Troy Baker's Joker voice is one of the best things about Batman: Arkham Origins. But it's also a disturbingly awesome imitation of Mark Hamill's take on the clown Prince of Crime. Therein lies the riddle of the newest video game with the Dark Knight.
This game is about finding your own voice on several levels. The players inhabit a Bruce Wayne who has been Batman for two years as he faces a melting pot that tests his resolve like never before. The Christmas Eve drama begins with eight assassins collecting a $ 50 million bounty on Batman's head – set by criminals and complicated by a first encounter with future archenemy The Joker.
The people who make origins are also trying to establish their creative voice. The game was developed by a new studio that is continuing two respected games from the original Rocksteady studio.
Playing Origins feels like listening to a great cover band. As you slide, sneak and fight your way through Gotham, you'll remember the rhythms that made you fall in love with this playable adaptation of Batman. But the same experience reminds you that this is an act of tribute – often a convincing one – but still a tribute. And, as with any tribute, it is wise to worry when new interpreters try to give the familiar their own spin.
There's a lot new in Batman: Arkham Origins. New devices, new speakers, new bad guys, and most importantly, new developers. New devices like the Remote Claw Tether and Shock Gloves consistently serve two purposes: combat and traverse applications that allow you to vary strategies. New enemy types – such as burly enforcers with blow sponges and nimble martial artists who can counteract your counters – also make for a nice change from the last two bat games. Indeed, for the most part, the infusion of new gameplay elements goes well with the established ones that have won hundreds of thousands of fans for Batman's recent video game outings. But sometimes the new stuff feels so nervous.
Take part in the investigation at the crime scene. When Batman comes across the site of a murder, players must search for multiple pieces of evidence that eventually freeze into a virtualized version of what happened. But all you really do is look for glowing indicators in Detective Vision. There is no real searching of options, no red herrings to mislead you. Just turn the camera and click the red thing. What Would Harvey Harris Say?
Then there is the Dark Knight System which is a bit of a split offer. It's similar to the sync layers the Assassin & # 39; s Creed franchise added over the year, a subset of challenges that assign you to fulfill the role of the Dark Knight in a specific way. So, for example, you need to take out two enemies on a slide or end a stealth encounter without ever being seen. The system is non-invasive and acts as a series of passive targets that unlock XP points when you clear them. There is also a similar scoring system in place that feels like an attempt to get players to care about how they fight and sneak up in Origins. I've never looked at this stuff in previous Bat games, and while adding this tweak doesn't seriously hurt anything here, most of the time it feels like distracting clutter. Each fight judges your performance and evaluates you. Instead of the world being immersive, you are constantly reminded of the joy of playing it all.
Boss fights, however, are an important area where Origins feels like they are better than their predecessors. The Bane showdowns – yes, there is more than one – are less of an endurance issue than in previous games. You feel like you are actually fighting and rethinking the exterminated mercenary instead of reacting to his brutal violence. The fight with Firefly is also a nice departure, changing the camera angles from top to bottom and creating a bigger playing field for the flying pyromaniac to torment Batman. Confidence in quick prompts hasn't gone away, but it's at least embedded in duels that show different approaches.
The fast travel feature is another symbol of the changes WB Montreal is making to the Bat-Arkham game recipe. You have to unlock the travel points in each section of the map by hacking security consoles. Where hacking puzzle sequences were more or less separate elements in earlier games, here they are more embedded in the game world. So it says: "Defeat a knot, fight the guys guarding another, solve the riddle that the last knot can no longer be reached." It's a lot of work and it would be worth it if it unlocked a cool story beat or a stunning cutscene. But after all that effort, all you get most of the time is a way to get around faster. Other subquests also open up, such as the option to track down and destroy the relay network that Enigma (a Riddler before the question mark) uses to gather extortion information. But that too is tertiary, just more work that doesn't add anything to the narrative dynamic. You don't have to do any of this, of course, as it is tied to an additional, yet helpful, procedure. The alternative, however, is a much slower drive across the map.
But that deeper networking feels good in other parts of the game. The most wanted missions are thread tangents, which form a kind of mini campaign away from the main storyline. These are standard open world side missions, such as finding and destroying Penguin weapon caches, disarming Anarky's airborne bombs, and thwarting Mad Hatter's abduction. But whether it's the psychedelic side effect of Mad Hatter's thought landscape or the philosophical orneriness of Anarky's speeches, they're presented in an experimental way. Yes, finishing a Most Wanted campaign unlocks even more gadgets, but – along with the tougher crimes in progress pop-up encounters in the open world – they all freeze to make the game feel like Bruce Wayne's final exam in Batmanology .
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Speaking of Batmanology, the story of Origins will sound familiar to long-time fans. It's a mix-and-match buffet of significant bat moments, with Barbara Gordon adoring heroes, asking Alfred Bruce to end his crusade, and earning Jim Gordon's trust, all embedded in the story mode. When you've recorded groundbreaking bat lore like The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One, and the previous Arkham games, many scenes and storylines – psycho criminals who replace gangsters, for example – will ping your memories. There's also WB Montreal's take on a fateful first meeting between Batman and Joker, where everyone realizes that their lives will be very different because of each other.
However, some of the procedures reek of formulaic thinking. Oh, look, it's a different sequence where Batman hallucinates for being drugged. Oh look, more guilty visions. Oh look, Batman is scarce and forbids allies. It doesn't matter that this is a prequel and that these moments can be chronologically justified. They may be intended as a tribute, but they feel like required assignments on a Batman 101 curriculum.
Baker & # 39; s Joker is an amazing, if occasionally strained, Hamill imitation. You can almost see him clench his jaw to get the killer clown's cadence just like that. To his credit, Roger Craig Smith does not try to monkey the legendary Kevin Conroy with his bat voice. His Bruce and Batman are essentially the same, a medium-sized growl that occasionally breaks into screams. It's a sure bat voice, but I wish there was more emotional flexion in Smith's performance.
It must be said that there is a lot to do in Origins. When the credits were played through in my story mode, my completion percentage was 21% after about 10-12 hours of play. It will take some time to exterminate all of the characters lurking in Gotham as some of the assassins are buried in side missions. For example, I went through the entire story mode without encountering Deadshot or Lady Shiva, even though I know they are in the game.
Origins makes me think about what I want from a Batman game. The answer has always been a deeper, interactive understanding of what it's like to be Batman. But it was easy for Rocksteady's efforts. The first exuded atmosphere and established Batman as a secret opponent, fearsome fighter and observant detective. Arkham City showed us the scope of its crusade and gave us a whole slice of Gotham to roam and adventure through. This? It has the burden of showing you how it all started.
Perhaps the name of this newest bat game bothered you. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were places, places where the games with their names were expertly brought to life. Arkham Origins doesn't have the same straightforward news, and it has the unfortunate ring of prequelitis, that disease that runs serial entertainment backwards when it can't figure out how to go forward. But in the last third, Origins shows why there has to be asylum for the new generation of criminals. There had been thugs and gangsters, but nothing madness.
Origins is an incremental rate, not a transformative one. It didn't have the massive leaps forward that distinguished the city from asylum. It's almost understandable given that WB Montreal's job is to harmonize with someone else's lead vocals. Right here, right now, the result is good enough. However, the success of the Batman video game franchise could prove to be its biggest limitation. And decisions to vary the template so slightly could be a slowly contracting death trap that even the Crusaders cannot escape.
Note: Arkham Origins also includes an asymmetrical multiplayer mode that I haven't been able to try out yet. Check for an update to this rating as soon as I have been able to log on online.