maanantai 11. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Origins | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: October 25, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Warner Bros. Games Montréal, Splash Damage
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

In the summer of 2012, Warner Bros. hinted at another Batman game in the fabled Arkham series, this time a Silver Age prequel which would feature several members of the Justice League, and among its stories to tell would be Batman's first confrontation with his arch nemesis, the Joker. As more and more people dropped out of this project early on, including voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, writer Paul Dini, and finally, series creators Rocksteady Studios themselves, and as the game's title was unveiled to be something as typical as Batman: Arkham Origins, people's disbelief in the game kept on growing with each step until Warner Bros. had trailers to prove that they'd apparently adapted Rocksteady's methods quite faithfully, and that the new voice actors knew how to get the job done. Written by Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Assassin's Creed fame, the game might even finally have a solid story to it even if it was not what was originally promised, or even the supercavalcade of rogues the previous games were. In a nutshell, Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game - but there's no denying that with these couple of years in between, it could be much more.

I am the (rough) night!

Roger Craig Smith : Bruce Wayne / Batman
Troy Baker : The Joker
Martin Jarvis : Alfred Pennyworth
Brian Bloom : Roman Sionis / Black Mask
JB Blanc : Bane
Michael Gough : GCPD Captain James Gordon
Nolan North : Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin
Mark Rolston : Slade Wilson / Deathstroke
Steve Blum : Lester Buchinsky / Electrocutioner / Loose Lips
Wally Wingert : Edward Nashton / Enigma

Batman is in an early stage of his crimefighting career. The highly corrupt police force of Gotham City considers the Dark Knight a threat to both of their businesses, and his name is a terrible urban legend on the streets - no-one outside the Blackgate prison walls really believes in Batman's existence. Drug lord Black Mask finally has his fill of Batman and places a $50 million bounty on his head on Christmas Eve, drawing the attention of eight of the deadliest assassins in the world - Deadshot, Deathstroke, Copperhead, Firefly, Electrocutioner, Killer Croc, Shiva, and finally, the mental and physical powerhouse known only as Bane. In the thick of it all, Batman has to deal with the sudden appearance of a mysterious psychopath calling himself "The Joker", as well as a seriously self-absorbed hacker who is hell bent on collapsing the political climate of Gotham City, and a few more loose cannons. It's going to be a Christmas to remember.

Playing around with the Remote Claw. A bit
tacky, yet fun.
Late 1988 - the 60's Batman show premieres on Finnish TV. I never miss an episode - Batman's my new hero... and perhaps Batgirl and Catwoman teach me an important lesson or two about women. About the same season in 1989, the movie by Tim Burton comes out. I'm too young to go see it at the theater, but I have all the related merchandise you can muster up at that time. My mom buys me books to tide me over until the video release, including The Killing Joke and the whole of Ten Nights of the Beast serial - yeah, stuff you really shouldn't buy to a kid who has a certain goofy image of Batman and especially the Joker, it can be really scary... or REALLY COOL. Early 1991, me and my best friend curse at each other for not being able to defeat the Joker in Batman - The Video Game for the NES. We keep trying until we are both found passed out on the living room floor... both woken up by the sound of someone powering down the NES. "NOOOOOO!!!" 1992, Batman Returns. Some time after that, the animated series. Still going strong. Then, 1995... Batman Forever. Initially, I like the movie, but hey, at that age I like everything with Jim Carrey in it... and it has Tommy Lee Jones, too. It's not that I liked the movie which makes me think what mind-numbing drug I was on at that age, but the fact I liked the SNES game as well. Well, in 1997 Batman & Robin comes out, and that movie single-handedly destroys all my interest in Batman. I don't know if "single-handedly" is the correct term - I hold everyone involved with that movie responsible. Yes, even Schwarzenegger. Many years pass. Then, 2005; Batman Begins. My interest in the franchise is totally renewed, especially upon the arrival of the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, but it seems that in the years I've missed, no-one has created the perfect Batman game. In 2009, British rookies Rocksteady Studios step up with an all-star Batman game starring 17-year veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker, Paul Dini works as the lead writer, and appearances from the Top 10 craziest bastards in the DC Universe, set within the walls of Arkham Asylum, now run by inmates. How could it go wrong? It doesn't - it's a magnificent game with shades of Metroid at its absolute best (note that I avoided the use of the word "prime"), an honest love letter to Batman fans. Next up, Batman: Arkham City in 2011... the same thing, but fitted into a city-wide sandbox, with double, if not triple, the amount of villains. 2012, The Dark Knight Rises ends the Christopher Nolan film trilogy with pure power.

