Batman Arkham Origins preview: rock-steady design

By Andrew Yoon, May 20, 2013 6:00am PDT

Fans feel rightfully cautious whenever a beloved franchise switches developers. Batman Arkham Origins is the first game in the Arkham series developed outside of series progenitor Rocksteady. The newly established WB Montreal assumes development duties on this prequel. Fans are undoubtedly going to question if an untested, unproven team can make a Batman game worthy of the Arkham label. Based on an early hands-on with the game, it appears Montreal doesn't plan on changing the formula too much. Instead, Origins largely follows the blueprint established by Arkham City.

In many ways, Origins feels like an expansion pack of City. If you're accustomed to how City plays, you'll find that pretty much everything is the same. It didn't take long until I was gliding through Arkham City and combo-ing dudes on top of rooftops. Even your inventory is largely the same, with many of the gadgets from City transferring over to Origins. "We have no intention of nerfing him," a WB rep told us. They want players to have a "fully functional Batman from the start."

Although the core gameplay experience remains largely untouched, there are some noticeable additions to the campaign. Perhaps the biggest enhancement is the city. Batman has access to a much larger playground this time around, going well beyond the limits of Arkham City. WB Montreal wants to make "a city worth spending more time in," although how they plan on doing that is unclear at the moment--especially considering there are no civilians on the street. (Apparently, that's explained in the story somehow.) In our mission, we were flying through the Diamond District in south Gotham City, and we spotted a still-active subway system operating. According to WB Montreal, the city is so large this time around, that you'll be able to call upon the Batwing as a fast-travel system from various points on the map.

As you glide through the city, your radio will be abuzz with local surveillance, and there will occasionally be "dynamic 911 missions" you can intercept. Like before, you'll also stumble upon side missions involving Batman's rogues gallery. A new addition for Origins is Anarky, a villain who wants "freedom from institutions." A new "Most Wanted system" will keep track of the numerous side-stories that will be told in Origins.

Combat gets a few new minor additions. As promised, Origins will give more insight into how you're playing. After each encounter, you'll see how your XP breaks down, and you'll be given a Capcom-style rank: C, B, A, and S, of course.

Origins introduces a few new enemy types as well. There's a new heavy enemy that looks like a cross between the Black Mask and Bane. He can grab Batman, which triggers a QTE sequence where you'll have to mash A in order to escape. Like similar heavy enemies in City, red arrows will appear over his head before his attack, which has to be dodged instead of countered. Once you perform a super-stun (with three taps of Y), you'll be able to rip off the armor off the hulking enemy.

Perhaps the most interesting new enemy added to Origins is the martial artist. This enemy type can counter your counters, which triggers a short slow-mo animation where you can counter their counter. It changes the dynamic of Batman's FreeFlow combat, and keeps you on your toes just a little bit more.

Predator sequences play largely like in previous games, but Batman does have access to at least one new gadget. The "Remote Claw" lets you latch two items together. This allows you to create a walkway, or string two enemies together. It can also hilariously latch an enemy with an explosive gas canister. While I did appreciate being able to create my own walkway, I found myself resorting to my Arkham staples. It's difficult to see how WB Montreal can design a challenge that makes you use the Remote Claw in a unique way.

Finally, the most interesting new addition to the Arkham formula in Origins is the enhanced investigation. When Batman investigates a crime scene, he can now create a 3D "reconstruction" of the scene, allowing him to fast-forward and rewind through a full virtual replay of the crime. In the demo we played, a helicopter got taken down. By going to a rooftop and rewinding the footage, Batman discovers that the helicopter was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off a sniper on an adjacent building. Who could pull off a shot like that? Deadshot, of course.

Being able to rewind and fast-forward through a fully augmented 3D crime scene is the kind of stuff that CSI fans dream of, and the way it's handled in Arkham Origins is quite clever. It's reminiscent of "memory remixing" from Remember Me--albeit without the terrible combat.

While Origins doesn't reinvent the Batman wheel to the same degree that the first two Arkham games have, it's clear that WB Montreal has the chops to make a game worthy of the name. It may be a largely familiar experience, but the small new tweaks made to an already-solid formula should suffice for Batman fans looking for another Arkham fix.

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