30 January 2016

Post Thoughts: Batman: Arkham Origins

This post was mostly originally written towards the end of November 2013 right after my "Is Batman the best videogame superhero?" (Answer: Of course he is!) I'd say about 70% was finished during that period and the last 30% was finished during a replay of the game finishing right now.

I'm a fan of superheroes in general but, as I said in my last post, I don't think they're represented all that well in the games arena. However, in 2009, Rocksteady released Arkham Asylum - a game that pretty much came out of the blue for most gamers and which encapsulated the feeling of "being Batman".

Arkham Origins is the second sequel in the series and the first not helmed by Rocksteady.

As usual - thar be spoilers!

Introducing...



Story:


Origins, like its title, is essentially about how all the characters get to meet up and how their relationships have come to be defined. The story is simple and efficient: Batman is two years into his tenure as self-appointed protector of Gotham and Black Mask (a crime lord) has put up a bounty for one night only (Christmas Eve) for assassins from the Americas to kill the Batman. There's this huge storm in Gotham and a curfew is in effect; which explains away why there are no citizens - only police and gang members. The assassins, very kindly, each take it in turns to take on Batman whilst a number of other crime lords and degenerate psychopathic antagonists (e.g. Mad Hatter, Bane etc.) all turn up in the city.

Batman, of course, overcomes these obstacles, unmasks Black Mask as being impersonated by the Joker, and foils his plans for chaos in Gotham.

It's nothing special but it works because it's fairly simple and succinct and there are fewer branches to distract the player from the main plot line like there were in Arkham City so it felt less disjointed to me. That's not to say that there aren't side missions or tangential story lines. In fact there are several main side stories to unlock and play through based around the other crime lords/villains that show up in this game - like The Riddler and Penguin.

I think that, while the story works well, Batman himself doesn't make any sense. This is supposed to be a young, inexperienced and relatively unknown character who is still coming to terms with the loss of his parents and the mantle that he has assumed for himself. In this respect the developers have tried to shoehorn some of these aspects into the game - from his brooding anger, ease of upset over the "loss" of Alfred, criminals discussing whether "The Batman" is real, Captain Gordon not trusting him, etc. However, it doesn't fit with what we see.

Batman himself is hugely capable: he has virtually all the devices that he uses in Arkham City, very strong, not very bulky armour, the Bat plane but not the Bat mobile and expert fighting moves and stealth.... Now, I guess some of that depends on his origin story in the Arkham game universe but it seems to me that if, after two years of putting a stop to organised crime that many people question the validity of the Batman's existence then he's not doing a very good job.

I think Batman should be less capable than in the other games... but maybe that would have made things harder to develop for the studio? The wikipedia page has some insight into this in its design section but I'm not sure the developers achieved all the ideas that are presented there or that they were necessarily good choices over what players had previously experienced in the other games. One of the decisions made by the designers was to have Batman make certain mistakes (such as not tying up Electrocutioner when he has the chance, etc.). These are pretty forced 'mistakes' and it is questionable whether he would be making them at this point (2 years) into his career. His batsuit also does not appear to be patched together and 'The Batman' is already too well-recognised for my tastes.

There is also one huge plot hole in the game. Bane works out who Batman is and goes and wreaks havoc on the Batcave... Now, the question is - why did Bane go alone? Did he? It seems to me that he would have taken his gang members with him and so they would also know Batman's identity. It's a very untidy moment in the game but, luckily for me, I didn't think about it until I was writing this review. :D


Characters:


Add more Penguin!


Batman: As noted above, Batman isn't very well characterised. The developers have taken the Batman from City and shoehorned him into a previous time period in his career. He's not different except that he speaks more angrily to Alfred - who, the poor guy, is only trying to help his obviously clinically insane master!

Gotham City: It's bigger than Arkham City was but it also covers the same old areas that we were used to seeing in that game. I think this is great because we get to see the evolution of "in-use" Gotham to "prison" Gotham - with all the same landmarks and features, only in a true and perverse light. I also think the musical score in this game is very strong and provoking, especially given the Christmas-time angle.

