In 2009, Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham Asylum and showed the world how to effectively utilize a licensed property, putting other development studios of similar titles to shame. Two years later the studio released Arkham City which was an unequivocal improvement and total perfection of everything introduced, and ultimately one of the greatest games of this soon to be ending generation. Rocksteady has moved on to an unknown project however, subsequently leaving the fate of the Arkham franchise in the hands of a new and unproven development studio titled Warner Brothers Montreal. The result is a mixed bag feeling reminiscent to a situation where a revered film franchise suddenly switches directors. Its good, but you cant one up the masters. In what is probably the smartest creative direction WB Montreal made, Arkham Origins does not attempt to continue along after Arkham Citys dramatic conclusion. Instead they are approaching this massive undertaking without having their cake and eating it too, and simply telling a prequel to the entire Arkham timeline. Arkham Origins stars a much younger and more careless caped crusader. Batman has not mastered his craft yet and is occasionally prone to failure, whether its by accidentally letting civilians die or simply going overboard in his ruthless vigilante aggression. To further showcase this often unseen characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne, WB Montreal went forth with a dicey decision to switch voice actors from the highly acclaimed Kevin Conroy to Roger Craig Smith (known for portraying Ezio in Assassins Creed). And truthfully speaking, its a decision that pays off as were given a younger and fresher voice to match this characterization. The story itself begins fairly basic and often uneventful with the premise simply consisting of Black Mask placing a $50 million bounty on Batmans head. This prompts 8 assassins - whom are all notable DC villains- to hunt you throughout what is one long Christmas Eve night. Im not against this idea, but for far too long the story is uneventful and frankly boring. That is until things get kicked up a notch with Batmans greatest rival, The Joker. Similarly to Batman going through some actor change, The Joker is no longer voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill, however Troy Baker (The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite) steals the entire game with a fantastic performance. Sure, his voice is essentially an imitation of the famed Mark Hamill rendition but last time I checked, pulling off that maniacally mentally imbalanced voice is no easy feat. Appearances from Bane, Deathstroke, and other characters it would be cruel to spoil heighten this rough start, and set the game on a course of pure adrenaline where every mission ups the ante. By the end of the wonderfully executed finale which ties numerous overarching franchise plot themes together, I had felt like I had gone through a Batman tale worthy of the comics. The actual gameplay is where Origins begins to crumble, albeit not enough to truly kill the experience, but damn is some of it frustrating. As far as combat goes, very little has changed and you will spend most of the game battling thugs in the traditional free-flow combat which as usual, has Batman swiftly bouncing between enemies like a pinball. Also returning are predator rooms which have Batman stealthily taking out firearm armed thugs from vents, conveniently placed gargoyle statues, setting up explosive gel traps; the usual. This is a much harder Arkham game though, which would be acceptable if the reasoning wasnt a striking impression that WB Montreal broke the counter system for melee combat. Typically when a thug goes for an attack, blue marks will appear above his head signaling you to press Triangle. Its what we are familiar with but the timing is mysteriously strict and often frustrating. This is mostly prominently aggravating during the games very bland boss battles that are cobbled together as glorified Quick Time Events. I welcome the ambition to create one on one battles that are based on utilizing your combat skills, but here theyre far too restrictive and demand you to play a scripted way. And getting back to the countering issues, its frustrating when occasionally you dont even get a prompt to counter, which happened multiple times for me during the Deathstroke encounter. Oddly enough, the aforementioned predator gameplay feels untouched and as crisp as past entries. Youre still going prey from above or lurk in the shadows, waiting for opportune moments to strike as you chip away at the numbers game. I also feel that WB Montreal found a greater balance in the frequency of which these sections occur. This is especially noticeable when traversing Gotham as you arent running into snipers regardless of whichever direction you go. Unfortunately, while traversing Gotham is much more satisfying and relaxing this time around, there isnt much entertaining side content. A lot of it consists of partaking in very repetitive tasks such as defusing bombs that a villain Ive never even