A scene from "Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate." (Warner Bros. Interactive)Link
Batman battles Firefly in a scene from "Batman: Arkham Origins." (Warner Bros.)Link
The word “simulation” often gets tossed around when discussing the “Arkham” series of Batman video games. The implication is that these digital re-creations of Gotham City and its freakish cast of villains and antiheroes are the closest any of us will get to experiencing the adrenaline rush of cape and cowl vigilantism.
An exaggeration, sure, but there is realism to be had in unexpected places throughout “Batman: Arkham Origins.”
In “Origins,” one of two new games for the Bat franchise released in late October by Warner Bros. Interactive, players can experience at least one true-to-life aspect of Batman not captured in films by Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan: The daily grind of having to go to work each night. The task of ridding the streets of crime becomes a little less fun and a little more like a job filled with middling tasks.
That’s because Batman — and the player — have a lot to tackle in “Origins.” Eight assassins are hired to kill our hero and at any given moment he can be faced with a laundry list of options on where to head next.
A domestic terrorist is planting bombs that need defusing, a trickster is messing with the city’s air traffic communications, the Penguin has a cache of weapons that need destroying and then there are those assassins gunning for a cash prize for Batman’s head on a lance.
Such a vibrant urban landscape is impressive, but somewhere around Hour 15 it all starts to feel like a series of chores. Run to a location, fire a Bat-toy, beat up a series of thugs, look for a vent to crawl through, listen to Batman’s narration and move on. Then repeat, sometimes with more thugs, sometimes with more toys.
That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had here. Batman fans and those who played the first two core games in the “Arkham” series will find plenty to like, be it tussling with the Joker (yes, again) or swinging through a “Batman Returns”-inspired take on Gotham City, where Christmas decorations twinkle amid the chaos.
Part of what slows down “Origins” afflicts many a game that advertises the illusion of an “open world,” that is, the ability to go anywhere in the game universe at almost any time and complete missions, many of them optional. When there’s no real need to take down a Gotham City bomber such as Anarky, there’s no reason to expect writers and developers to craft painstakingly complex puzzles. So instead, a player’s time is filled with a rather nettlesome race-against-the-clock exercise.
What hurts “Origins” most is the simple decision to rewind the Bat-clock to a time before Batman and the affable Commissioner Gordon were on the same team. Developers at WB Games Montréal have said this allowed them to create a “rarer, scarier” Batman, but that appears to have just been code for a game that will focus on Batman’s athleticism rather than smarts.
So the destined-to-be-blockbuster “Arkham Origins” is bested by an unexpected foe: Batman himself in the smaller, more approachable “Arkham Origins Blackgate,” an entirely different Bat game and story devised for hand-held devices. ”Blackgate,” available for the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, has a secret weapon: It’s not bogged down in trying to do too much.
Unlike the sprawling, three-dimensional environment of “Origins,” “Blackgate” is largely 2-D and resembles the look and feel of ol’-fashioned run, jump and side-scrolling action-adventure games such as “Metroid.” Its combat and animations may not be as slick as that of “Origins,” but its linear style inherently gives it something open world games have to work harder to attain: a vision.
Largely taking place inside a maze-like prison, the Armature Studio-developed “Blackgate” asks players only to fight bad guys and explore the labyrinth-like paths that comprise the jail complex. The story is simple but has some nice twists, such as Batman having to quell an uprising while learning when not to trust Catwoman.
Like its console counterpart, “Blackgate” gives Batman the ability to analyze environments for hidden clues and paths by using what is called “detective” vision. Utilizing the touchscreen of the Vita, however, made such investigations feel more natural, as one simply swipes over the environment and touches objects of interest.
In a more confined, controlled world, traversing each room from multiple perspectives was paramount. There are hidden nooks and goodies galore. It’s not uncommon to get stuck, having overlooked a ledge or a crawl space created by a collapsed wall. The result is that the petite (in comparison) universe of “Blackgate” actually feels more alive, as a bounty of interactive flourishes fill a tighter space rather than having to be spread across what can feel like an empty movie set.
There’s a lesson in game design here. “Blackgate” works better in part because its attention isn’t divided. Rather than attempt to wrestle a game into the next big Batman epic, “Blackgate” is focused only on being a game.
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