The Longest Night in History
I don’t know if there is anyone who’s got anything bad to say about the first two Arkham games. Both developed by Rocksteady Studios, they were flawless (or damn near) examples for how to do a more-or-less open-world action game right, while deftly stroking the license it pulls from. Both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City stuck to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” paradigm, but still managing to present two reasonably different games from each other. Yes, the gameplay remained identical, but the two titles had a vastly different feel. It goes without saying that a third game following so closely in its predecessors’ footsteps as to be virtually indistinguishable from them should be a good thing. And it is. Mostly. But after finishing Arkham Origins, there’s a small part of me that’s a little past the saturation point of the same Batman game.
There’s next to nothing that would indicate that this newest installment in the franchise was developed by anyone other than Rocksteady. Warner Bros. Montreal, fresh off of porting the previous installment to the WiiU, took over the reins of fully developing this title, and the result is a game that is the spitting image of Arkham City. And I do mean that quite literally. Many of the city’s buildings and architecture seem to have simply been reused for this game, and I guess that makes some sense: While the games take place at different ends of the timeline spectrum, both are intended to represent the same areas, more or less.
This could be considered either a minus or a feather in the developer’s cap, though more than likely using the exact same assets points to imitating and copying, rather than flattery for a job well done from Rocksteady – after all, the previous developers did create from scratch what we now see, and the current studio is, more or less, standing on the shoulders of giants.
None of this is to say that the game is subpar compared to its predecessors. The combat – which has always been polished and a joy to experience – is just as fluid as ever, the visuals and music provide an amazing experience, and Gotham City is absolutely stuffed with things to do! It will take players quite a long while to clear the map of every single side objective available; between – yet again – the Riddler’s (now called Enigma) collectibles, various mercenaries and other villains that need to be stopped, an eventual prison break at Blackgate that spills convicts onto the city streets, and any number of further objectives, there’s rarely a moment when I didn’t have numerous reasons to set aside the main storyline and pursue something else for a while. At times the overhead map will be absolutely inundated with markers and symbols.
The one thing I did miss were the scavenger hunt puzzles that gave you a cryptic clue about a location or landmark somewhere in the city and tasked you to solve it, find it, and scan it. The larger scale of Gotham City would have made great use of these riddles, and it would have given an incentive to search every dark alley and dingy corner, and really get to know this town. In its place we got Anarky’s invisible spray-paint markers, but due to their nature they necessitated detective vision to constantly be active – not a way of exploring the city I enjoyed. (As I completed more of the Anarky tags, I found myself surprised by how much I am in agreement of the propaganda he spouts; I know he’s meant to be a morally ambiguous villain, but at the end of the day I wonder what this says about me…)
Speaking of villains, I feel a little (maybe a lot) let down by the collection of opponents the game presents. I’ll try to err on the side of caution, and not give too much away here, but beware of spoilers below!. Black Mask as a central villain just wasn’t as exciting as what we’ve gotten in other games. The bounty hunters he brings in were also largely unknown to me. I’ll admit that I’m not a comic book reader, but I know at least what most commonly know about the Batman universe, and villains like Copperhead, Electrocutioner, and Firefly just weren’t much of a draw to me (though I’ll admit I quite enjoyed that last one once he appeared in the story). Aside from Deathstroke, who ends up being the first one vanquished, I feel the most interesting ones were Deadshot, Bane, and Killer Croc, all of whom we’ve seen in previous entries. Of course, the ever-entertaining Joker does liven things up about halfway through the game, and it was great fun to witness Batman’s first encounter with his arch nemesis, or even the moment When Joker met Harley. The story winds up taking numerous turns, improving with each one, but not quite reaching the lofty bar set by the previous entries.
As a whole, although it is a prequel, the game looks and feels like an add-on DLC, albeit a very large one, to the existing second game. It does manage to please on just about every level, though doesn’t push itself too hard to surpass what we’ve already had. The voice acting is good, even without Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, the mood is very gothic – brooding Gotham facades on a frozen, snow-swept Christmas Eve…Tim Burton would be proud! – and the plot is somewhat of an origin story, and probably as close to one as we would want to play. Even though Batman is (supposedly) still in his infancy as a masked vigilante – even the corrupt police force hasn’t warmed up to him and actively guns for him throughout the game – he has virtually all of the his previous gadgets, so playing this “younger Batman” doesn’t feel any more perilous as it did before. The gadgets he doesn’t have anymore have been, incredibly, replaced with other gadgets that do the exact same thing! Once again, I don’t feel very mentally stimulated by some of the design choices, and this means that a game that is otherwise a very good game pales somewhat in comparison to what came before.