Sunday, November 3, 2013

Batman: Arkham Origins review

Let me start by saying that I'm a big Batman fan. Like many people my age or slightly older, I grew up watching the outstanding animated series on Cartoon Network. I've seen all the movies (that matter). Hell, I ranked "The Dark Knight Returns" as my #1 comic book story arc of all time in an earlier blog post. My fan ravings aside, on a more meta-level, Bruce Wayne himself is something of an inspiration for me. He sticks to his morals no matter what despite being able to kill most ordinary people about a hundred different ways with his bare hands. Even though he just leaves criminals as paraplegics, there's something to be said about a guy who won't sink to the level of the people he fights in order to fight them. And plus, he's just smooth. He always has everything under control. My only regret as a Batman fan is that he's everyone else's favorite superhero too.

So when they announced a new entry in the "Batman Arkham" series, I was pumped. I first picked up "Batman: Arkham Asylum" when I spent a summer in the Philippines during 2012. Admittedly, I was a little late. The game came out 3 years prior, and despite the critical acclaim, I was a bit apprehensive to play it because the gameplay was new to me. I mean, a typical third-person action game for me at that time would have been something like "Dynasty Warriors" or "God of War." I wasn't ready to handle Batman. "Asylum" proved me wrong on so many levels. I instantly fell in love with the flawless mix of combat and stealth that just hit the being Batman experience nail on the head. When I returned to Texas, one of the first things I did was pick up the sequel, "Arkham City." Like the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale movies, "City" did everything the first one did and made it bigger and better. It is undoubtedly the best licensed game I've ever played. For that matter, I would go so far as to put it in the top 10 GAMES I've ever played, especially from the PS3/Xbox 360 generation. When "Arkham Origins" was officially announced, I knew which game I was getting for the fall season, and it wasn't going to be "Call of Duty."

Like it says on the tin, "Origins" is a prequel. It has been described as a year two story. Batman isn't quite the seasoned crime fighter we saw in "Asylum" and "City," but he's no scrub, either. At this point, he's still kind of a myth and only used to fighting against common thugs, which is kinda one-sided and boring. Enter Black Mask. On Christmas Eve, Gotham City's most powerful crime lord puts a $50 million bounty on Batman's head, attracting eight assassins (READ: super villains). While Batman is only used to taking on common thugs, his peak-level strength and training make him more than a match for any opponent. The rest is history. I mean, we have the two other games in the series, so CLEARLY Batman doesn't die.

"Asylum" and "City" were known for several gameplay aspects, most notably the flawlessly-implemented free flow combat style. The stealth sections weren't bad, either. Those gameplay aspects that made the previous two games so great have returned, and they are largely unchanged. For the sake of innovation, that's not really a good thing. For the sake of playing as Batman again, that's not a problem. It all depends on your point of view. Gliding and usage of the grappling gun is literally exactly the same. The remote batarang is still a pain in the ass to control. While you do get a few new tools like the glue grenade and concussion detonator along with a remote claw that lets you set up tightropes, everything is largely the same. Correct me in the comments if there was anything else I left out, I just relied on my fists to get me through most of the game. Like I said, most of the gameplay is the same as the predecessors. However, that doesn't make it any less satisfying when you just rush into a crowd of 20 dudes and take them all out with your bare hands or slowly pick off a room full of gun-toting thugs one by one.

That being said, the boss fights were some of the most memorable ones I've encountered in this console generation, largely because of the presentation. Highest praise goes to the Deathstroke and Bane fights, particularly the former just because of how the encounter just sucker punches you by surprise. Copperhead and Killer Croc were kind of cookie cutter. Firefly was a little different but actually somewhat unnecessary and annoying if still very memorable. As of writing, I haven't fought Deadshot yet because that's not a story-linked boss, but I will avenge John Diggle's brother ("Arrow" reference there).

The graphics were largely the same as "Arkham City." Personally, I played on PC, and my rig is an extremely high-end thing that was custom built. As such, I think that "Origins" might have been even clearer, but, again, that might just have been my PC.

The soundtrack was top-notch, worthy of anything that Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer could compose. I loved the way it blended the dark, moody orchestral tunes of Batman's world with the lighter shades of traditional Christmas songs. Of particular praise is the way Christopher Drake used "Carol of the Bells" and "Overture" from the Barber of Seville.


Where the game really shines is its story. It starts out exactly how the trailers and advertising said it would: Black Mask puts a bounty on Batman's head, and eight assassins want an early retirement thanks to the $50 million. So you're wanting to find out why Black Mask has such a hard on for you. Now if you read the spoiler warning, you would know to not read what comes next. About a quarter through the game, turns out, it's not actually Black Mask who put out out the bounty. It's the Joker ... posing as Black Mask after he somehow infiltrated and took over Black Mask's criminal operation. While I did like how the assassins were tied into the plot, they are largely just plot devices with the exception of Bane, who plays a really big role in the story towards the end. Without saying any more, this particular origin story shines because it shows how Batman went from beating up thugs to being able to take on, well, super villains. More importantly, it showed how the Joker and Batman started their famous feud. And that alone was worth the price of admission.

The "Batman Arkham" series can be likened to Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy. The first one was excellent and brought Batman back into the mainstream. The second one set the bar so high in its medium for all superhero-related entries. The third one was good due to similar direction as the first two, but because the second one set the bar so high, it ultimately fell short. In the case of these Batman games and movies, falling short still means "better than everyone else." Sure "Arkham Origins" has multiplayer which I haven't played at the time of writing (a good friend of mine said it was pretty good despite what most reviewers have said), but the real star is the single-player. It doesn't change anything and certainly doesn't raise the bar, but that's ok because "Arkham City" was already perfect. And perfect only comes once in a blue moon.

"Batman: Arkham Origins" gets an 8.25/10

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