This was my journey as a Bat-fan from the very beginning to this day. Judging by all this, you'd think that Batman: Arkham Origins was right up there with my most anticipated games of the year, but it really wasn't. Although I always knew it was going to be a good game - I mean, how could it go wrong with all the most important bases covered? - the truth is that Rocksteady's already done it all. Be it a sequel, interquel, prequel, whatever-quel, they can't possibly give us nothing as grand and especially as definitive as what we've already seen. That much has to be understood from the start. Instead of delivering with a non-stop thrill ride conducted by another fantastic collective of exciting rogue designs, the "new" developers (they made the Wii U version of Arkham City) focus a bit more on the integrity of the story, here, and although Batman: Arkham Origins is not really a cohesive origin story (Batman's origins are actually exploited less than in the previous games), it does explain many things, how things came to be as they are in the Arkham universe. It does that for quite some while and it's exciting to watch... right up until it stops explaining. As solid as the story is, it ultimately hits yet another brick wall, leaving many loose ends wide open, perhaps to pave way for another prequel. I hope for DLC instead of another full-length game, because I firmly believe the line can't be stretched any further than it already has been.

This Christmas, Gotham gets a dose of Anarky.
Another game, another set of influences - what I noted immediately about one of the trailers was how much the character of Bane is actually influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of the character in the movie The Dark Knight Rises, which felt odd since in the previous games, he was more influenced by his comic book counterpart. Thanks to some really good writing - at least I think so - the subject of Bane should no longer be questionable by the end of the game. One more important thing that causes concern for the integrity of the characters of Batman: Arkham Origins, is of course the set of major changes in the voiceover cast. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker take over for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively - as much as I've appreciated both actors' previous works such as Smith's long tenure as both Chris Redfield in Resident Evil and Ezio Auditore in Assassin's Creed, and Baker's voiceover presentation of the year as Joel in The Last of Us, I've got to admit I was a bit worried they wouldn't really know what they had gotten themselves into, here. Well, Smith sounds the same as always and he does a fine job at it, and Baker steals the show just like any good Joker, perhaps repeating Hamill's formula, but ain't that pretty much the idea? After all, this is supposed to be a prequel, not a reboot.

Of course you can be the mean critic and say it looks like a prequel, too - something dug up from the drawer from somewhere between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. As blunt as it is: Arkham Origins is not a step forward in any sense, except maybe for once again slightly enhanced combat mechanics. Luckily it's not much of a step back, either - if you loved Arkham City, you're going to like Arkham Origins. Whether you treat it as a new game or a gigantic add-on to its predecessor is up to you - after all, it does look exactly the same and half of Gotham City does comprise of what "became known" as Arkham City. That's the most boring part, I think, re-gliding through an already fine-sized map you've had plenty of time to scout through and through dozens of times. Also, I find it more than a bit illogical that "Arkham City" is actually the same size as the rest of Gotham - in other words, the world map is almost exactly twice the size of the one in the last game. So what, the government spent all those resources on splitting the greatest metropolis in the world in an exact half and giving one half of it to criminals? Doubtful. The level design is OK for the most part, but I'm really annoyed that almost all of the story levels consist of climbing upwards and maze-like corridors, points which make a post-story hunt for the last remaining collectibles really tedious, and perhaps the greatest disappointment of all was the mandatory hallucination segment - should come as no spoiler - which was, yes, predictable by all accounts, and not too fun to play either. I miss Scarecrow's nightmare segments. (Where did the guy disappear to, anyway?)

The soundtrack is composed by Christopher Drake, who's worked on several animated films based on DC characters, including last year's film adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and also the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. Amazing work, once again, by a different composer - although once again you can play the part of the mean critic and say how it doesn't take a musical genius to figure out what sort of compositions Batman fans like. Yeah, it's traditional Batman fare - mixed with a little bit of the darker side of Christmas carols. So, again, amazing.

Showstealer No. 1: Deathstroke, making his
major platform debut in the series.
When you finally get over how kinda old-fashioned the game feels, you'll start to enjoy the story, and see how much strength lies in its greatest weakness. Let's start with the few things that are new in Batman: Arkham Origins. You finally get to visit the Batcave, the real one - and yes, Alfred is there, monitoring your progress every step of the way. Remember how I pointed out that Bane's character is very influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of him on film? Well, check out Alfred and correct me for a false statement if there's not a hint of Michael Caine's interpretation in him - not necessarily the emotional wreck he was in The Dark Knight Rises, but the doubtful, yet loyal servant he was in the first Nolan film. You still can't fool around with the Batcomputer any more than the story allows you to, which was a slight letdown, but you can change your suit to one that pleases you - if you have Adam West's 60's suit via DLC, you can even use that one (lol) - and take on increasingly tough combat challenges in the training "lounge", unlocked on the go, to gain hefty amounts of EXP. The Freeflow and Predator challenges are still in categories of their own; you can take these on as well from here, or from the main menu. You can use the Batwing to get around - it seems that the Batmobile is still under construction. No, you can't fly the thing - there's just a Batwing drop point in each major district of Gotham for you to unlock for fast travel; as a matter of fact, it seems the game can hardly manage the fast travel animation (read: poorly disguised loading screen).

