Friday, November 29, 2013

Arkham Origins: A Disappointing Dark Knight

Arkham Origins is the latest installment of the Arkham Series developed by a new team, WB Montreal. After the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum and Arkham City I was expecting Origins to be just as refined as those two games. However with a new development team, I was already concerned that the team would not understand the nuances that made the previous two games amazing. Arkham Origins fails to meet the high standard set by its predecessors.

The first thing I noticed as soon as I played was the changes to combat. I felt like the enemies were slightly faster than the previous games which meant the player needed to use the counter button more often or dodge over enemies. This increases the length of combat making it become very repetitive. WB Montreal did try to add in a new enemy to the mix who can counter your hits or requires to press the counter button twice. However the enemy doesn't really increase the difficulty or abolish the repetitiveness. The main problem might be the fact that the balance between Predator Maps and Combat maps is tipped in favor towards combat. The addition of the shock gloves completely removes any skill required to perfect the combat system. The shock gloves allow the player to hit through most enemy variation without any penalty. This makes the combat increasingly more repetitive and I pretty much opted out of using them since I enjoyed perfecting my combos and raking up huge 50+ hit combos. Overall combat in this game is disappointing compared to the refined combat found in Arkham City.

Arkham City added challenges that could be done during the main story where the player has to do some thing very specific such as glide for a very long time or use certain gadgets in a fight. Arkham Origins tries to improve upon those challenges through their Dark Knight Challenges. The challenges during campaign are broken up into three types, Shadow Vigilante (combat oriented), Worst Nightmare (predator oriented) and Gotham Protector (miscellaneous objects such as gliding and stopping a crime in progress). All these challenges have 15 ranks that have to be completed in chronological order. The Shadow Vigilante isn’t too bad since most of the combat doesn't require anything specific other than having certain special combo takedown moves. There are plenty of opportunities to complete each rank since there is always a crime in progress or just a random group of thugs on the street to fight. The Worst Nightmare challenge track is where this system fails and the game designers make a huge mistake. Since there are already a limited number of predator maps the player has to actively remember to do each challenge. It becomes even more of a problem since specific ranks of Worst Nightmare can only be done in a select number of rooms predator rooms which do not respawn. If you’re not following a guide then you’re most likely not going to finish the Worst Nightmare challenge on your first play through. Another annoying problem was that one of the last ranks of Worst Nightmare require a very specific set of events to occur which can only happen in a small number of rooms. You need to have three people near a propane tank, with two of them knocked out and then attach a remote claw to the one standing to make sure all three are knocked out. The Gotham Protector track is relatively easy until the very last challenge. The player needs to stop a crime in progress in each district however the game is glitched and won’t count or spawn certain crime in progress for some districts. I did manage to get lucky and a crime in progress counted for another district even though it wasn’t located near that district at all.

The Arkham Origin sidequests are completely boring. Granted Arham City side quests were very short and weren't anything too special, Arkham Origins’ sidequest become extremely tedious. One of the side quests is to fight 20 groups of thugs. But this can’t be completed until the end of the game which means it’s just a time sink and pushes the repetitiveness of combat onto the player who wants to finish the game 100%. Another sidequest is just to fight 4 sets of very large groups under the disguise that these are gang wars. The Enigma data sets are another low point of the sidequests. The puzzles required to reach a data set are very basic and require very little thinking. Arkham City had placed Riddler Trophies all over the map in plain site but had elaborate puzzles to solve which had satisfying solutions. 

Its clear that WB Montreal didn’t want to take any risks with this franchise and tried to give us a little more of what Arkham City offered. However the changes they did make towards have generally turned out worse then Arkham City. Aside from combat changes, WB Montreal changed how the player gains skill upgrades and level ups. In Arkham City you’re experience was based off how high of a combo you achieved plus some increases for variation. WB Montreal instead awards experience for not taking any damage, not breaking a free flow combat or using a lot of variation. There is also a bonus experience given depending on how they rank the fight, as in taking no damage and defeating the entire combat encounter in one free flow combat will net you the most bonus experience and the highest rank. They also rank each fight as different difficulty levels depending on how many enemies and the types you fight. I’ll admit at first I didn't like the way experience was awarded but thinking back on it, it helps promote learning a diverse moveset to try to maximize you’re rank to level up faster. The upgrade system is complete downgrade to the one offered in Arkham City. Arkham City pretty much allows the player to take any upgrade that were available and ignore anything they don’t need early on such as armor. Arkham Origins forces the player to take certain upgrades such as combat armor to gain combat skills. What’s even more frustrating is that you are required to take every combat armor upgrade before you can even get a new combat skill. They also prevent the player from receiving the critical strike upgrade and reduced combo for special takedowns for awhile which makes the combat extremely dull and repetitive. WB Montreal did make an excellent change towards health regeneration. Instead of health regenerating based on combat experience, Batman’s health will recover full after a combat or predator encounter. It makes the game slightly easier but it’s a much more convenient.

