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Batman: Arkham Origins’ flaws overshadow its improvements (review)

Snow falls on the empty streets of Gotham City while most of its citizens are indoors celebrating. Meanwhile, Roman Sionis, the criminal also known as Black Mask, has gathered eight of the world’s best assassins and given them one night to hunt down the constant thorn in his side: Batman. Long used to being the ultimate predator on the streets, Batman now has to cope with being the prey.

Warner Bros. Games Montréal takes the helm of this third installment in the Batman: Arkham series. Available now on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, Batman: Arkham Origins bills itself as a grittier prequel to the first two entries. While it doesn’t represent a proper origin story, it serves as Batman’s first time encountering some of his iconic foes, at least in the timeline started by developer Rocksteady Studios in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

Multiplayer also makes its first appearance in a Batman: Arkham title. Players assume the role of members of opposing gangs who must war with each other while avoiding the two other players randomly chosen to act as Batman and Robin. While fun and often hectic, the multiplayer action lacked the depth to keep me interested in the long-term. Ultimately, I think I would rather have seen the time and manpower devoted to cleaning up some of the rough edges in the single-player experience.

Arkham Origins Multiplayer

Above: Robin also makes an appearance in multiplayer.

What you’ll like

More of the same

All the things you’ve come to expect from a Batman: Arkham title are still here: dynamic, free-form combat; oodles of gadgets; and a good amount of additional content (side quests, challenges, and collectibles) to keep you busy after you complete (or during) the main story. The controls and most of the gameplay are completely unchanged, so playing Arkham Origins very much feels like returning to a comfortable and familiar old friend. If you’ve played either of the sequels, you’ll have no trouble jumping back into Batman’s boots and laying the smackdown on unsuspecting criminals.

All of your favorite Bat-gadgets make a return although the ice grenade is now a glue grenade, despite being used in the same exact manner (closing steam pipes and creating platforms over water). New additions include the multipurpose remote claw, which you can use to create your own high wires, pull two enemies together, or create painful collisions between your foes and environmental objects as it yanks them toward each other — and the shock gloves, which allow you to perform quick knockouts when they’re fully charged.

Batman finally shows off his detective skills

People often forget that Batman is also known as the “world’s greatest detective.” Arkham Origins finally gives you some glimmer of this by giving Batman the ability to scan crime scenes for evidence, digitally reconstruct the crime itself, and move forward and backward through these reconstructions to find additional clues. It’s refreshing to use Batman’s detective vision for something more complicated than tracking a blood or scent trail or finding interactive objects in the environment.

One such case file has you investigating a distress call, which later results in a helicopter crash. Batman first scans the wreckage and the dead pilot, which leads him to discover where the helicopter came to rest. Further scanning on the rooftop uncovers the tail section and the reason the helicopter crashed in the first place: It was shot down. The final part of this case enables you to track the trajectory of the bullet that downed the helicopter, which ends in a showdown with one of the game’s villains.

Batman: Arkham Origins Helicopter Case

Above: Batman investigates a helicopter crash.

These investigations finally made me feel like I was tracking down bad guys for real — instead of just following waypoints on a map — and added a level of depth that I felt was missing in the previous Arkham titles. The only complaint I have about this new feature is that I wish the game featured more of these interactive crime scenes.

More criminal activity than you could possibly thwart in one night

In addition to the primary storyline, which most estimates peg between 8-12 hours, Arkham Origins has a lot more to offer to keep you busy. The “Most Wanted” side missions enable you to track down and thwart some of the iconic Batman villains that aren’t tied directly to the main plot. Defeating Enigma will require you to shut down his network and collect the data files he was gathering to blackmail others. Tracking down and destroying hidden weapon caches will help you bring the Penguin to justice, and you’ll have to battle through hallucination-filled challenges to break free of the Mad Hatter’s control.

In addition to the case files mentioned above, you also have a seemingly limitless number of crimes in progress that you can interrupt and a series of challenges built into the game that reward you for combat prowess and taking down enemies in creative ways. With all of this content, it becomes comically improbable that Batman could accomplish in one night (according to the story) what could potentially take you days to complete in the real world.

What you won’t like

Holy barrel of bugs, Batman!

Potentially game-breaking bugs associated with falling through the game world and situations that can corrupt your save file have already been reported and are widespread enough that WB Games Montréal is already working on a patch. I was so terrified of the save-game corruption in the Mad Hatter sequence that I manually created a backup copy of my save file before I attempted it. I also experienced some less destructive but very annoying bugs in the course of my playthrough.

