Following the crazy success of “Batman: Arkham City” was no easy task for Warner Bros. Games.
Why exactly the series branched into a prequel after the company’s subsidiary Rocksteady Studios released “Arkham City” in 2011, the world may never know.
But I can say I think the Batman video game canon is a lot better for it.
For what it’s worth (read: not much), I was pleasantly surprised by “Batman: Arkham Origins.” I definitely had some issues with the gameplay – it took me almost two years to unlock the Point Counter Point achievement in the Deathstroke combat – and the graphics, if only because the environmental proportions were way off scale.
But these minor issues aside, I really enjoyed “Arkham Origins” as a prequel to the Rocksteady trilogy.
What really made the game for me was the humanization of Bruce Wayne.
Just saying his name can give hardcore fans the hero-worship willies, but at the end of the day, Batman is a person. He is Bruce Wayne and even if he has entirely devoted himself to the cause, to his mission, to the pursuit of justice and the persecution of criminals, he is just a man.
And I think it’s really important to remember that if you’re playing the video game or watching the movie or even reading the comics.
One aspect of “Origins” that really sold the humanizing angle for me was the change in Batman’s voice actor.
To anyone in the know, Kevin Conroy has voiced Batman in nearly all his incarnations, from the famous animated show to the past two games in the series. He is Batman for many fans.
However, there is something about his voice that sounds oddly flat to me.
In opting for a younger Bruce Wayne, and therefore a younger Batman, WB Games went with Roger Craig Smith as their voice actor. In his dialogue delivery, he managed to convey a powerful animation that was conspicuously absent from Conroy’s performances.
I’m not saying Conroy was a bad Batman. He just wasn’t a good Bruce Wayne.
And I think that’s an important distinction.
In “Origins” we are given a look at the younger, more vulnerable side of Batman. From the opening scene when Bruce Wayne descends into the Batcave as hundreds of bats swoop in and around him, from when Alfred comes up behind him and places a silver tray on his desk which reflects a small Wayne family portrait, from when Vicki Vale is interviewing Bruce asking him about his years away and he brusquely brushes her off, players can tell this game is meant to be more about Bruce Wayne than about Batman.
And there’s something commendable in crafting the game with that attitude in mind, with the focus less on Batman and more on the man behind the feared Dark Knight mask.
Another thing I liked about Origins was the way it introduced us to various characters in the Batman canon. Some of these introductions were incomplete, but they did give us a taste of what the characters were like in their infancy and what kind of early reactions they had to Gotham’s protector.
Bane is a perfect example of a fascinating character whose introduction was interesting in the context of the game but somewhat incomplete. While the ending in which Bane, driven mad by his own drugs, forgets Batman’s identity and everything but his hatred of the caped crusader was oddly poetic and certainly did set things up for his involvement in the later games, I found his introduction somewhat lacking.
Mostly because Bruce seemed surprised to see Bane in Gotham, and acted almost as if he knew him from somewhere else. Now, if this was because he had actually met the buff junkie before or because he had heard of him through his various crime-fighting sources, I don’t know. But it’s something that I think merits further inquiry – not that I’m likely to get it.
Another character I wished the game had talked about more was Barbara Gordon. How exactly did the plucky teen hacking Batman’s comms and asking him to destroy stolen weapons go from behind a computer screen to on the streets fighting crime?
We know how she ended up back behind that screen – “Arkham Knight” did an okay job of taking us back to guilt old Brucie at the cost of actual character development – but “Origins” did little to explain how she took the giant step forward into becoming Batgirl, a kick ass superhero in her own right and one of Bruce Wayne’s (many) protégée children.
For that matter, where is Robin? He was available to play in the game’s multiplayer mode – not something I ever wanted out of a story-heavy game like “Origins” – but conspicuously absent from the streets of Gotham and all of the game’s DLCs.
Give me a DLC that further humanizes Bruce Wayne by making him care for and train little Dick Grayson and I’d happily give you my soul and all my future game money.
“Origins” also did a really good job of setting up the future Batman and Joker conflict.
Not only was this game’s Joker both creepily compelling and interestingly dynamic, Troy Baker’s performance, while nothing like Mark Hamill’s iconic interpretation, managed to woo and wow me in turns.
What I particularly loved was the brief snippet of dialogue Joker shared with a cop as he was arrested after Batman saved him from plummeting to his death.
As he shoved him in the cop car, one of Gotham’s finest asked the Joker if he had any clue where “his partner” was headed. The Joker told him Batman was not his partner, to which the cop responded, “who else would save your crazy ass?”
The Joker’s reaction – a slow smile and a sinister echo of the cop’s question – sets the stage for their entire relationship, one that matured beautifully in “Arkham Knight.”
But that’s a topic for another blog.
If you haven’t already noticed, I could talk for hours about the gameplay and mechanics, but I think the heart and soul of a game lies in its storytelling.
Without a good story, there is no game – I’m looking at you, “Call of Duty” 89 or whatever version is out right now – I don’t care how awesome your graphics are, or how engaging the combat.
To that end, I think “Arkham Origins” had a compelling story in the characters it introduced, its handling of Troy Baker as the Joker and Roger Craig Smith as Batman, and its focus on Bruce Wayne as Batman instead of the other way around.
While I could write another blog entry about all the things the game did wrong beginning with crazy graphic scales and ending with Firefly’s disastrous cameo as a major villain – he burns stuff, big deal – I think it’s better to talk about what we, as players, like in video games so we can get more of that in future games rather than just complain and complain about what we don’t like without giving any constructive feedback.
This tribute to “Batman: Arkham Origins” is the first in my three part Arkham series, so keep a look out for next week’s unkind honest review of Rocksteady’s “Arkahm Knight.”
Game on, my feared vigilante warriors, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.
For a good read on the comparative differences between the art style of “City” and “Origins” read part 4 of Shamus Young’s “Batman Arkham Origins: Over-Analysis” on Twentysidedtale.com.