“Batman Begins” was taken.
I finished up Batman: Arkham Origins over the weekend, and finally figuring out what I was doing wrong with the combat made it a much more enjoyable experience than Arkham City.
I was pretty skeptical that we needed a prequel game at all, but I’m open to admitting that I was wrong there – in fact, I think that being set in Batman’s early career actually made for a pretty interesting story. He’s still fighting gangsters and corrupt cops, with the weirder high-tech and super-powered members of his rogue’s gallery mostly ignored or relegated to side stories and DLC. Gotham is, well, a rather oppressive place, but at least it’s not a battleground just yet.
It particularly scores points with me for the Deathstroke boss fight, which wasn’t terribly difficult but which served as something of a “have you been paying attention?” test of combat mechanics and had some great mid-fight banter, and for the Mad Hatter sequence, which I would have completely missed if I’d been holding to my plan of sticking to the main story quest.
The complaints I DO have about it are all structure-based, and here is where you should probably stop reading if you don’t want to read a bit of ranting.
I am still getting used to open-world game design, so I’m probably not the best person to critique an open-world game, but one of the things I enjoy the most is having a huge quest log and the freedom to work on almost any of the things on it. “Skyrim” is my go-to reference here, and I frequently found myself thinking of AO as “The Elder Scrolls: Batman” while I was playing.
In a lot of ways, it IS very free-form. You find out very early on that there are ten broadcast towers around Gotham, one per neighborhood, and you need to visit each of those. Then you find out that there are also 10 network relays per neighborhood that need to be disabled, and two guys per neighborhood that specifically need to be sought out in order to get the location of twenty collectibles scattered across each neighborhood, and – barring occasionally needing to get new gadgets – you are welcome to tackle these 330 small objectives at any point in the storyline.
There are also case files, typically revolving around stumbling across a recent murder and tracking down the killer through a detective crime scene reconstruction sequence, and “Gotham’s Most Wanted”, a set of side bosses including the previously-mentioned Mad Hatter.
If that wasn’t enough, you have training challenges to do back at the Batcave, and three separate tracks, of 15 challenges each, to tackle in the field. The training challenges are a good way to pump up your experience bar, and the field challenges unlock new gadgets.
Basically, if you like putting check marks on checklists, there are SO MANY CHECKLISTS to check off.
Where it breaks down in spectacular fashion, though, is having many of these checklists only doable in rigid order. A couple of examples are, I believe, needed here.
Apart from a couple of story-related case files, most of the investigation sequences trigger randomly as you swing and glide around Gotham. You’ll overhear some police radio chatter, there will be a new indicator on your map, you go to it and find a dead body and then investigate.
Unfortunately, you can only have one active case file at a time – once you stumble across a trigger, you will not get a new case file trigger until you have followed that case file to its bitter end. I had one instance where I DID close a case file, but the case file closure didn’t “stick” and it was a long time before I looked in my quest log, noticed that it was still at the “Apprehend Suspect” step, and went back to find the guy a second time. As a result, I was stuck on that one case file until nearly the end of the story campaign, and finishing the case file track would have meant ignoring the story campaign and simply running around Gotham waiting for random quest triggers to fire.
As a side effect, since some of the “Gotham’s Most Wanted” quests are tied to completing the case files, I missed out on a ton of those.
Likewise, the field challenges suffered from needing to be completed in a specific order. There are three lists of field challenges, each with 15 objectives, and you can see every one of these objectives from the very start of the game. For example, there’s an objective for “Stop a crime in progress in each neighborhood”, and this SHOULD be terribly straightforward – if only it weren’t the last objective in a list of 15. You can stop all the crimes you want, but the game only rewards you for the ones done once you’re on that 15th step. If you put it off, you are going to be going back to each neighborhood LONG after you’re done with other objectives and hoping that a crime-in-progress event actually triggers in a timely fashion.
For an extra bit of “Really, guys?”, one of the challenge tracks revolves around performing very specific actions during the game’s “Predator Room” sequences. There are only a few Predator rooms, and they do not respawn, so missing a couple of these challenges early on means that you can’t complete this challenge track in one play-through, even after finishing the campaign and going into Free Roam mode. Playing the story again in the “New Game Plus” mode is the only way to get the Predator Rooms to re-populate with enemies, and that also saddles you with a big boost to difficulty.
So, short version – a great Batman game, with a TON to do, but with some design decisions that will haunt you if you have a completionist mindset and aren’t the sort of person who obsessively refers to a guide during play.
Also, it had the side effect of getting me to load up Skyrim again. This may be similar to the effect playing MMOs has on me, where playing almost any MMO for longer than a couple of weeks inevitably ends up with me re-installing Everquest and losing another few months of my life to chasing the nostalgia dragon. At least Skyrim is theoretically finite.