Arkham Origins – dissonance between gameplay, narrative

Sunday, 16 June 2013 14:11 GMT By Catherine Cai

Warner Bros Montreal has some big shoes to fill with Batman: Arkham Origins, thanks to the populartity of the Rocksteady titles in the series. So, how does it fare? We sent Catherine Cai to E3 to find out for us.

WB Montreal has done a fantastic job overhauling work from the previous two games and for the most part, melee combat still functions very much the same. What I found most impressive was the work that’s been done to touch-up detective mode.

Before I begin, I’m just going to make it clear that the hands-on Batman: Arkham Origins demo I played isn’t actually featured directly in the game itself. Instead, it’s a series of side missions, with elements that may be included in the finished game.

As a result, I wasn’t able to really get a good sense of what was going on, since you’re essentially dropped into the game and there were quests thrown at you in rather quick succession.

One of the first things Batman does as he swoops around Gotham City is beat down some Black Mask thugs, a great introduction to the game’s melee combat. Warner Bros. Montreal has done a fantastic job of overhauling Rocksteady’s work from the previous two games and for the most part, melee combat still functions very much the same.

However, it’s been touched up so that Batman handles a little more lithely and the AI feel like they’re definitely a little bit better equipped to fight back. Rather than functioning as little more than meat sacks with the brain capacity to every so often strike a blow at Batman, enemies are now able to counter Batman’s strikes and force him to counter mid-strike.

What I found most impressive was the work that’s been done to touch up detective mode. For most of the game, detective mode is still just the alternative view to mark out enemies and hint toward things like weakened walls, that otherwise wouldn’t be obvious. However, one of the side missions involved Batman having to solve a mysterious helicopter crash.

In that sequence, detective mode became more like a mini-game. I think the one flaw I did find with Rocksteady’s games is that while they nailed pretty much everything that a Batman comic is supposed to be, there was rather little investigative work to be done in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. The puzzles, for the most part, were rather obvious after taking a gander around the world in detective mode.

When Batman locates the site of the helicopter crash, he switches to detective mode to figure out the crash trajectory. Detective mode now also involves time, and you can fast forward/rewind events virtually in order to help solve the crime.

Batman: Arkham Origins – Debut Trailer

Playing back the tape of the events, Batman is able to track where the helicopter was exactly when it lost control and crashed. He returns to the building where it stood, and in detective mode, he’s able to see that a bullet struck the tail rotor. He calculates the trajectory of the bullet and follows it up to another building. There lies the body of a cop holding a sniper rifle, but it doesn’t make sense for the cop to have shot down the helicopter.

Winding backwards and forwards through the tape, you’re able to see that someone else fired and killed the cop. The bullet then ricocheted and hit the helicopter, sending it spiraling down into the streets. Of course the shot was intentional and Batman concludes that the only individual capable of pulling off such a move would be Deadshot.

Warner Bros. Montreal has also introduced some new gadgets to add to Batman’s arsenal. The one that one of its developers took time to point out to me was the new Remote Batclaw. Essentially, this new toy allows Batman to tie any two things together, which is rather useful in combat. Enemies can now be tied to different parts of the environment or to each other, rendering them mobile for an easy takedown.

However much I enjoyed playing through Batman: Arkham Origins demo, I did walk away somewhat unsatisfied. Warner Bros. Montreal proved to me that it very much had a good handle on building off and improving the gameplay that Rocksteady had left the series with. That much is obvious. But my problem with Batman: Arkham Origins is that there’s a bit of dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay.

Batman: Arkham Origins is meant to be a prequel to the other two games in the series. In the timeline, it’s set just a few years after Frank Miller’s “Year One”, which features Bruce Wayne just stepping into the role of Batman. “Year One” showed Batman still trying to get his bearings on being a vigilante. The world’s greatest detective wasn’t just magically good at doing what he does. Even he had to be on training wheels and make a few mistakes. However, this inexperience, which supposedly is also a part of the narrative of Arkham Origins, isn’t translated across in the gameplay.

Games don’t necessarily need to have a good narrative in order to be fun. It’s an outdated philosophy because as interactive mediums, games have the potential to bring understanding about an experience in a narrative in a way that other forms of entertainment simply cannot. Unfortunately, it’s a philosophy that plenty of game designers still hold to.

As I mentioned previously, Batman still handles very much the same as he did in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Batman needs to feel “weak”, per se, but there should be something in the gameplay that shows that Batman hasn’t got it all figured out.

I spoke to the game’s art director Jeremy Price. He explained that the decision to not change up much of the gameplay for Batman is intentional.

“Gameplay comes first, right?” said Price. “You want to empower the player. You want the player to be Batman. It was a conscious decision that was made.

“Narratively-wise, yes, it’s a prequel. It’s the formative years of Batman, but at the same time, we still want the player to have a very enjoyable experience.”

I find that rather unsatisfactory.

I understand that Warner Bros. Montreal has some big shoes to fill with the legacy that Rocksteady’s left behind, and that’s a rather bad position to be in from a creative standpoint. Since it’s making another Arkham game, it better handle similarly to its predecessors and be satisfactory to its fans, lest the studio be damned and accused of ruining the franchise or something else equally heinous. But I don’t think this means that it can’t make adjustments to the gameplay in a way that would be true to the narrative without disrupting of how the game handles.

That’s chiefly one of my problems with games today. Games don’t necessarily need to have a good narrative in order to be fun. I think it’s an outdated philosophy to have, because games, as interactive mediums, have the potential to bring understanding about an experience in a narrative in a way that other forms of entertainment simply cannot. Unfortunately, it’s a philosophy that plenty of game designers still hold to.

Ultimately, so far, that’s my only disappointment with Batman: Arkham Origins. In all other aspects, it’s shaping up to be the Batman game that Arkham Asylum and Arkham City fans have been waiting for. Still, I have absolutely no idea what the game’s story will really be about, as the only details that I was given have been pretty much the same ones that have been given out in recent months.

Any inquiries I have about the main storyline had been deflected with responses of “you’ll have to wait and see” and “we won’t talk about it until the game’s released.”

I guess our hands are tied.

Batman: Arkham Origins launches worldwide on October 25 on PC, PS3, Wii U, and Xbox 360.

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