Joker: It was disappointing that Black Mask turned out to be Joker. I mean, it would be nice to play a Batman game where Joker isn't the main antagonist. It might have been nice if Joker had been one of the side-villains as he would have been early in Batman's career and actually have Black Mask as the antagonist because hiring a load of assassins would be a normal move for a stereotypical crime kingpin! Apart from that, Joker was Joker. He was well characterised and voiced by a non-Mark Hamill actor.

Gordon: I'm not quite sure his characterisation was any better than Batman's. At the end of the day, Captain Gordon was very aggressively against Batman until late in the game where he suddenly switches towards liking him - just because the Batman wants some help after fixing an issue with bombs on a bridge - a situation that occurred due to his very existence! I fail to see how Captain Gordon is stupid enough to not see this fact.

Penguin: One of the strange things about Penguin in Origins and Knight is that his character just seems off somehow. He felt pretty well represented in City but he lacks the outspoken panache of that game in these subsequent two. Possibly it's his shunting to a bit-part that has left the writing team with a lack of resources to bring him to life outside of a plot advancer for Batman to beat upon.

The Assassins: Ended up being pretty incidental to the game and story. Mostly, it ended up being a side-story about Batman versus Bane. Their relationship was never fully explored and Bane and his men kept making references to Bane's vengeance on Batman - though that was never explained! I wasn't aware that Batman/Bane had a history until later on when Batman's back is broken by him. What was nice was that Bane's enhanced physique in Arkham Asylum was explained in this prequel. 

Weirdly, there is a post-credits scene where Deathstroke is recruited into the Suicide Squad and, while that game was supposedly in development as of 2012, nothing has been heard of it since. So that's a bit of a strange inclusion.


Mechanics:



Combat is just as great as ever but I think Batman is too Batman-y...


The game plays largely the same as Arkham City, building on the foundations of Arkham Asylum. The developers have added in a fast travel system that I didn't tend to use very much because it's just so much fun moving around this world as Batman. The dive/grapple/launch mechanic is in this game as a base feature of the overworld movement and it works very fluidly - in fact I think that they might have increased the maximum angle of ascent after diving as it seems to me that you can get a bit higher than you could in City.

The combat is also slightly different: The overall combat experience has been improved with combat feeling more fluid and fast-paced than in the previous games. Batman's movement is also easier to direct and he is more responsive to input from the right analogue stick. There are, however, some bugs in the counter system that were not present in the previous games: Namely that during a double counter, the second assailant doesn't always get "locked in" to the manoeuvre and instead is free to hit you and disrupt your flow. Apart from this, none of the issues I had in City whereby Batman would refuse to "jump" to the next target and instead punch thin air in front of him were present. The developers appear to have made it so that enemies close the gap between themselves and the Batman in a shorter time so it's very easy to get surrounded but that adds to the fluidity of the system by not leaving a huge gap where the player is unable to continue their hit streak. Some people are of the opinion that this makes the combat harder (especially when the indicators are disabled) and I sort of agree, though I think the combat is pretty much equal in difficulty to City.

The boss battles, on the other hand, are a bit frustrating. Any boss battle that essentially uses the normal combat or movement mechanics as its core system is generally okay - though some of them, such as the encounters with Bane, are very difficult due to his ability to curve his charge towards your position which often means that you don't manage to successfully dodge his attack. The other boss battles that alter the rules of the game (combat and movement) really don't feel like they belong in the game at all and were very frustrating to me until I realised what the developers wanted me to do.

Those four assassin encounters were Deathstroke, Copperhead, Firefly and Electrocutioner. The wiki page states the following:


"Each main story boss is designed to reinforce the players mastery over a specific game mechanic, such as Deathstroke whose battle focuses on countering attacks. The assassins selected for the game were chosen partly because each possesses abilities that could challenge these game mechanics. The boss fights took inspiration from Arkham City's battle against Mr. Freeze, which tasked players with exploring the full range of Batman's strategies and abilities to overcome the villain."


