Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Off the Page (Arkham Origins)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.

Nick: Welcome, marginally interested readers, to a very special edition of Off the Page. In our first two editions, we took a look at two maligned Marvel television projects. So, this month’s column will be historic in three respects — we aren’t looking at a Marvel project, we aren’t looking at an animated television show and, most importantly, we’re looking at a project that doesn’t completely suck.

Greg: Indeed, we’re mixing things up a bit in order to coincide with a piece of news that just broke this week — namely, the announcement of the upcoming next-generation finale to the “Arkham” series of Batman video games, “Batman: Arkham Knight.”

In a bit of synergy, we decided to take a look at the most recent game to be released with “Arkham” in the title, last year’s “Arkham Origins.”

Batman_ArkhamOrigins1

Nick: Now, it’s important to note from the get-go that Origins is a bit of an oddity in the Arkham family, since not only is it a prequel that takes place before the main timeline, but it was also developed by Warner Bros. Montreal, rather than Rocksteady, the developer of the modern day masterpieces that were Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

Greg: Very true, and that change in publisher appears to be a precursor to a yearly release schedule for Batman games, not unlike the Call of Duty series, with Rocksteady working on “Arkham Knight” and WB Montreal possibly adding another title for 2015.

That change also factored into the gameplay. Where Asylum and City received well-deserved acclaim for their innovations and tight controls, Origins focused on holding the line and continuing the general excellence of the previous two games. As such, there aren’t a lot of chances taken with the gameplay, but what you get is tried and true — an immersive experience as the Dark Knight that only this series can offer.

Nick: In fact, since you brought up the gameplay, one of the complaints many had with Origins compared to its predecessors is that the controls felt a bit stiff, slow or unresponsive at times. Now, while that was likely unintentional, it does kind of fit in with the game’s overall story. In Origins, you play as a younger Batman that is nowhere near the hero he will one day become. He’s depicted as less experienced and less skilled, thus it makes some sense that he would be more difficult to control than his Asylum and City’s counterparts. Again, these were likely just bugs rather than choices on the part of the developer, but it worked in a strange way.

Greg: Yeah, I highly doubt the lagginess was intentional, but it did make you feel like a Batman that wasn’t quite as dominant as he is during gang fights in Asylum and Origins. However, I can’t give the game a total break in this category. That lag, or delayed response to commands, really gets frustrating as the game progresses. In fact, this is the one game in the series where I feel the basic “thug fights” are harder than the boss battles. That’s no knock on the boss fights, which we’ll get to later, but the thugs are so randomized that it’s difficult to experiment too much with whatever playing style you’re most comfortable with. For instance, I tend not to rely on gadgets much during combat, preferring to use evasion and basic combos. In City, I could experiment and eventually got proficient in several of the Batarang and explosive attacks. In Origins, attempts at doing so would get me beaten to within an inch of my life. Narratively, it makes sense, but from a fun standpoint, it’s a bit frustrating and cheap that the difficulty relies on control flaws.

Harder than it looks.
Harder than it looks.

None of that means I didn’t enjoy the hell out of the fights, though, because this game retains my favorite combat engine in the entire action game genre. Stringing together combinations, when you can, is still every bit the thrill it was on City. It just could’ve used a little fine tuning.

Nick: Yeah, a fighting engine that works 70 percent as well as the one in Arkham City is still a great engine that winds up being a hell of a lot of fun to play. Even if it’s frustrating at times, there’s still a thrill in being able to swoop into the middle of a group of unsuspecting thugs and unleash a vicious beatdown.

Greg: And some of the additions are terrific — the Remote Bat Claw is a blast to use, the Batwing is a necessary helper for a map as big as this one, and the fully furnished Batcave (with the Batcomputer and Alfred!) helps add to the overall experience.

The Remote Bat Claw comes in handy.
The Remote Bat Claw comes in handy.

Speaking of the map, it’s absolutely huge. Every landmark in Gotham is present, and each is gorgeously rendered. If I had a complaint, it’s that I felt the developers took a shortcut by having a winter storm blow through Gotham at the time of the game. Now, the snow looks awesome and provides some incredible visuals reminiscent of Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” but the developers used this as an excuse to leave the streets of Gotham completely barren of people except bad guys.

