Becoming the Dark Knight in ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’

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Batman: Arkham Origins is conceived as a turning point for Batman’s transition from armored vigilante to the Dark Knight, scourge of Gotham City’s underworld. Don’t worry about the fact that this prequel offers improved Bat-gadgets and more advanced underlying systems – because video games, okay? Just roll with it. You’ll want to anyway, since this newer, younger Batman feel more combat-capable than his Arkham Asylum and Arkham City predecessors, as we learned during a recent hands-on preview.

Story/Concept

Becoming Batman. The whole premise of Batman: Arkham Origins is meant to establish Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the near-mythical figure known as Batman; the idea being that the Caped Crusader is more than just a dude in an armored suit. The story unfolds over a single Christmas Even in Gotham City. It’s Batman’s second year of working as a masked vigilante, roughly five years before the events of Arkham Asylum. A crime lord known as Black Mask puts a $50 million bounty on Batman’s head, and eight assassins – the game’s “bosses” – come to collect on it.

Conceptually, the Warner Bros. Games Montreal dev team aims to carry across the idea that the gauntlet of powerful assassins that Batman faces – a rogue’s gallery that includes the likes of Bane, Copperhead, Deadshot, Firefly, and Deathstroke – marks his shift from vigilante to proper superhero.

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Graduation day. Our demo picked up in an early portion of the game. Batman pays a visit to the Penguin in his lair, aboard an abandoned cruise ship christened The Final Offer. The villain is busy interrogating mobster Alberto Falcone when we arrive, the result of a lingering turf war between Penguin and the Falcone crime family. 

None of that matters to Batman, who seeks information from his longtime enemy about Black Mask. The demo starts out hands-off, with WB reps guiding the Caped Crusader through a series of rooms in typical Arkham fashion. There’s some stealth, with Bats picking apart a room full of armed guards before they can execute their Falcone hostage, and some straightforward fisticuffs with a gang of the Penguin’s tough guys. All of this leads into a confrontation with Deathstroke, who has apparently been tailing Batman the entire time.

Gameplay

Lesson plans. There’s an underlying concept behind each boss fight in Origins, that amounts to a milestone in the story’s “vigilante to superhero” growth of the Batman character. Each of the eight assassins requires the use of a different skill or skillset in order to be defeated; each boss fight is another lesson on how to become Batman.

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Countering counters. If every boss fight in Origins is a lesson, Deathstroke exists to teach Batman (and you as the player) about a new combat feature: countering counters. Batman has had the ability to counter incoming blows from enemies since Arkham Asylum, with a prompt appearing above the attacker’s head to let you know that you should hit the appropriate counter button. That ability remains in Origins, but this new layer exists as a sort of ward against button-mashing. It’s not going to be possible to brute force your way through every fight in this game, and Deathstroke serves as an object lesson on that.

Whenever Batman launches into an attack combo, Deathstroke immediately counters in an animation that locks your controls. Keep your hands off the buttons while the counter animation plays out, and a prompt will eventually pop up that allows you to interrupt his counter combo with a counterattack of your own. Press the button too early and the prompt won’t appear at all. The emphasis is on being patient. You want to bide your time and wait for the right opportunity to strike, just as Batman would.

The new combat element takes some getting used to, but it’s very effective at encouraging a more steady approach to combat encounters in an Arkham game. This is a series that has been praised frequently in the past for its stellar hand-to-hand combat mechanics, and it looks like the dev team came up with an effective way to encourage players to really savor it.

Presentation

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Maxed out. The next-gen consoles can’t arrive soon enough. Batman: Arkham Origins – like many other games releasing in fall 2013 – represents the pinnacle of what current-gen gaming consoles are capable of, visually speaking. This is a sharp-looking game, easily an improvement on the gorgeous Arkham City. Penguin’s lair is appropriately musty and rundown, with peeling wallpaper and torn curtains casting a pall over the ornate fixtures and furnishings of the former vacation destination.

Characters look even better, particularly primary figures like Batman and Deathstroke. Stylistically, you couldn’t mistake Origins for anything other than an Arkham game, but the textures are sharper and more detailed than they were two years ago when Arkham City came out.

Takeaway

Batman: Arkham Origins might not be the hoped-for follow-up from series creator Rocksteady Studios, but the WB Games Montreal team appears to have done a commendable job of faking it. Series identity takes precedence over developer identity, from what we’ve seen. In other words, if you were a fan of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, then you’ll be pleased to learn that Arkham Origins is poised to not disappoint.

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