Arkham Origins - A Flawed Love Letter

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Playing Batman: Arkham Origins felt like meeting up with a friend I haven’t seen in years, someone I had been close with until our lives took different paths.  It was quite jarring at first.

We share an awkward silence and stumble over our words as I rack my brain for the next thing to say.  After that initial uncomfortable moment, though, one of us tells an old joke and it’s like we’ve never been apart.  This sense of something foreign yet ultimately familiar was in the back of my mind through my entire playthrough experience.

Arkham Origins takes us back to when Bruce Wayne was a younger man.  He’s already donning the suit and cowl and has his high-tech toys ready to deploy against the criminals of Gotham, but he’s still just an urban legend.  He and a young Captain Gordon are at odds as they try to bring order to the city: one is outside the law and the other works within a corrupt and rotten police department.  Batman’s origin story has been told countless times in comics, movies, cartoons, and games.  Thankfully, Arkham Origins doesn’t hit the same story beats.  Instead of telling us why Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight, this game asks, “Should he have?”

Black Mask, one of Gotham’s most notorious crime bosses, has finally had enough of Batman’s interference in his crime syndicate and places a bounty on the Caped Crusader’s head.  Eight potential assassins have one night to kill the Batman and earn themselves the 50 million dollar prize.  This key plot point, which most of Arkham Origins’ marketing revolved around, was one of the weakest aspects of the overarching story.  I’ll come back to that shortly.  The villains they highlight are bland and uninteresting.  Even as a long time Batman fan, I was left scratching my head over who exactly some of these assassins were.  Black Mask, The Riddler, Deathstroke, and The Penguin were the only standout villains.  Whenever another forgettable wrongdoer was stealing screen time, I found myself thinking, “Why do I care about this person?”  I’m looking at you, Electrocutioner.

This third installment of the Arkham series was developer Warner Brothers Games Montreal’s first time at the helm of the franchise and, in some ways, it showed.  This is very much the template that Rocksteady Studios used for the first two Arkham games, down to the same character animations, assets, mission types, and challenge maps.  WB Montreal improves upon the formula in some ways, but falls short in others.  Facial animations and character models look absolutely stunning throughout but the combat wasn’t as tight or as refined as in Arkham City.  The timing of attacks and counters were slightly off and I found Batman became more like a punching bag and less like a crimefighter.

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Traversal around the open world also felt cumbersome and frustrating, and I was left wanting points to grapple to.  More often than not I would find myself losing momentum and falling to the streets, but this was somewhat alleviated by the inclusion of a fast travel system.  When the combination of grapple-glide-grapple-glide and attack-counter-combo actually worked, I felt like a badass, but those moments were few and far between.  My biggest technical complaint involved consistently falling through the geometry at one specific travel point on the map.  No matter how many times I tried to go back to that spot, I would glide, fall, or walk through the world and this prevented me from completing a couple side objectives.  As frustrating as this was, it still didn’t take away from how much I enjoyed this game.  Finding collectibles, chaining attack combos, saving the day, and feeling like a superhero will always keep me coming back to this franchise.  More Batman is always a good thing.

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The Arkham games are empowering.  In an industry that has never been able to nail the superhero genre, this latest installment captures that concept brilliantly.  When I was six years old, I put countless hours into playing Superman: The Man of Steel on the Commodore 64.  Playing is the wrong word.  I consistently failed at any attempt to get beyond the first level.  I kept at it and kept coming back in a vain attempt to step into the Man of Steel’s tights and save the world just one time.  I was never the hero.  It took almost two decades for a video game to get that right.

Arkham Origins is the first time in the series that you are the World’s Greatest Detective.  The same elements of detective vision and setting up crime scenes returns, but for the first time I felt I was solving a case.  The game still holds your hand from point A to point B in finding clues, but the presentation is different enough that these moments were propelled to the forefront of my playthrough and left me wanting more.  Where the game fell short was in its tedious, unclear, and downright frustrating boss fights.  I never want to fight Bane (or a Bane-type hulking monstrosity) in another Batman game again.  Ever.  Seriously.  I get it.  Batman can punch things.  Let’s move on.  Even the fight with Deathstroke, as repetitive and frustrating as it was, felt much more in line with the canon of that character.  It showed that he was a combative equal to Batman and had to be beaten with skill and timing.  Fighting Bane was essentially an exercise in futility.  Every button press gave me the sense that Batman was inept, slow, and useless.  A far cry from the man that can kick the crap out of Superman.  (Go read The Dark Knight Returns!)

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Throughout the game we play as a young and angry Bruce who is determined to wage his lone war on crime, with a relentless fervor that goes beyond obsession.  Right from the start, his motivations and methods are being questioned, even by his closest allies and confidants.  This thread runs throughout the rest of the game and becomes all the more poignant as the story reaches its climax.

Arkham Origins is a very good Batman story.  At first it seems bland and run of the mill, but halfway in there is a dramatic change in the plot.  The story moves from Batman stopping dull, lackluster villains to his first shocking encounter with a psychopath, the likes of which he’s never dealt with before:  The Joker.  We watch their first confrontation as Batman witnesses the Joker’s madness unfold and begins to comprehend the depths of his depravity and his unwillingness to relent.  This is a character examination of these two men and their relationship and, frankly, it’s one of the best I’ve seen since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.  It conjures one of the most important questions fans should be asking themselves:  Why are these two “destined to do this forever”?

