Time to be afraid of the dark: Batman Arkham Origins impressions

batman-arkham-origins-4Watching my teenage son play Batman Arkham Origins is an interesting study in how emotion comes to the fore while playing a video game..

One moment he’s smiling with glee as floats across a snowy Gotham city before glide kicking an unaware thug into a snow drift and acrobatically taking out the handful of thugs that have surrounded him, the next he’s cursing because his rapid pressing of the “b” button to stun a boss hasn’t worked and his Batman is slammed to the ground, knocking his health for a six.

The swing of emotion is quite fascinating to see: the highs of happiness when something has gone according to plan, the lows of frustration when a button press doesn’t do what it’s supposed to when it’s supposed to.

For me, Batman Arkham Origins is like that much of the way through.  I hit moments when I’m genuinely enthralled and captured by the story telling then completely frustrated. Generally the frustrated part is during the boss fights with the assassin’s that descend upon Gotham City, lured by the $50 million bounty on Batman’s head. DC characters that make an appearance include Copperhead, Shiva, Bane, Deathstroke, Firefly, Black Mask and The Joker. It’s Christmas Eve, too, so the city is in lockdown and quiet.

I’m confused as to why it’s called Origins, though, as the game stars a Batman who has been on the prowl for a couple of years so it’s not really an origin story where he’s a Bruce Wayne just coming to grips with the responsibility of being a masked vigilante. He’s already confident with his skills and knows what he’s capable of.

Batman Arkham Origins owes a gratitude of debt to Rocksteady’s Batman games. A gratitude of debt that should be accompanied by a large chocolate cake, a few sacks of nice wine and a signed “Thank you” note. Batman Arkham Origins sits firmly on the foundations established by Rocksteady and doesn’t stray far from the formula.

Perhaps that was to be expected, though: I guess new studio WB Montreal wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel when it came to the lucrative Batman franchise, but by deviating little from the tried and true means that Origins is a good game without being a spectacular one.

Visually, it looks little different from the other two Batman games, and Troy Baker does a great job channeling Mark Hamill’s Joker. It’s a pity that Kevin Conroy wasn’t bought back to voice the dark knight, although it must be said that the new voice of Batman does a sterling job in presenting a younger Batman (he even seems to imitate distinctive growl at times).

batman-arkham-origins-combat

The smooth combat from Rocksteady’s Batman games returns, and it’s just as good here. I’ve always loved the free-flowing melee combat of Rocksteady’s Batman, granting the Dark Knight almost ballet-like poise and grace as he jumps from foe to foe, handing out vengeance and justice.

Although, at first, it seemed as if my Batman beat-’em up skills had left me since as I initially had trouble defeating even the first boss Killer Croc. I soon got my groove back, but for me, the boss battles had no consistency:  The fight against Slade WIlson, aka Deathstroke in the bowels of a derelict ship was a lesson in frustration punctuated by swear words and numerous restarts, while the fight against Copperhead was ridiculously easy.

There’s a strong sense of deja vu with Arkham Origins but it does try to tweak somethings a little (scanning for evidence is handled differently now, although it holds your hand a little) and some of the gadgets, like a pair of gloves that can electocute enemies, are genuinely great fun.

Overall, Batman Arkham Origins is a solid game that plays it a little safe. Perhaps that was the idea, though: that it was designed as a tester to see whether WB Montreal, which made the Wii U version of Batman Arkham City, could take the reins of a new game itself and make something of it.

Well, the studio has shown that it can, but now it’s time for WB Montreal to show that it can deliver a fresh, innovative Batman experience (I’m sure more Batman games are planned) that will come out from behind the shadows of  Rocksteady and stand on its own two bat boot-clad feet.

Footnote: There’s an interesting scene in the game’s closing credits featuring Deathstroke, that could hint as to what direction WB  – or perhaps Rocksteady – are taking the series. No doubt we’ll know soon enough.

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