Thursday, December 19, 2013

Something Something Needs, Not Something Something Deserves

     So I occasionally write about video games, if you haven't noticed. Because of this, I try to maintain an objective viewpoint when going into a game. It isn't always possible. If I pick up a new Call of Duty game, I'm going to be expecting about 4-5 hours of shallow corridor shooting. If I play one of those Bethesda RPGs, I'm expecting a ridiculously huge world with an obscene level of detail and tons of tiny in-jokes. If I'm approaching the third game in a highly successful and critically acclaimed series, my expectations are going to be high.

     Unless, of course, the game is made by a different developer, using the same characters but with different voice actors, and has garnered generally mixed to negative impressions from respected sources. This is not one of those times I went in with an objective viewpoint. Which makes what happens all the more frustrating and confusing.

     Batman: Arkham Origins has several strikes against it from the outset. The first two games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, were developed by Rocksteady, an English development team who stunned the gaming world by releasing a game based on a licensed property that was not only good, but outstanding. Not just outstanding, but nearly flawless. It was written by Paul Dini, who was responsible for the best of the landmark Batman: The Animated Series with voices provided by Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin, among others from the same show. It treated the subject matter with a level of respect and love that had not been since in a licensed property since Goldeneye 007, and rarely since.

     Arkham Origins rubbed me the wrong way first with the title. Origins is one of those words (like Revelation) that is just lazy and over-used in gaming titles. Dragon Age, Rayman, FEAR 2, and probably a dozen others got there first. Gone is Rocksteady, replaced by an in-house studio for Warner Brothers. Most damning of all (in my eyes) is the replacement of Conroy and Hamill. Troy Baker is a talented voice actor, but it just sounds like he's doing a Mark Hamill imitation (albeit a good Hamill imitation) that just makes me miss Hamill even more. If you're going to be Joker, be your own Joker. Nobody wants to see you imitate someone else's Joker. Conroy is replaced with Roger Craig Smith, who has the dubious honor of voicing one of my favorite (Ezio Auditore) and least favorite (Chris Redfield) characters. His Batman lacks all of the dark humor and intimidation of Conroy's, and his performance is possibly the weakest.Batman has been redesigned so that he looks approximately halfway between his appearance in the first two games and his appearance in the Nolan films, which while good for what they were, I've had about enough of. And finally, that Freeflow combat system has been... tweaked? Changed? Something's off about the timing which has fouled up my ability to take out a room of thugs without a scratch, and I often find Batman punching thin air, or not doing a take-down move when he's supposed to, or even just some random street tough capable of throwing a punch faster and harder than Batman.

     With all of that said, though, I come to the most frustrating and confusing part of it all. I really went into this prepared to hate it. I went in fully expecting to be completely let down, but I wasn't. There's just enough familiarity there to make me feel comfortable, with enough new things to keep it feeling fresh three games into the series, where even Arkham City started to feel old at times. The dialogue really shines, with some really great lines given to Joker, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon. Despite using the tired subtitle of Origins, it really does go to great lengths in the story, through both obvious events and background storytelling, to show us how things got from here through Arkham Asylum all the way to Arkham City. The story itself feels smaller, tighter, and more focused than the previous games, with characters from later games introduced and treated with great respect and a few really clenching moments. At one point, a character essentially vital to the lore was placed in great danger (see how I'm tap-dancing around spoilers here?) and I very nearly put my controller down, uninstalled, and walked away before the story resolved the situation quite adeptly.

     So, WB Montreal, I have to say. I stand impressed. I went in with the lowest expectations, and I was was proven wrong. It's not perfect by any means, and there are some glaringly terrible things, but I really like this game. Even the multiplayer is kinda fun, and if *I'M* saying that, it really means something.

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