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Long time fans of the Arkham games and the Batman animated series will lament the loss of veteran voice actors Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) and I admit I was one of them.  Again it comes back to that pervasive sense that my old friend was somehow not the same.  I was relieved to find that Roger Craig Smith imbued the Bat with the raw intensity that this younger and less experienced incarnation would have, and Troy Baker’s take on the Joker is downright frightening.  He brings markedly darker undertones to the Clown Prince than I was expecting and I was enthralled with his performance from start to finish.

Arkham Origins is a love letter to Batman fans, but it is not without its flaws.  It is more of the same great action game that I’ve come to love and contains within it a story that surprised me in it’s complexity.  Like that old friend of mine, it might be awkward and strange when we meet up, but its always going to be a fun time.

If you were a fan of the first two Arkham games or are a fan of fun action games with a compelling story, you should take this game down off the shelf.

 
Time on the Shelf - 6 Months
Played on PC for approximately 15 hours.
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An Introduction: How To Write About Shelves (Or Why I Don't Play Video Games)

Being an adult is fucking awesome.  Many of us pine for the days when we were children and had fewer responsibilities and all the time in the world to imagine, play, and create.  Not me.  Sure, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to go to work, pay my bills, or make logical decisions, but the pros of being an adult far outweigh the cons.  In this modern sci-fi wonderland, I can order candy on my phone and have it shipped to my house.  That alone would blow the mind of six year old me.  I don’t have to worry about bullies.  Or cliques.  The one great secret that adults keep from children is that nothing in high school is important.  (Aside from education.  That’s kind of important.)  The fads, the gossip, the assholes who locked you in the bathroom.  Once you’ve graduated you realize that there’s this massive other world out there that doesn’t care about your past life.  There’s only one thing that makes me jealous of my younger self.  That kid played an absurd number of video games.

Having a full time job and consistently working overtime dramatically reduces the time I have to game.  I just can’t keep up and I feel like I’m being left behind.  I also don’t write as much as I should.  Smashing those two problems together in the Large Hadron Collider of my mind, I came up with Shelved Games.  This website is a new and exciting endeavour for myself, one that has been gestating at the back of my mind for months.  It is an experiment that will hopefully serve two purposes:  the first, as an outlet to get me writing more and to hopefully develop the skills necessary to make myself a competent writer, and the second, but probably the most important of all, is to get me playing more terrific games that I’ve missed over the last few years.  Video games have been a constant in my life since the age of six.  They’re a great form of entertainment and a way to escape the responsibilities and pressures of the real world, but they’re also a medium to discover new and exciting types of storytelling.  That’s what keeps me coming back: the stories.  How does a game go about telling its story?  What other mediums does it borrow from?  Does it hit you over the head with it?  Or is it more subtle?  Lying underneath the polygons, systems, and mechanics.  Just waiting to be discovered.

None of my backlog of games are actually on any sort of physical shelf.  I’m not a dinosaur.  The name ‘Shelved Games’ serves the purpose of getting across a mental image.  The shelf we all used to have.  Either tucked into our old entertainment cabinets underneath an abnormally large CRT TV or near the bottom of a bookcase that our parents allowed us to use as long as we didn’t mix up the encyclopedias.  An assortment of old Nintendo, Game Boy, and Sega cartridges meticulously ordered and reordered.

Some gamers still have this shelf today.  It’s probably mixed in with your Sopranos DVD’s and your LaserDisc copy of Highlander.  Most, though, have replaced it with a digital shelf.  Steam Library.  Xbox Live Arcade.  Playstation Plus.  It seems that every few weeks we have another way to access our favourite games and collections as technologies evolve.  I recently took my first crack at building a gaming PC, which was exciting and nerve wracking in its own right, so the majority of the titles that I’ll be exploring will be on PC.  Valve’s digital gaming platform and storefront, Steam, has caused a resurgence in gaming on the PC, but at the same time its frequent sales of premium software is the exact reason I now have a “pile of shame”.  I suppose having access to a multitude of great games and at great prices is an amazing problem to have.  Even if it means missing out on some true gems.  That won’t stop me from trying to play them all, though.

The writing that I intend to put up on the site (hopefully in a timely manner), won’t specifically focus on game reviews or news or rumours, but on my own experiences with the games I play and how these interactions affect me personally.  There won’t be any scores.  Sorry to disappoint, but you’re going to have to read the entirety of a post to discern for yourself whether you agree with my opinions.  

I hope to stay on top of this project and will strive to post to Shelved Games as frequently as possible, aiming for deadlines every week or two.  No promises though.  Unfortunately video games don’t pay the bills.  Along with written pieces, I aim to be active on my Twitch live-stream channel so that you can experience some of these great games with me as I gather my thoughts about them.  

Most importantly, I want to hear from you.  If you have questions, critiques, comments, or ideas please feel free to share them with me.  The more feedback that I receive about this endeavour, the better the site will become, so don’t hesitate to chime in.  Do you want to see longer and more in depth opinions?  Or maybe more frequent but shorter snippets examining what I’m playing?  More live streaming on Twitch? Check out the About section to find all the ways to get in touch.  You can follow me and Shelved Games on Twitter to find out when new content is going up and when I’ll be live-streaming.

So, if you’re ready, let’s go take a look at what’s on the shelf.