The problem with this is that the game doesn't follow proper design principles. We're talking about the Zelda design process here where the skill utilised in the dungeon is used to defeat the dungeon boss. That isn't the case in Arkham Origins in these fights and the developers do not correctly telegraph what players are supposed to do or worse, telegraph the incorrect action. This is in contrast to the Mr Freeze boss battle where normal gameplay mechanics were used to defeat him.

First off, Electrocutioner's encounter is very frustrating. The player is taught that Batman is stunned from coming into contact with "electricity". This is established through stun sticks and electrical barriers throughout the game world. So, when Electrocutioner activates his shock gloves, the player is instantly on the defensive and wondering how to get around him and attack from behind where the gloves can't stun them. Unfortunately, the triggers and learned behaviour from the world building ends up ruining a very powerful moment as the player is actually supposed to attack him head-on, knocking the assassin out in one punch.

Maybe not every player had the same experience as me - probably there are some players who enter every encounter with a direct attack - but I tried circling the Electrocutioner for a few minutes, trying to get the better position before I eventually attacked.

Deathstroke and Copperhead are similar but do not make quite the same mistake. Deathstroke eschews the combat mechanics to instead force a QTE style of gameplay onto the player. This isn't just countering and learning to use the counter properly because you can't counter all hits as this disrupts the flow of the sequence. In fact, one change to Origins' combat system that perhaps doesn't work so well is that multi-step attack counters have multiple attack animations that are not "real" attacks and attempting to counter these results in a failed counter move. There's no prior training for this when you encounter Deathstroke and, if I'm remembering correctly, there's nothing to differentiate between a normal attack and a "multi-step attack" that has multiple blows but only one counter is needed. Worse still, in his encounter, Deathstroke also has button mashing blocking events - so the whole encounter has three game play styles that are contrary to each other because during the parts where you can fight normally, you can also block on a one-to-one blow basis.

Copperhead's boss battle is less frustrating but, once again the desired mechanic isn't telegraphed to the player. We're constantly presented with large groups of enemies in Origins and the player learns how to fight them using the combat mechanics. However, only attacking Copperhead's illusions is not effective. In fact winning the encounter is best achieved through purely countering attacks (with maybe the odd punch combo thrown in for good measure).


Technical issues/bugs:


Not much of an assassination attempt after all...

The bug in the counter system I mentioned before was one issue I encountered when playing this game (PS3 version). Also, every time the fast travel system was used, the sound failed to load up properly, resulting in silence from the point of grappling (the sound was often delayed) to the Bat plane until Batman re-entered the game world by bailing out of the plane.


Conclusion:


The shock gloves really make the combat very easy but also sort of break the flow of it due to instantly knocking down enemies...

I think origins continues on the tight gamplay of the Arkham series but fails to incorporate the idea that this all occurs before the games that occur in the future timeline. Again, relying on Joker for this story is another weakness which fails to allow Batman's early character development from angry loner vigilante to semi-competent legend to really shine through and instead there is a confusion between that story hook and the Batman/Joker dynamic.


Backseat Designing:


Introducing... No, really - this time!


(Warning - I went a bit off the deep end re-writing the whole story. Feel free to just skip all that! :D )

I would strip out the Joker from the story of this game. Have it actually be Black Mask as the main antagonist. Have this as Batman's first real test as a masked vigilante - he's been operating for two years and finally has enough renown within the criminal underworld that the big players are finally getting together to stop him.

I would also have Batman looking less proficient and less 'like Batman' than he does in the other games in the series. He should be thinner and less muscled, less sinewy and softer. I would have made his fighting style less clean, more dirty (kicks to the groin and other vulnerable spots on the body) during combat counters, along with him being less fit and more easily beaten down - perhaps looking tired and panting after an encounter, not having detective vision or many of the other advanced gadgets he has access to in the games further along in the timeline. The core of the gameplay would be the effect of fear used on the enemies rather than direct conflict and beat-downs as in the later games. As a result, Batman would be weaker in open conflict than in stealth and misdirection.

Okay, so he has his cape and grapple, the batarangs, hacking device, remote claw and explosive gel but nothing else. His cape would not work as in later games. It would stop his fall like a parachute but he would not be able to glide with it (making the fast travel system more important) and instead Batman's movement would mostly be made possible by use of the grapple and remote claw to get between buildings, leaving the cape as a last resort escape mechanism.

