Batman: Arkham Origins
It's very hard to keep the quality game series going the longer it runs. By the time most developers reach the third game they have to really push the limits to get the same reactions from fans that the first two games received.
For Warner Bros the solution to this problem with the Batman games is to switch development studios and go for a prequel.
The result is Batman: Arkham Origins. This is strange game which has plenty of the same characteristics of the previous games yet feels just a little bit more different. It's an elusive idea of difference as well. Is it because it's a new developer? Is it because the game area is now Gotham City? I can't really put my finger on it and that's probably what bothers me most about Batman: Arkham Origins.
WB Montreal has decided for their first swing at the caped crusader' dark series they'd wind the clock back to an early period in Batman's development – year two to be precise.
Believe it or not Gotham City is a much less inviting place than it has become in Arkham City. The police department has become lazy and corrupt under the guidance of Commissioner Loeb and they are more concerned with hunting Batman than they are with stopping actual crimes.
So when Black Mask, the city's current crime boss decides to put a 50 million USD bounty on Batman's head for the person that kills him on Christmas Eve even the GCPD want to get in on the action.
In rolls some of the most deadly assassins in the DC universe along with some familiar faces to make Batman's second Christmas a truly unhappy one. Deathstroke, Deadshot, Firefly, Shiva, Electrocutioner, Copperhead, Killer Croc and a slightly smaller incarnation of Bane all converge on Gotham City with the aim of claiming Batman's head as a trophy along with the 50 million USD bounty.
It's a slightly familiar story. Batman must track down Black Mask to try and get the bounty removed while dealing with the eight assassins and a handful of other Gotham villains who happen to get in his way including Anarky, Mad Hatter, The Riddler's previous incarnation Enigma and of course everyone's favourite Cockney midget, The Penguin.
Of course, no good game narrative would be without a twist and this one is pretty obvious from the moment The Joker is mentioned. As usual he will play a central role in the game and that is one of the more disappointing aspects of Batman: Arkham Origins.
It would have been nice, after spending the best part of two games dealing with The Joker's twisted schemes for WB Montreal to try a different tack and at least give The Joker a much smaller part to play if not avoid his appearance completely. It felt a little bit like a cop-out on the story side of things but given the fan and internal resistance they received on the game it is totally understandable.
The game itself plays exactly as you'd expect. The combat feels a little bit tighter and more responsive than Arkham City's which is good to know. Batman has a decent array of the usual gadgets available to him and some are unlocked by completing certain challenges throughout the game rather than by merely levelling up.
This is a pretty smart touch as it forces players to the expansive area of Gotham that WB Montreal has designed to learn its secrets and gain a few extra tools into the bargain.
Because the map is so large, and because this is the first Batman game to feature the Batcave as a location to visit, WB Montreal has put the Batwing at players disposal as a fast-travel device. It will drop Batman at a series of specific locations on the map once players has reclaimed Gotham's communication towers from the control of Enigma.
In the Batcave you can try out new gadgets and combat techniques in the training simulator, pick up new gadgets assembled by Alfred or even just get some advice from Batman's wise old butler in between beating up Gotham's criminals. It's a welcome addition to the series and adds an extra layer of authenticity to the game.
There are a few sticking points with the game though particularly surrounding its stability. A handful of mildly infuriating bugs reared their head during my playthrough which diluted my enjoyment of the game.
Firstly and most crucially, Batman: Arkham Origins is mildly unstable. After extended play sessions the game will crash during loading sequences or just stop responding to the controller. There's no real rhyme or reason to the crashes either other than they happen after a few hours of play.
Sometimes saves would not totally record progress. One particularly enraging occasion left me backtracking to Gotham Pioneer Bridge in order to re-engage a particular event repeatedly after getting defeated in fights on my way to the event's waypoint on the map. Given that the respawn point was in between Gotham Pioneer Bridge and the event in question left a rather sour taste in my mouth.
It's not all bad though. Batman: Arkham Origins is a decent stab at the series from a new studio working against significant odds. Batman is younger, angrier and more impetuous and it adds an even darker tone to a series that is already as black as they come.
This was always going to be a difficult game for WB Montreal to make with some much to live up to. Despite working in the shadow of Rocksteady's previous games Batman: Arkham Origins is a decent respectful addition to the series. It's not Batman: Arkham City, but then again, it's not meant to be.
Batman: Arkham Origins is out now on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC.
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