More than anything else, the previous Arkham adventures succeeded because they weren’t just games with Batman stuck in them – they let you recreate the feeling of being the man himself. Traversing environments in long swooping cape glides. Stoically standing on roof tops surveying the streets below. Or standing in a circle of thugs, unmoving, and waiting for them to take the first shot.
It worked partly because it looked cool. Partly because it made you feel great. But mostly because you knew the second anyone swung so much as a dirty look your way it would all end in a firm and ruthlessly minimal rearrangement of limbs, teeth and soft cartilage. Rocksteady’s opening two instalments knew the power of the experience came from making you be Batman, not control a bat-shaped character.
They nailed it. A collection of mechanics – combat, traversal and puzzle solving to name a few – that were so sturdy and rewarding under hand that the only thing new developer Warner Bros Montreal had to do to recreate the success was take that framework and fill it in Batman Arkham Origins. That’s largely what they’ve done here. While there’s a tiny, tiny whiff of yearly franchise iteration creeping in, what the new team has created is worthy of the name, extending the series without stretching it, and in some cases adding its own mark. Whisper it: Troy Baker’s Joker is better than Hamill’s. He’s a little more unpredictable and unnerving, with a touch of Heath Ledger’s disappearing pencil about it – largely helped by a better overall script and some beautifully creepy facial animation. (Roger Craig Smith’s Batman on the other hand is all but indistinguishable from Kevin Conroy’s.)
What the new team has created is worthy of the name, extending the series without stretching it, & in some cases adding its own mark. Whisper it: Troy Baker’s Joker is better than Hamill’s
However, the point at which I knew everything was all going to be okay was when I found myself walking slowly and patiently towards some street thugs. Not because I had to, or anything suggested I should, but because goddammit I was Batman and he makes an entrance. They were robbing a van – one of numerous random crimes you can intercept on police radio – and I dropped to the street to investigate. For a while I stood there, an unnoticed punchy black slab of wrath, as they unloaded boxes. Then a hood turned and flinched, crying out in fear. I won’t lie, I liked it. Then beat the living crime out of them.
The origin placing of the story actually injects an extra level of potency. It’s not entirely clear where you are in the timeline, although there’s mention of it being about two years into the Dark Knight’s career. Plus Alfred has all his hair, so we’re early doors here. No one really knows who ‘the bat man’ is, leading to far more fearful reactions and confusion on all sides. The cries of ‘Oh God, he’s real’ or ‘What is it?’ somehow feel much more satisfying than the established, well-known recognition of the previous games. At a point where you should be getting used to wearing the cowl, this actually adds an element of uncertainty to everything that’s refreshing two games in.
But this isn’t an origin story in the true sense. It doesn’t waste any time setting up, beginning or explaining anything. Instead, it assumes you know the score and gets on with it – you’re Batman, go do stuff. The fresh framing invigorates what could otherwise be some fairly familiar reintroductions. Hearing Batman ask Alfred to look up information on a mystery man called ‘The Joker’ after turning up the name in an investigation is a thrill because while the characters aren’t new, these are formative encounters and historical moments you’re getting to play a part in.
It’s one of the better attempts to tackle the Batman/Joker symbiosis too, going beyond a simple good guy/bad guy relationship with some lovely stuff around the bond that forms between the two. There’s also some interesting characterisation with the man himself. Basically young Wayne is a dick: brash, arrogant and reckless. It’s not too heavily played but there are a few crucial moments and references where it’s obvious he’s not really Batman yet, he’s just an angry boy playing at it. The game, to some extent, is the journey from this surly youth to the Dark Knight you’re more familiar with.
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