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...

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