The checkpoint system is flawed in certain places. Early on, you’re tasked with finding two SIM cards (used for cellular communication) to triangulate the location of the Penguin. After I successfully retrieved the second card, I got the onscreen notification that the game saved, and I tracked the signal to a boat that was a good distance away. I then made a mistake, which led to my defeat while I was trying to dispatch the guards on the boat. When the game reloaded, I was still on the boat, but the game informed me that I still needed to find the second SIM card, which forced me to backtrack quite a bit. Curiously, all the enemies around the card were still dead, and I was able to just grab the card, but this was an annoying and time-wasting bug.

I also encountered several instances where enemies got stuck in the geometry. While I was stealthily clearing out a large room of gun-toting foes, the last two got stuck with their backs in corners, unable to move. This made it physically impossible to take out the last two guys without being seen, which is in clear conflict with the leveling system that penalizes you by awarding fewer experience points every time enemies spot you. What was even worse was that the final opponent was stuck so far in the corner he was repeatedly able to shoot me even though I could not punch him. Only quick and creative use of my gadgets allowed me to survive this encounter, and I only had a sliver of health left when he fell.

Head-scratching design decisions

Arkham Origins contains several designs that just made me scratch my head and wonder, “What were they thinking?” One of the most noticeable is the extremely large and long bridge that is swarming with people who’d like to kill you and connects the top and bottom halves of the city. The first few parts of the main story make you traverse this bridge several times, and it quickly becomes a time-wasting nuisance. I got so sick if it that I took a break to advance the Enigma side quest, which unlocks fast-travel spots in various parts of the city. Once unlocked, these Batwing drop-zones allow you to easily bypass this wretched bridge, which raises the question of why it was included in the first place other than to drag out the beginning of the game.

Batman: Arkham Origins Helicopter Case

Above: You’ll learn to hate this bridge.

Another frustrating aspect of moving about the city is that Arkham Origins seems to contain an inordinately and arbitrarily high number of buildings and structures that you can’t attach to the top of. Over and over, you’ll be contentedly zipping up and gliding across the city only to have the game force you to the ground for lack of anything in front of you to grapple to. This really started to suck my enjoyment of travelling like Batman would and often made me choose the few extra seconds of loading time associated with using the Batwing fast-travel points.

The Enigma side quest also bears mentioning here. Why would the supposedly superintelligent nemesis — later known as the Riddler — entrust the valuable data packs containing his blackmail material to common street thugs? Why would he further allow many of these packs to be stashed in plain sight all over the sides of various buildings? Yes, puzzling locks protect some of them, but many just sit there, ripe for the taking by anyone who should happen to spot them. These don’t appear to be the actions of a genius supervillain.

One of the most annoying boss battles ever — near the beginning of the game

Within the first 25 percent of the story, you’re faced with one of the most quick-time-event-laden and annoying bosses ever to grace a Batman title: Deathstroke, a well-equipped and well-trained mercenary/assassin. The first fun part: You can’t attack him directly. He will counter every direct attack. He also seems to be able to dodge nearly every one of your gadgets. The only way you’re able to damage him is to wait for him to attack you first and then perform a perfectly timed counter. If you’re too fast or too slow, he’ll hit you instead.

Batman vs. Deathstroke

Above: Batman squares off against Deathstroke.

Each time you counter, you can only hit him two or three times, which takes a barely visible amount off of his onscreen health bar. If you get too greedy, he’ll respond with a multihit counterattack of his own, during which you must push no other buttons other than the counter prompts that appear lest you take heavy damage. As you slowly whittle away as his health, he also proceeds through various stages in which he mixes up his attacks and eventually loses his staff and draws a much more dangerous sword.

This encounter is long, tedious, and tiresome, and it offers little room for error. I probably would have walked away from it for a day or two if I hadn’t been reviewing the game.

Conclusion

Arkham Origins is a good Batman game, but it lacks the polish of the previous two entries in the series. The few good improvements, such as the crime reconstruction, are unfortunately overshadowed by the game’s flaws.

I actually enjoyed the story in Origins more than the wildly implausible (even by comic book standards) Arkham City, but my fun was constantly interrupted by bugs and questionable design decisions. While this is arguably still the third-best Batman game ever made, WB Games Montréal unfortunately dropped the high bar set by Rocksteady down a few notches.

Score: 75/100

Batman: Arkham Origins released on Oct. 25, 2013 for Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a PS3 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.

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