Not a single person in Gotham ignored warnings to stay inside? Not a single restaurant stayed open? It’s somewhat of a stretch, and I wish there had been a little more activity on the streets.

I can’t say enough about those visuals, though. They are breathtaking.

Where's the Bat-winter coat when you need it?
Where’s the Bat-winter coat when you need it?

Nick: That’s one of the aspects of Arkham Knight I’m most excited about, as early indications are that we’re going to see a fully realized Gotham, full of life and activity. And yes, I agree that the winter storm certainly was used in a lazy fashion, but it did provide for one hell of an atmosphere and some great visuals. Now, onto the plot itself: Black Mask has taken out a massive bounty on Batman’s head and hired eight of the world’s deadliest assassins to try and collect. The struggle against these assassins provides most of the game’s boss fights, and taking them down provides Batman with a mission to complete before night’s end.

Greg: This was the first game story in the series that wasn’t written by legendary Batman: The Animated Series scribe Paul Dini. Instead, Corey May, Ryan Galletta and Dooma Wendschuh crafted the narrative of Origins, and they did a masterful job.

In fact, I’ll just go ahead and get this out of the way — this was my favorite story in the entire series. While the plot itself probably wasn’t as good as Asylum or Origins, the actual character work is far superior. This game has more depth to its analysis of Batman and his supporting cast, particularly his relationships with Alfred and the Joker. This feels more like a Bruce Wayne character study along with a whodunit rather than a traditional action plot.

Nick: Yes, the actual events of the plot are somewhat straightforward, but I think this game spent more time with the character of Bruce Wayne than Arkham City did. It also gave us one of my favorite segments of gameplay of the entire series, in which we’re taken inside the mind of one of the villains. And this game had plenty of iconic villains to deal with. Which was your favorite in the game?

Greg: I absolutely loved what the writers did with Bane. Up until a rather unfortunate deus ex machina near the end of the game, this was the best version of Bane in any medium outside comics, with the possible exception of Tom Hardy’s portrayal in “The Dark Knight Rises.” It harkened back to the character’s origins in the classic ’90s story “Knightfall,” in that it presented him as Batman’s physical and mental match.

"When you help me figure out the multiplayer mode, then you have my permission to die."
“When you help me figure out the multiplayer mode, then you have my permission to die.”

Most movies, TV shows and video games in the past have treated Bane like a minor nuisance, a steroid-ridden joke. Here, he’s presented with a layer of genuine menace that almost supersedes everyone else Batman encounters in the story.

Nick: Like you, I also loved the portrayal of Bane. However, in terms of the confrontations with each villain, the Deathstroke and Firefly fights now stand as two of my favorite boss encounters of the series. The Firefly fight forces players like you and I to learn how to effectively use ranged gadgets rather than relying on attacks and counters. The Deathstroke fight, meanwhile, almost feels like the ultimate evolution of the series’ hand-to-hand mechanisms, and will be tough to top in Arkham Knight. If anything, I wished that there had been more Deathstroke in the game. And finally, I gotta at least throw a shout out to the Electrocutioner fight. Not going to spoil it for anyone, but those who have played the game will know what I’m talking about.

Greg: I definitely felt the boss fights were ramped up in this one. Firefly was indeed somewhat of a masterpiece, every bit as stunning and challenging as the psychedelic Scarecrow battles in Asylum.

When I dip, you dip, we dip.
When I dip, you dip, we dip.

Even the side missions provided fruitful encounters with villains. Fighting Lady Shiva is exactly as exhilarating as it should be, considering she’s one of the DC Universe’s top hand-to-hand combatants.

And from a story standpoint, we have to give the writers tremendous credit for their work with the Joker. He plays a fairly major role in the story, after being arguably the main antagonist of the previous two games, yet the game manages to shed more light on the nature of his bizarre connection with Batman.

Nick: And, unlike the previous games, it makes no effort to portray the Joker as a physical threat to Batman. The writers knew Mr. J is an entirely psychological and moral threat to Batman, and they embraced that in their storytelling and gameplay.

The game features a Batman that has been on the job for roughly two years, while the Joker we see seems to be in his criminal infancy. So, the “origins” referred to in the title seem to be the origins of the relationship between Batman and his main antagonist. From that perspective, I’d say the game was a rousing success, as it sets the stage for the events we’ve seen in Asylum and City.