His suit would be even more obviously layered armour on a skin-tight material with differing colours (sprayed on by Bruce) that could be scratched off to reveal the original paint colour during the course of the game.

The story would progress along the lines of this:

Prologue: October 31st

Batman's at a bank in Gotham where a robbery by Black Mask's men is just beginning - he sees the van pull up and the men get out to gain entry into the building. After some grappling and other movement tutorials, Batman enters the bank and starts a predator event. When he shows up, they are very surprised: they don't know who or what he is - they panic, firing at shadows etc - and finally, after taking out most of the men he enters the vault where the last two guys are standing, clips empty after firing at sounds in the ventilation system and in the doorway.

[Batman steps into the doorway (as the player, he is limited to walking - it's not a cutscene) and begins walking down the hallway towards the two men.]

"What the fuck is this?" The first one asks.

"It's a fucking psycho!" The second responds, beginning to calm down. "Haha, escaped looney all dressed up on Halloween..."

[Batman should be right near them by now.]

"Well, lets show him what fear is all about." The first guy drops his gun as he says this and cracks his knuckles.

[Batman beats them up, completely silent, as they scream, howl and plead.]

The credits roll - during which one of the two guys the player just beat up is interviewed in a Blackgate prison cell by a lawyer; one of Black Mask's paid men, recounting the tale.

"So, you're saying this 'crazy guy' just happened to beat up all of your alleged conspirators and put a stop to your well-planned bank heist?" The lawyer starts the conversation after the recount the player just played through.

"Allegedly well-planned bank heist..." The thug objects.

"It's not alleged when you're found at the scene of a robbery in progress. They tend to call that an open and shut case." The lawyer counters.

"We could have been knocked out and all put there by that freak!"

"And who would believe that?"

"You would- Y- You should! You're paid to defend us, you bastard!"

"Not precisely. I'm paid to make sure certain investments are not wasted. A judge or jury may find it a tough story to swallow and may discredit you in the eyes of everyone involved."

"But-"

"Everyone involved..."

"I- I see."

[The two regard each other in silence. The thug breaks it.]

"What do you want me to-"

"Take the fall."

[The scene ends]

This gives Batman an introduction - sets the scene for him being a relatively unknown entity and also the reason for the enmity between Black Mask and himself. It gives the player a grounding for how rough-shod Batman's operation really is (he's barely pulling this sort of thing off) and most of his effectiveness is based on fear rather than strength. Finally, it shows that no one knows who or what he is. He's a whisper of the lips of discredited.

Beginning of the story: December 24th

Batman's out on Christmas eve - no rest for the wicked on a holiday or even during a storm. Black Mask has put out a bounty on Batman for the world to take on attracting some of the greatest assassins of the age. Batman has ventured to the city in order to combat the growing discord in his name.

In order to stop the chaos, Batman knows that he needs to find Black Mask. In order to do so he needs to infiltrate one of his ongoing operations - a shipment of weapons brought in by a gun runner known as "The Penguin". The game starts off with Batman finding his bat plane navigation all messed up. Someone known as Enigma is jamming Batman's communications and, worst of all, has hacked into them; which is revealed during a conversation with Alfred that he interrupts.

Batman drops into an alleyway in the city filled with thugs that are betting on a fight between themselves. They turn on him and he thrashes them giving the player a nice group combat tutorial. The last thug has a notice on him about a Christmas fighting event at 'The Last Chance' - the name of the Penguin's vessel in dock.

Batman goes to the ship as in the game, works his way through the levels and confronts Electrocutioner - this time though, on the way through the ship Batman meets thugs who have stun batons in their possession, causing the player to learn to be wary of electricity and teaching them how to fight these adversaries: a cape stun and a reverse attack. OR have Batman have some thought dialogue about how open the Electrocutioner is and that he thinks he could just punch straight through the opening.