The level designers at WB Montreal seemed to lack the understanding of how enemy types work in the Arkham series. Towards the later half of the game, there are a set of sniper’s that respawn at the top of the buildings in the Diamon District. However these sniper’s are placed in a position where it makes navigating that section of the town a nightmare. Even if you start taking down the snipers, they are positioned in a way that alerts them to your position which makes for an even more frustrating to deal with. New Game Plus also begins to suffer from the new enemy placements. It seems like the level designers just placed armored enemies in the most inconvenient spots and literally placed as many as possible throughout the maps. The problem with placing too many armored or shielded enemies is that there are only a few ways to deal with them which makes fighting them more of a chore then an exercise in skilled variation combat. The motto that WB Montreal should have stuck with was a “less is more” which would solve all these problems. Another problem with level design is the large central bridge that serves no real purpose other than one boss fight. It doesn't allow easy access to the top half of the map since the player has to glide across the large bridge but luckily WB Montreal realized this and added in a fast travel method.

WB Montreal did a wonderful job with the storyline. I was a little disappointed that Black Mask doesn't have as large of a roll as the trailers make it out to be but the overall story does take some inspirations from the famous Killing Joke comic book. They did a great job in showing a younger Batman who is still in his earlier years and doesn't rely on the help of others and arrogantly tries to handle all the situations alone. We get to see Batman’s first encounter with the Joker and how the Joker becomes infatuated with the Dark Knight. I absolutely loved how they portrayed Bane in Arkham Origins. They made him a strong fighter who has an excellent mind for combat strategy which is more accurate to the comic books. The Bane in Arkham Asylum and City was more of just a brute who had no real fighting technique. I was disappointed in the 8 assassins since they each get very little show time. I think I would have preferred a smaller selection of assassins but each getting a larger portion of the game time. Two assassins are extremely brief encounters that I wouldn't even count as a major part of the game. One of them wasn't even a real boss fight and just a way for WB Montreal to progress the story.

Boss fights have always been tricky in the Arkham Series. Asylum had some terrible boss fight but could be forgiven since it was their first attempt at a new mechanic. However Rocksteady completely improved most of the boss fight in Arkham City and has one of my favorite boss fights of all time (Mr. Freeze).  Arkham Origins’ boss fights fall somewhere in between Asylum and City. I did not like the Bane fight at all since the dodging mechanic felt off since Bane could change his charge direction if you dodged too early. I did love the Deathstroke fight and is easily one of my favorite boss fights in this game. It is a one on one free flow combat fight that does an excellent job in adjusting the free flow combat style to one enemy. The Firefly fight was also another interesting fight that revolved around gadget use. It was an easy fight but it was still pretty fun to throw batarangs and batclaws at Firefly to bring him down to your level.

I tried the multiplayer for a bit but it was pretty much dead by the time I started playing it. Matches took forever to create and require all 8 players to start. When you finally get into a match, the third person shooter aspect feels unrefined. Its something I would avoid unless you need to get the achievements like I did which then I suggest finding others who will create matches just for the achievements. The other game modes are very similar to Arkham City. You have New Game plus which is tougher enemy types and no counter icons above enemies and I am the Night Mode which is a one life type of deal to beat the campaign. I didn’t find I am the Night Mode any more difficult then New Game plus but I was a little nervous on the Bane fight since I ended up dying on it in New Game Plus. You also have the Challenge Maps, Custom Maps and Campaign Maps which makes its return from Arkham City. I really wish WB Montreal would have just left out two of those types of maps. It was one of the biggest negatives of Arkham City. Challenge maps are essentially the combat and predator encounters found main story mode of the Arkham game. The combat maps go through four rounds where your goal is to score as high as possible reaching certain high scores to achieve medals. Predator maps require you to do three different goals which earn you medals while you clear out the encounter. Campaign Maps just take 3 maps, either 2 predators and 1 combat, 2 combat and one predator or 3 of predator or combat encounters and forces you to obtain the medals of all three maps. Campaign maps also require you to add extra criteria by giving you like 4 or 5 different requirements such as no silent takedown, weapons are active in combat or no detective vision in predator maps. By the time you finish the last map you need to have used all the criteria to succeed. Campaign maps are just single challenge maps but with the ability to toggle as many of the extra criteria from the campaign maps. You’re essentially doing these challenge maps over and over again if you want to complete the game 100%. It would be fine if the experience really differed between them but I literally played each map as if they were the same. It would have been great if WB Montreal would have left all this repeated content out but unfortunately my need to complete Batman games 100% forced me to endure these challenges.

My review of Arkham Origins seems very negative but that’s because the bar was set extraordinarily high for the Arkham series.  If this was just another game and not attached to an already popular and well refined IP, it would have been great. However after playing Arkham City which came out two years before this, it’s hard to recommend Origins over its predecessors. Arkham Origins is more like an Arkham City DLC. Those who really enjoyed Arkham City and want more of the same, Arkahm Origins will fit well. For most people I would recommend only Asylum and City and if they really enjoyed those to try Origins. Its not a bad game, it just doesn't live up to its predecessors.