Most gadgets are unlocked from the beginning, but you can't use them for all of their several purposes before unlocking upgrades to 'em by making progress in the main story, and taking care of some particular side missions. Almost all of them are either exactly the same as your Bat-gadgets in previous games, or modified versions of them, but there are two completely new ones. The Remote Claw allows you to, not just somewhat illogically, secure a tight rope between two anchor points you don't have to be in any direct contact with. Via a few upgrades, you can also shoot it at an enemy to hang 'em upside down from afar or smash a projectile into 'em, and do takedowns while balancing on the rope. Illogical... yet quite neat. What's even more neat is the pair of Shock Gloves, which you can use to manipulate electrical equipment, and even gain a huge advantage in overwhelming combat situations; not only does high voltage deal a lot of damage to even armored enemies without any special attacks, each freeflow hit counts as two, allowing more takedowns for starters. Could be quite useful, since there are a lot of annoying bastards in this game. And a lot of fights, at that.

Showstealer No. 2: Bane, looking more "hardy"
than ever.
You can't go anywhere in this game without running into someone itchy for a nosebleed or cracked ribs. Combat, as strong as it has always been in this series of games, can get quite tiring when there's a gang of enemies in every damn street corner while you're hunting for collectibles, and a gang of enemies in each damn room when you're simply trying to get on with the story. The side missions are no different; just beat up a group of guys and you've won, nothing more to it besides a semi-scripted sequence in which you catch the bad guy. Even some boss fights are enforced by a group of standard enemies who pose the actual threat instead of the boss character him- or herself. The boss fights are of the quite standard fare here, no Mr. Freeze or Ra's al Ghul, or any of the like to be fought - a couple of nice surprises, Deathstroke seems to be a common favourite, but ultimately, I'm disappointed with how most of these depend on skill of mashing one single button, the one which signals for attack, and even sheer luck at times.

The Predator rooms haven't changed one bit, despite the Remote Claw's presence. The enemies are just as stupid as they ever were, speak as stupid as they ever did, and fall for the same stupid stunts as they ever did. The rooms are maybe a little tougher to completely scout out and navigate especially while under fire, but I don't think they'll pose much of a challenge to someone who has already survived the worst places and the worst stipulations in the past.

Stipulations remind me of the challenge tracker, tied to your Freeflow and Predator skills, as well as your knack for finding secrets. This tracker would make the game much more entertaining... but what's totally wrong about it is that you have to do its challenges in a specific order. For example, if you manage to survive a Predator room without switching the ever-so-useful Detective Vision on once during the whole sequence... good for you. It won't make a stinking difference until you've cleared the previous challenge on the list. And no, it doesn't clear out automatically if you've done it long before - you'll have to pull the same stunt off AGAIN to nail the challenge. The best thing for you to do here is stop trying early on. Ironically, you'll clear much more challenges that way.

The last thing on the list is the puzzles - where do they fit in? Are there any? Sure there are, but not those question mark challenges and spotting challenges we so loved, although there are tags hidden around the city which poorly reflect on those. The actual puzzles are of the exact same variety as they were in Arkham City, nothing more and nothing less... and nothing as clever, but a nice change of pace anyway. Some tricky gliding challenges between two or more particular spots, heavy use of the Remote Batarang and Cryptographic Sequencer, exploring the full potential of all your gadgetry basically... nothing to really twist your brain in a cramp, except maybe finding the right source of an obvious map marker every once in a while. This game is too vertical for its own good.

Showstealer No. 3 needs no introductions.
The story is short, but it's filled with sweet spots. It's not until the very end that you'll realize how many points it missed out on, and how anti-climactic it was in certain ways... and again, the worst part is that it feels like it might serve as the first part of a two-part story; perhaps the cow wasn't milked quite as dry in Arkham City as I thought, but after this game, Batman needs a fresh start. The side missions, puzzles and challenges will keep you occupied for at least a few extra hours, and there's not one, but two harder game modes. And oh yeah, the challenge maps - no Arkham fan ever said no to those. And a multiplayer mode too. There's content here, alright, if you're fan enough to take it.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game, but while other huge video game franchises of the stealth action and/or sandbox genres keep developing - mostly referring to the nice surprise the other big October release delivered, and the game of the year which was released in September - time has stood still for Batsy. You'll play it. You'll like it. But after that, I wouldn't be surprised if you went back to the old ones for even better time. Actually, this might be a good place for newbies to start dissecting the Arkham series - if you haven't played the previous games, you just might look upon Arkham Origins as a masterpiece, and unlike many prequels, it won't spoil anything for you.

+ A solid story with delicious twists - total integrity is lost towards the end, though
+ Awesome cast of characters; The Joker, Bane and Deathstroke steal the show
+ Fantastic music
+ Actually being able to visit the Batcave and meet Alfred adds to the experience
+ About half of the boss fights
+ Challenge maps from both sides of the coin are always fun
+ Combat mechanics are once again upgraded...

- ...That's pretty much it; time has stood still
- A little too much of that initially fun combat, found in every story and side mission
- Half of the map is literally Arkham City all over again
- About the other half of the boss fights
- Dumb challenge tracker
- A patch suggestion rather than a down: a deadly audiovisual lag and other buzz killing glitches in the PS3 version, especially after the story is completed

< 7.9 >

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