heard of - Anarky - is placing. You can also take on the remaining assassins (You dont encounter them all over the course of the story) if youre so inclined, but they lack the panache of the more cinematic driven story fights. There is one side quest I enjoyed though; an invitation from the Mad Hatter which sees Batman platforming through a very unique envisioning of Wonderland. The Riddler is also back with a bevy of collectables to find and a new addition; control towers you can deactivate. These control towers offer you fast travel points (a welcome addition to the franchise) and add collectable locations to your map. Sadly, however, the riddles themselves are a missing feature leaving everything coming off as one gigantic collectable fetch quest that isnt fun or satisfying. The most disappointing aspect of Origins though is its lack of polish and quality assurance. There are times I had to completely reboot the console because the game itself locked up, or after obtaining an item Batman became frozen in place, eyes trancelike gazing at it. Ive seen enemies pinned to walls, massive drops in animation, enemies stuck in place, cinematic camera angles obscuring the action (seriously - one time while interrogating a thug the camera zoomed so far in all I saw was a wall throughout the conversation) and more. The ultimate winner though is Batman completely whiffing with a palm strike yet the thug being launched 5 feet backwards and rendered unconscious anyway. I will admit the bugs subsided after the halfway mark, but this is still highly souring. On a more positive note, I really enjoyed the direction WB Montreal went with sleuthing. Its an area Rocksteady never explored with a great deal of complexity which is a shame because Batman is, after all, the Worlds Greatest Detective. In Arkham Origins you not only scan overtly visible evidence but can rewind and fast forward crime scenes to piece together the puzzle. These instances are few and far between but I found myself actively engaged with them. Arkham Origins looks impressive and detailed which is par for the course. Batmans cape will rip and tear as the taxing Christmas Eve night rolls on, the draw distance is competent, and the FMV movie cinematics all look gorgeous. For whatever reason, though, the games frame-rate constantly dips into the toilet, which is startlingly disappointing because Rocksteadys games ran flawlessly. The audio suffers from a similar fate; its got a bombastic score full of intense tunes and classic Christmas themes twisted into a brooding and more sinister feel. The comic inspired fighting sound effects are virtually untouched and really elicit a feeling that you are indeed beating the snot out of criminal scum as Batman. Theres just one unforgivable issue though; the audio frequently drops out for seconds at a time, effectively killing the atmosphere of the moment. Arkham Origins is a fairly lengthy game, clocking in at roughly 13 hours for me but has loads of re-playability ranging from challenge maps that test your skills, numerous gameplay challenges, and a sizeable chunk of side content. You also will not earn enough experience to buy every upgrade which is neat but I really hated the entire upgrade system. You are given only 2 linear skill trees and are just constantly pigeon holed into buying upgrades you dont want, but have to if you want to reach enticing upgrades. In addition to all of this, there is New Game + and a mode titled I Am The Night which challenges you to complete the game without dying or utilizing checkpoints. If you die you are returned to the very beginning of the game. Its safe to say that if you enjoy the game youll have your hands full long after the story ends. Rounding out the abundant amount of game modes is competitive Multiplayer, for the first and likely the last time in the franchise. I admittedly didnt play it too much and the answer why is simple; its unnecessarily tacked on and lacks any aspiration whatsoever. You pick a criminal faction to align yourself with and shoot each other while two players controlling Batman and Robin join the fray. Outside of feeling ridiculously unbalanced, the thug controls are flat out weird and not very responsive. I havent seen a Multiplayer mode this shoehorned in since the abysmal crap in Dead Space 2. Trust me when I say that you wont be coming back to Arkham Origins for this. As previously mentioned, Arkham Origins is a grab bag full of interesting concepts, the gameplay we are accustomed to and love, some baffling combat tweaks, frequent game bugs, and lukewarm boss battles. Where it excels though is telling a fascinating origins story of characters we love, all with excellent dialogue and voice acting. If you have played and thoroughly enjoyed the previous games, theres simply no reason not to play Arkham Origins. Just dont expect a game as superbly crafted as something Rocksteady blessed us with, because the fact that this game was made by a different development team shows in spades. Batman: Arkham Origins is available now for PS3, 360, PC, and Wii U.
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