Saturday, 26 October 2013

Not Quite First Impressions Corner: Batman Arkham Origins

To begin with: yes, I write for the Escapist, no, this has nothing to do with the Escapist, it's entirely my own thing, and no, this isn't a review. I've only been playing Batman Arkham Origins for about 4 hours on Hard difficulty; I've penetrated Penguin's lair, and am currently fighting Deathstroke.

If someone were to ask me, right now, whether or not this was a good buy, I'd have to say no. Wait for a sale.

I don't have that option - video games never go on sale down here, particularly console versions - and besides, I enjoyed the first two episodes, so I didn't mind shelling out for this one. The first two were made by Rocksteady; in 2009 Arkham Asylum put that studio on the map, and in 2010 Warner Brothers bought the studio.  City followed soon thereafter, and was a huge success. Then something odd happened. Though a sequel to City had been announced in 2012, there were mixed messages about its content - was it Silver Age, was Paul Dini attached as writer, who would voice Batman and the Joker? - and in February 2013 it was announced that Rocksteady would not be the developer this time out. Instead, Warner Brothers Montreal would be the folks in charge. Perhaps it was thanks to talent drain; a Rocksteady developer lamented in February 2012 that an unfriendly business climate at home was forcing UK developers abroad. Be that as it may, from Feb 2013 to its release that October, Montreal was in charge, and to my mind, it shows.

After four hours, I haven't seen anything here that I didn't see in City. The environment's the same, since every outdoors location so far - and again, it's only been four hours, so that could change - has come from City. That same covered mall which was sprinkled with mines and a pain in the Bat-side to sneak around in City, is where I just foiled Penguin's gun deal in Origins. The same environments and rooftops I glided around in City, I'm gliding around now. The only thing missing is that bloody great wall, and Strange's armed thugs; but if early gameplay teasers are any indication, SWAT will be playing the role of Strange's Tiger teams. No doubt as soon as they appear, so will the choppers I remember spying on me in City. At least the wall hasn't been built yet.

The interior locations are a change of pace. Blackgate didn't really stand out. I'm enjoying Penguin's floating casino, though it seems a little small for what it is, and I can't help thinking that the basic premise is much the same as Penguin's Museum base in City. There are signal jammers outside, so deal with them first. Bust in to Penguin's lair, find your way to the fight pit, have a big fight, have a mini boss fight, move on. The Electrocutioner first appears in Penguin's lair, and what a big bag of wind he turns out to be, but the character that wins my 'least enjoyable' award so far is Tracey, Penguin's secretary. I've heard better Mockney from Jamie Oliver. The writers didn't dare say Fuck, but Bugger's ok, is it? Numpty? Have the 1970's returned, and nobody's told me?

I don't think Tracey's from the books, but I haven't followed comics since I was in uni, so I can't be sure. I hope, if she is, she gets better treatment there. Her biography doesn't say one way or the other, which is a departure from the other games; Rocksteady was always pretty good about telling you who first appeared where, and when.

The boss fights are interesting, but really not significantly different from previous outings. Killer Croc, who you fight early on, has broadly the same tactics as the Titan-boosted thugs found in both previous titles and the minor boss Siamese twin goons seen in City. He's quicker, but that's about it. Stun him, hit him, and keep hitting him. There's a really annoying Hit A Repeatedly QTE half-way through; I hope you have strong thumbs. But the bigger problem in that fight is the camera, which whooshes around like a drunk on a spree. You don't see enough of the Electrocutioner in his first fight to really test his mettle. Deathstroke has a curious block-block-hit him thing going on, but if you remember Ra's al Ghul's fight in City, you'll see a lot of similarities. It doesn't take place in a dream zone, but other than that, it's a very familiar fight.

Speaking of fights, yes, they're just as you remember them, and just as fun to plow through. The upgrade system is very odd. You get experience, much as you did before - hit things, smash objects, do well in predator encounters - but before you can buy any fun combat upgrades, you have to buy all the armor upgrades first. I've just bought the Blade Takedown, which will help deal with those pesky knife-users, but I had to fully upgrade my close combat armor first. Other combat moves are specific to bullet resistant armor, which I haven't fully upgraded yet. I'm not sure what difference that system makes to gameplay, but it did make me feel as though I was being forced to upgrade the way the developers wanted me to, rather than as I wanted to.

Again, this is a first impressions, not a review. I will play through to the end - I may even tell you what I thought of it, once it's done - but so far, I'm not impressed. Arkham City felt completely different to Asylum, right out of the gate. Origins feels like City's warmed-up leftovers. That's not necessarily a bad thing - City was a brilliant game - but it's not great for WB Montreal that my initial thought, as soon as I see the outdoor environments, is 'hang on, Rocksteady was here first - and Rocksteady was better.'     

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