Batman defeats the Electrocutioner and pursues the Penguin, leading to their first confrontation: Batman begins questioning the Penguin, who is pretty nonchalant about the whole thing and dismissive of the costumed freak (he offers Batman a place in a fight) and,  predictably, inexperienced Batman is angry and is about to put the beatdown on Penguin when Deathstroke makes his appearance and begins his assault. This fight plays out similarly to fighting sword-wielding enemies with some quick-time like counters thrown in but nowhere near as much or crazy a fight as we find in the game as is.

Batman is out of his depth and uses his gadgets to retreat. During the interview with Penguin, it was revealed to the player that Penguin says Black Mask is where he always is.

Batman travels to GCPD to hack their servers to see if he can find any leads as to Black Mask's identity. The GCPD section plays out as it does in the game and Batman discovers that BM is suspected to be Roman Sionis. Batman now has two choices head to the bank or the steel mill - both owned and operated by the Sionis family and known to have illicit dealings going on at the premises. He speaks to Alfred who says it may be a trap and Bruce replies that he already suspects it is but that he must go anyway.

At the bank, Batman encounters Deathstroke once more, fighting more competently this time and instead Deathstroke is forced to flee - blowing up the structure on Batman. Batman then takes the time to do some snooping on the bank's data files - discovering that Sionis has set up a holding account for the assassination money which is controlled by one of his crooked notaries and which will transfer to one of several other off-shore accounts in the names of the various assassins. Batman now knows who's after him and gets Alfred to draw up profiles on each of the remaining assassins on the list before heading off to Sionis' steel mill.

At the steel mill, Batman corners Sionis and tells him to call off the assassination. Sionis laughs in Batman's face, detailing how he is unable to now that the money is out of his hands and telling "the freak" how much of a thorn in his side he has been - but not for much longer.

Batman is about to cuff Sionis and take him away with all the evidence he's gathered on his operations thus far to the police when Copperhead, who has lain in wait for him to show up to question Sionis, emerges from the shadows, raking his exposed cheek with her poisoned claws.

Sionis escapes and the fight with Copperhead progresses as per normal, Alfred having already begun to synthesise the antidote sends it via the city's pneumatic tube mail system (there's no Batwing deployment system yet!) and Batman has to get to the drop point ASAP in the Sionis steel mill.

Batman leaves Copperhead for the police and goes after Sionis. At first there's no sign of him but then a transmission from the criminal "Bane" is transmitted on all radio frequencies, being picked up by the Batcomputer and forwarded to Batman by Alfred. Bane goads the 'caped freak' by telling him he's set up a number of bombs in several large high-rise buildings in the city and that the only way to disarm them is for the freak to come to the Gotham Royal Hotel where Bane is located along with Sionis who is now Bane's hostage to further entice Batman to go and confront him.

The events of the Gotham Royal Hotel mostly play out as in the game (minus the parts with Joker), the bombs are diffused, Bane is defeated and retreats whilst Sionis is captured by Batman and left with evidence of his crimes for the police to discover at a different location - Batman leaves a sealed envelope addressed to Captain James Gordon with this information inside.

Batman tracks Bane to his lair and infiltrates it to take down his gang's Gotham presence. Bane isn't present (having left the city) but various hired criminals are along with various pieces of evidence and information surrounding the Batman identity. Batman destroys a load of Venom derivative and the equipment that was producing it but one of Bane's hired goons accidentally gets caught in the blast, almost falling to his death - Batman swoops in and saves him but the Venom has already been in contact with him, leaving him writhing on the ground.

Batman calls the paramedics in and leaves the goon to their ministrations.

The final assassin has made his appearance - Firefly has rigged the bridge with bombs, as per the game, and the sequence plays out as it does but with the finale being Batman setting up a spiderweb-style trap for firefly and consists of him luring Firefly into it.

Firefly's last words as he is un-winged by Batman and tied up are along the following:

Firefly: "Caught! Caught like a fly in a spider's web! But a web that doesn't burn..."

[Batman turns him around roughly as he finishes tying Firefly up - giving the criminal a good look at him]

Firefly: "You're no spider though - more like a Bat!"

