The latest Batman: Arkham game came out last Friday to rather tepid reviews, although I say that only given the fact that Asylum and City both racked up a ridiculous amount of year-end awards and Batman: Arkham Origins appears to be poised only to get Most “Eh, It Was All Right” of the Year. I’m still working my way through it (few outlets outside of the big ones got advanced copies) and a review will be coming soon, but I have some thoughts on it as it stands now.
Asylum was a taut little adventure that felt like a simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic adventure, something like shuttling through a pitch black roller coaster and you can only sense how close the walls and rafters are as they zoom by your head. (It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.) City introduced, well, a city: Arkham City, in fact. It was a the result of former Arkham Asylum director Quincy Sharp becoming mayor of Gotham and turning the projects of the city into one big ol’ outdoor, poorly maintained prison.
It allowed the player to explore Gotham in a way we’d always wanted: freely, albeit a small subsection of it that is largely disgusting slums and dirty streets. Batman’s cape gliding mechanic from Asylum translated to the open world rather well, especially with the addition of the grapnel boost which allowed you to hook onto ledges and launch yourself higher and faster for sustained travel. It actually reminded me of how amazing it felt in Spider-Man 2, slinging webs and zipping around the city like a spandex-clad god. It is a comparison all open world superhero games aspire to make.
The single problem I had with the system was that right in the middle of the city was a huge facility, locked down the private military firm TYGER. It presented you with an immense impasse if you wanted to travel from one side of the city to the other, forcing you to go around because getting into it early would break the story’s flow. It was, needless to say, a gigantic bummer.
Now imagine that instead of one instance where that’s the case, they just made an entire city of grapnel roadblocks and gliding obstacles. That is Batman: Arkham Origins. A lot of people will casually call it polish or refinement, and though it is a horribly generic term when it comes to games criticism, it is still a true statement.
Origins comes from a new developer, Rocksteady Studios opting for Warner Bros. Games Montreal to take a crack at their masterful take on the storied property. And each time they failed to design or implement some structure to meaningfully allow you to traverse the city, they also failed to give you a satisfying experience. Not just because we have a game that does it better but because it is altogether frustrating.
It seems like half the buildings don’t let you grapnel up to the tops for no other reason than just because. And all those communications towers you have to solve to unlock fast travel destinations? Not a chance. Those are no fly zones even though their entire heights are so far below the grapnel’s range and half of them are shorter than the buildings surrounding them. I don’t even recall seeing the little red circle-cross in City, but it might as well be permanently affixed to the screen in Origins.
This may not seem like a big deal, but comprehensiveness is what makes an open world game. Spider-Man 2‘s decision to attach webs to the open air if it served the flow of locomotion was a critical one because it made the world feel complete. Getting from one place to another was slick, fast, and fun. Getting to the top of any building was just a matter of you understanding how to flip your way up there, not figuring out how to cheat the game.
Then look at Grand Theft Auto V. The previous iterations were great as well, but this Los Santos is undoubted the best city Rockstar has ever crafted because of the attention to detail. There are no roads that exist in that game that, as you approach them, turn out to be unattainable mirages. And all the small stuff from the rumble strips to the crumple barriers make the city feel like something you’re intimately familiar with.
Now we have Origins. Fast travel was ostensibly added because this game world is even larger than City, but I use it even when I have to travel just a few hundred meters because I know the frustration involved in bumping into the limitations of the game’s travel mechanics. If fast travel had been in City, I wouldn’t have used it because seeing that loading sequence would have broken the visage of a complete, real city. Now I just don’t care because I don’t want to be frustrated at a game that has a lot of other good things going for it.
Yes, there is a lot of good to Origins and I’ll put all of those thoughts (and more bad ones) into a review later this week, but this little nugget I had to get off my chest immediately. It’s a new developer, sure, and you can’t expect different and better at the same time (though it’s nice when we get it), but this is still an unfortunate turn. I like Batman: Arkham Origins, but it also took one of the best parts of Batman: Arkham City and turned it into a mess.