. Running out of either in regular combat could mean having to backtrack when you reach that next roadblock. A Link Between Worlds uses a recharging mechanic that is shared between all of your items, as well as your wall painting mode. This takes the pressure off, and lets you bomb away without fear.

From what I've seen in discussion boards, reviews, and simply in casual conversations, the most divisive aspect of A Link Between Worlds is the art style. The art team on this game had a clear vision to recreate the look and feel of A Link to the Past, and make it come to life in 3D. They pulled this off beautifully, even though it meant modeling vertical objects at strange angles in order to replicate the impossible perspectives implied by its 2D predecessor. Unfortunately, recreating the hand drawn cartoon style in a more solid form lends it a strange look that some find to be too simple and lacking detail. Those less familiar with the earlier games especially seem to be turned off by the visuals, while those of us with fond memories of Link's 8 and 16-bit days tend to be more appreciative of this style. You'll have to decide for yourself what to think on this point.

Since this is a 3DS release, it's worth mentioning the actual stereoscopic 3D aspects. Being a top down 2.5D style game on mostly flat planes, the 3D effects are mostly subtle. They do give a little more depth to things, but for most of the game you won't miss much if you turn down the 3D slider, or play it on a 2DS instead. There are exceptions though, mostly later in the game. There is an open multi-leveled fortress that must be explored in which seeing how far away paths and platforms of lower levels are really helps out in solving the puzzles and navigating the mazes of the structure. The most noticeable moment however is while descending through the lava filled caverns of Death Mountain. There is an extended section of carefully timed jumps from moving platforms onto other moving platforms far below. The added benefit of depth perception on these wild leaps can't be understated!

In my opinion, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the greatest original 3DS game I've played so far. On a platform littered with re-release ports and mobile inspired casual titles, having a lengthy epic adventure that takes itself seriously is a welcome change. I've always found it odd that games for mobile platforms which can be played anywhere at any time tend to be short and repetitive, while the sprawling time consuming experiences are generally linked to the platforms I have the least amount of time to play. This game provides the portable adventure many of us crave, and if you've been looking for something like that, this is one not to miss!