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Batman: Arkham Origins review: Same bat-channeling


Death is no big deal in comics, especially when the protagonist is one so resolute, enduring and lucrative as Batman. The graveyards are more like timeshare opportunities, whether it's a hero or villain that's about to trade death for a well-timed resurrection some issues later. Handled indelicately, it can play like drama with a transparent veil, manufactured to extract what surprise and tension is left in an ongoing fiction that's subsisted over 70 years. We don't want these characters to go away, but we do need good reasons to stay.

In Batman: Arkham Origins, we see a younger grimace beneath the cowl, years before Arkham Asylum became a surprising trap assembled by the Joker and Rocksteady Studios. Warner Bros. Montreal has the difficult task of following Rocksteady's brilliant Arkham City sequel, and they've chosen to go back to Batman's early years on the job. If there was any mystery as to who lives and who dies, it's doubly undermined by the story's nature as a prequel.

That isn't to say it's poorly composed – Batman is beset by assassins on Christmas Eve, an ideal crossroads for psychopaths like Deadshot, Deathstroke and Harmfist (maybe not that one), and a good start for a conspiracy that gasps to life with every face-off. Batman's killer night is a bit too eager to fall back into old patterns, however, with the Joker soon broadcasting taunts from an unending supply of televisions. The critical path through Gotham City is feeling worn, even if tread by different, younger actors.

Gallery: Batman: Arkham Origins (Gamescom 2013) | 7 Photos

As before, Batman's cape and grapnel hook combine to form one of the more exciting methods of traversal in open-world games, slinging you over buildings and leaving you to swoop onto the heads of unsuspecting ne'er-do-wells. The wintery storm that keeps all of Gotham's citizens inside is a feeble excuse, especially when a better one stares you in the face from beginning to end: the city is absurdly flooded with crime, and even the cops exist only as Batman's punching-bags-to-be.

When your witty butler, Alfred, asks why you don't leave some work to the police, the truthful answer is that you've just shattered every bone in the precinct. Batman smells corruption everywhere, and it pushes this Arkham game into off-kilter savagery. Stealth takes a back seat, for the most part, with much of the game spent in an exhaustive battle against foes that keep asking for another biff here and another pow there, please.

Batman: Arkham Origins offers a more aggressive spin on the excellent "Freeflow" combat of prior games, pushing you to counter even more attacks and faster, simultaneous assaults coming from pavement goons, SWAT officers and tricky martial artists. The seamless animations and palpable thug-crunching is still unparalleled, and smart audio cues like the click of a gun draw your attention to incoming threats. The combo meter remains vehemently opposed to button-mashing, making success a measure of your grace, not your ability to pummel some unskilled bozos. C'mon, you're Batman.

He's not quite bulletproof though, which prompts a brief retreat into the rafters and the gargoyles above, as mandated by Gotham City's scary building codes. Once again, the stealth is an intriguing mixture of observation, puzzle solving and a considered effort to pick off individual crooks and make your presence known just enough to impart fear. These sections don't evolve much in Arkham Origins, however, and don't flow well in this game's extreme focus on fighting. Arkham City organically led you from stealth to combat, inhaling and exhaling in a pace that kept you satisfied in both, but not fatigued by either. Batman: Arkham Origins is so angry all the time it nearly hyperventilates.

Conversely, the trips through Gotham City, whether you're chasing down the Penguin or one of Anarky's anti-establishment bombs, is not nearly as breathless as it should be. There's a big ol' bridge connecting Gotham to its southern island, which is a new but insipid financial district appended to the parts that will eventually be cordoned off into Arkham City. The bridge is a tedious bottleneck for travel for as long as you haven't unlocked fast travel to your destination district, and illustrates why making the city bigger adds to the commute, not the enjoyment. Even then, much of the city is familiar ground, and oddly uncharismatic for a fictional place.

Warner Bros. Montreal has not assembled a poor bit of action-adventure, but it has not convincingly demonstrated an understanding of Batman's prior successes either. At its best, Arkham Origins is like its superiors, but it's often worse or uncommitted to its young Batman, who is just as unflappable as the old model. It's also buggy, leaving me trapped in rooms at times or watching as an elevator goes up and through Batman, who remains behind. And why are you even making Batman take the elevator anyway?

The amped-up difference in pacing and aggression in Batman: Arkham Origins would have made more sense if one of the new gadgets didn't erode one of the game's best qualities. The shock gloves, which appeared in the Wii U version of Arkham City, can be charged up with successful strikes and then activated to help Batman punch through enemies, even shielded ones, with impunity. Electing to use the gloves may seem empowering, but it's really a toggle for button mashing in combat – so now it's just like every other game. My advice, then, is to resist the surge.

Meanwhile, a genuinely new addition to Batman's modern career in games is a multiplayer mode, envisioned separately by the developers at Splash Damage. It's certainly arresting on paper: Two gangs, composed of three members each, compete on a map to capture objectives and otherwise kill each other in a third-person, cover-based shooter. While the gangs deal with each other, two more players in the guises of Batman and Robin swoop overhead and scamper through vents to pick off the villains, one by one.

There are a few ways to upset the flow of events, including the chance to summon more resilient supervillains like Joker and Bane, but the repetition of killing and respawning doesn't sit right with the cluttered setup. The shooting itself isn't exactly thrilling, and feels more like a bothersome distraction from what could have been a tense, paranoid heist – with heroes breathing down your neck. Instead, Batman and Robin feel like they're making unexpected cameos in your territorial shooter, rather than providing a concerted threat. And for those wearing capes, they'll find the stealth a lot more satisfying and haphazard in the single-player component.

That's a lot of bad news to take in, and it may lead you to think that Batman: Arkham Origins isn't quite excellent. It's not, and while it is partially a victim of the standard set by the series before, it never seems to justify its decisions. This younger Batman is paradoxically stuck in his future ways, his game re-calibrated into a lopsided, combat-heavy flashback. And as the confused time travelers that we are in this chronology, we can express disappointment when we realize his best days are yet to come - like they did already.

This review is based on the PC version of Batman: Arkham Origins, purchased by the reviewer.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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