It's always the Joker.
Of course it’s the Joker. He’s Batman’s top foe for a reason.

Greg: Well said. Even though I had a pretty big issue with a third consecutive game featuring the Joker as one of the primary antagonists (given Batman’s extensive rogues gallery), there is no denying that this game provided what feels like essential insight into the nature of both Bruce and the Joker in the “Arkham” universe.

And I felt both Roger Craig Smith (as Batman) and Troy Baker (as Joker) did admirable jobs filling the Andre the Giant-like shoes of their voice-acting predecessors, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. While Baker is clearly just doing his best Hamill impression, it really works in the context of the series. In some scenes, which I can’t describe in detail due to their spoilery nature, he provides a genuine emotional depth to Mr. J that is difficult for many actors to reach.

Smith’s voice dripped with the obsession that threatens to overtake Bruce throughout the game. He manages to sound youthful, yet hardened and bitter.

Nick: I actually wound up liking Baker’s voice work a bit more than Smith’s. I thought he provided enough commonalities to Hamill while also putting his own stamp on the character. Smith, meanwhile, I thought did a decent job. His Batman felt intimidating and obsessed, but I also thought the voice he used was a bit too Christian Bale “hockey pads” for me.

Greg: I think I mainly admired Smith’s attempts to distance his voice somewhat from Conroy’s. There was an element of “realness” to Bruce’s conversations with Alfred that would have been lost if Smith had gone after the exact tones of Conroy’s iconic interpretation of the character.

There were some issues with the narrative — a couple of twists that rang somewhat hollow for me, and the end of Bane’s character arc — but they didn’t detract from the beautiful character study put together by WB Montreal.

Included in the game are several special challenge maps and alternate skins. A particular favorite of mine is a glorious recreation of the “AzBats” costume from the mid-’90s, complete with glowing chest plate. I must confess I’ve never been particularly skilled or interested in challenge maps. For those who dig these challenges, though, they’re put together very well. The maps don’t reinvent the wheel, but they’re solid distractions from the main story.

'90s.
’90s.

Nick: I only ever tackle the challenge maps once I’ve completed everything the main game has to offer, but these, in terms of design and challenge, are among the series’ best. As far as skins are concerned, there are some good ones here, but I feel like Arkham City took the best skins the character has to offer and left Origins with the late round draft choices, so to speak.

Well, I think we’ve just about hit everything of importance, Greg. Your final recommendation and thoughts on how the game compares to its Arkham brethren?

Greg: It’s the weakest entry in the series from a gameplay standpoint, but the strongest from a story standpoint. For those unfamiliar with the series, I will always recommend picking up Arkham City if they’re only going to try one of the games. But fans of the series should get a thrill or two from this game. I know I lost a lot of sleep beating this game, but I haven’t felt the urge to go back to it much. I recommend a rental unless you played and loved the first two games, in which case you should go ahead and grab this. Just don’t expect much from the multiplayer, which is pretty haphazardly thrown together.

Nick: I certainly think it’s worth owning, but I love the formula the series has built, even if Origins shows the formula beginning to fray a bit. Still, the story helps it to compare favorably with the previous installments even if the gameplay does suffer a bit. I’d say it’s the weakest overall entry in the series, but the first two games stand as two of my favorite games of all time, so that isn’t that much of a negative. This isn’t an all-timer for me, but it’s still a hell of a way to spend 15-16 hours. If you enjoyed the first two Arkham games, give this one a shot.

Multiplayer is not the game's strength.
Multiplayer is not the game’s strength.

Greg: And I’d also suggest not wasting time with the Enigma trophies. Just enjoy the main story and the other side missions, because they’re worth the price of admission.

Nick: My completionist nature won’t allow me to agree with that statement.

Greg: That notwithstanding (said early ’90s announcer Vince McMahon), we’ve reached the end of another edition of Off the Page. As always, we welcome your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or through our PTB email accounts (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com).

Do you have any suggestions for future editions of Off the Page? Let us know!

Nick: And be sure to come back next week for a new edition of Countdown, in which we count down our five favorite villains from the Marvel Universe.

Greg: Also, you won’t want to miss next month’s Off the Page, in which we will take on a project very near and not-so-dear to our hearts: the 2011 Martin Campbell-helmed film “Green Lantern.”

Nick: Don’t remind me.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.