[Captain Gordon approaches from off-screen]

Gordon: "Hands up where I can see them!"

[Batman turns around slowly and raises his hands, as he does so he throws a batarang, knocking the gun from Gordon's hands]

Batman: "I'm not your enemy, Captain."

Gordon: "You're a vigilante. It's my job to be your enemy in order to protect the city of Gotham and its people."

Batman: "You couldn't protect the people on this bridge... and you should have listened to me."

Gordon: "Who the hell are you?! You think you're a one man army? You caused the events of tonight by being here in this city. What are you doing - why are you doing this?"

Batman: "Because no one else can..."

[Batman vaults up onto something nearby (or uses the grapple) but turns to Gordon who is watching]

Batman: "There aren't many men like you on the force, Captain. You need me. This city needs me. Make sure you use the data on Sionis wisely..."

[Batman turns and swoops away before Gordon can respond]

Gordon: "Sionis... that was..."

Firefly: "Haha, you need a bat to catch the fly!"

Gordon: "Quiet!"

[Gordon calls in some cops to take Firefly into custody]

Gordon [to himself]: "Perhaps we do need a bat to catch the flies circling this city..."

The ending credits start during which a scene of a hospital room focuses in from a blur (POV of a man lying in bed who is restrained).

[A scratchy voice begins to speak a few times and a nurse alerts a doctor that the patient is awake.]

Injured man: "Where am I?"

Doctor: "You were in an accident. You were rescued by that masked vigilante."

Injured man: "I, he... did? Why?!"

Doctor: "That's not a question I can answer but I do have some good news - we were able to save your face."

Injured man: "My face?"

Doctor: "You, er, had an adverse reaction to the chemicals you were exposed to. Your skin and hair pigmentation were affected..."

Injured man: "Let me see!"

Doctor: "Nurse."

[The nurse leans in and puts a mirror in front of the man's face - it's the man we will come to recognise as the joker]

Injured man: "Oh. Oh..."

Doctor: "Now, it's okay, we have several potential treatments, mister?"

Injured man: "Oh, oh, oh..." [The man's voice is becoming less gravelly and more like Joker's with each word]

Doctor: "Nurse, please fetch some sedative, I fear we may need to take the edge off the shock just a bit."

Joker: "Oh. Ho, ho, ho, ho! Hee, hee, hee! Haw, HAW , HAW!"

[Joker rips his hands free of the restraints, reaches for the mirror and smashes it over the doctor's head knocking him unconscious]

Joker [Moving about the room, gesticulating, looking in the mirror]: "What a joke! What a jape! My god! I'm beautiful! Ha, ha! HE saved me, him, and yet *I* died. What am I now? A clown? A laughing stock - just. one. more. punchline in life's dreary circus..."

[The nurse returns, drops the sedative when she sees the doctor and the Joker and attempts to flee but the Joker is too fast and nimble. He grabs her and pulls her into a close embrace]

Joker: "Ah, ah, ahh! Not so fast, dear! He killed me but saved me. It's not so simple, is it? I was me before and now I'm me! Hoo, hoo!

Nurse: "Please, let me go!"

Joker: "Let you go?! Where's the fun in that? Let's go see what the new me can do..."

[Joker pulls the nurse into a tango stance and dances through the view of the camera - to black and the remaining credits]

The reason I'd do this and go with this origin for Joker is that it explains Joker's superhuman strength, agility, speed and endurance. The unstable effects of the venom derivative could also be used to explain his further unhinged mind (he could already be considered a bit crazy for joining a criminal gang). The way Batman 'creates' Joker and is thus forever linked to him in Joker's mind and even until his death in Arkham City where he carries his body out at the end like a dear son becomes more resonant. Batman saves the man who becomes the Joker but is unable to save him from himself. It would be a recurring theme throughout the series as Batman comes to terms with his protégés as well as his arch nemesis... and ultimately he is unable to truly save anyone important to him because, like children, they have to live their own lives and parents are only able to mould their offspring and inspire them - they cannot control them as Batman would like to be able to in order for him to control and bring order to the world around him.

Thanks for reading this bit of fan-fiction! ;)

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