Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Batman: Arkham Origins

Post-Launch Review
Batman: Arkham Origins (PC)
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montréal
Released: October 2013
Played: story and almost all side quests complete in 21h


Two years after he began his mission to save Gotham and five years before Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman is tracking crime lord Black Mask after a Christmas Eve prison break. Black Mask hires eight assassins with a $50 million bounty on the Bat. While fending off the assassins, Batman learns that Black Mask is setting bombs all over the city. And as if that weren't enough to deal with, there's a mysterious new criminal in town calling himself the Joker...

At Launch

Arkham Origins earned average review scores of 74%. Critics felt that the gameplay changes were small and incremental compared to the previous game, Arkham City, but greatly enjoyed the focus on relationships that added new perspectives to existing characters. Some critics felt that there were too many uninteresting optional objectives, and that combat was too punishing without the shock gauntlets but too easy with them.

Post Launch

Patches were released to fix major technical problems across all platforms.
Several DLC packs were released.
Deathstroke pre-order pack lets you play as Deathstroke in challenge maps. I didn't pre-order but I have the pack, and I'm a little confused as to why. It's not available as Steam DLC, so maybe it comes with the game by default now, but the store page doesn't say so. I dunno.
Cold, Cold Heart is a story pack showing the origin of Mr. Freeze.
Initiation is a challenge map pack featuring exotic locations, set during Bruce Wayne's training.
Black Mask Challenge Pack adds two new maps playable as Batman or Deathstroke (if you own Deathstroke)
Online Supply Drop 1 and 2 add multiplayer skins and weapons for the Bane and Joker factions.
New Millenium and Infinite Earths Skins Packs add new costumes for Batman.
The Season Pass gets you Cold, Cold Heart, Initiation, the two skin packs, and two exclusive skins.

Some PC players (including me) experience terrible low-resolution textures despite having the in-game setting at maximum. This Steam community thread shows how to fix the problem.

As another aside before we get started for real, I'm not going to talk about the gameplay. It's the same as in Arkham City, which means excellent and makes you feel like you're really Batman. So that's good.
I'll admit that I didn't expect Arkham Origins to be particularly good. It wasn't developed by the same team that did Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, and it's not part of the trilogy being concluded in Arkham Knight - more of a prequel to the trilogy. Reviews weren't as good as the previous games, and when I heard that the Joker would play a big role and that the Riddler would have trophies scattered through the city and that it'd be taking place in some of the same areas as Arkham City, I feared that Origins would be just another boring uninspired origin story cashing in on (and reusing) Arkham City assets.

But oh boy, I underestimated this game.
I will say that some of my expectations were more or less accurate. The Riddler has two hundred things for you to find across the city, and the puzzles are mostly the same as in Arkham City. But instead of trophies laid out as a challenge, the items you're finding are data packs containing pieces of the extortion files for various Gotham personalities, so it was nice to see a story motivation other than "find them because they're hidden". You get an optional look at the origin of the Riddler's obsession with outsmarting Batman if you complete all the tower objectives, but the rest gives you almost nothing more, so it's not super worth it for all that work.

Also, large chunks of the map are recycled from Arkham City. You'll visit the same neighbourhoods, see the same buildings, glide over the same streets. At least it feels a little fresh because of the snow and its DX11 footprint effects, and the story missions tend to take place in locations we didn't visit in past games, such as the big hotel.

Some of the assassins are underused, showing up in side missions only, which is a little odd considering that "eight assassins have been hired to take down the Bat" is a huge component of the story and incidental dialogue. Shiva and Deadshot skip the core plot entirely, and Electrocutioner is kind of a joke (which is, however, legit hilarious).

Spoilers in the next two paragraphs, skip 'em if you don't want to read some big plot points.

But the overall story really impressed me. "Origins" in the game title doesn't refer to character origin stories as I had feared; rather, it refers to the origins of the relationships between the characters in the Arkham games: Bane and Batman, Gordon and Batman, Harley and the Joker, and especially the Joker and Batman. These four stories are way more compelling than I had expected, with some fun twists in each of them: Bane is smart enough to learn Batman's true identity but a memory-degrading component of the Venom drug makes him forget and turns him into the brute seen in Asylum; Gordon is adamantly anti-Batman even when he shouldn't be, but much of his coming around is thanks to his daughter Barbara.

I was especially impressed with how the game handled Harley and the Joker. When the Joker is taken in, he's given a psych evaluation by Dr. Harleen Quinzel. I haven't read every Batman comic, but this is the first time I personally have seen that initial meeting of the two, and it's handled perfectly. The Joker is utterly captivated by this person he's just met - completely fascinated by how this person acts, and he wants to know everything he can. Dr. Quinzel thinks he's talking about her, but actually he's talking about how perplexed he is that Batman saved his life when there was every reason to let him die. Of course the Joker catches on and allows Harleen to think he's fallen for her, and with the way he's talking, she totally falls for him. This is a great origin for that one-sided relationship, and a great way to establish the Batman-Joker relationship. This Joker didn't have much interest in Batman until the Bat saved his life for the sole reason that he won't kill - so suddenly the Joker takes interest and wants nothing more than to make Batman break his rule.

Spoilers end here.

To take a step back from the story, I mentioned that some of the assassins were side quests only, and that disappointed me a bit. There were another few short, basic quests involving hidden arms or drug or bomb stashes, and those were mostly uninspired busywork. But there's another set of side missions I really enjoyed: crime scene investigations. A series of murders take place over the course of the night, and you can choose to visit the crime scenes, reconstruct the murders to identify the killer, and then apprehend the various killers. And if you finish all of them you unlock a little post-game quest were Gordon reluctantly asks you to bring in the prisoners that escaped that night. These are nice touches that really enhance the Batman feel, though with the downside that the crime scene investigation isn't so much a puzzle to solve as a series of icons to click on as you listen to Batman solve the crime.
The Cold Cold Heart DLC is, unfortunately, exactly what I feared the main game would be. It's just a Mr. Freeze origin story that doesn't tell series fans anything they didn't already know, especially for those who have seen the Batman: The Animated Series episode Heart of Ice. There's a cool new Batsuit (pun intended) but despite the theme it doesn't have any gameplay-altering effects; it just re-unlocks things that get locked away by ice. It feels padded with filler. And Batman seems weirdly sympathetic to Freeze - I know it's a tragic origin story, but Freeze gives no shits about murdering people and blowing stuff up, and you'd think Batman would have a bit more of a problem with that.

So overall the game is pretty good. Not as good as its predecessors - gameplay feels a bit more repetitive and tedious and less interesting - but the story and voice acting are excellent, giving us a fresh look at the origins of some key relationships between people in the Arkham universe. If you enjoyed Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, the story of Arkham Origins is great - though you may want to skip some of the side quest filler, and also Cold, Cold Heart if you've already seen Heart of Ice.

Recommendation: play it *

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