You may recall a day a few years ago when games based on comic books were almost uniformly mediocre. Sure, you had your Spider-Man games and Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but by themselves they did little to change the view that video games and established franchises almost never lived up to their potential. The exact moment that change in perspective occurred was Batman: Arkham Asylum.
It was a game that captured everything we love about Batman in a definitive take on the character and his rogue’s gallery. No expense was spared by Rocksteady Studios in bringing the Dark Knight to digital life and putting you in control. It was a turning point in the way comic book characters were portrayed in the medium and a landmark for this console generation.
Arkham City was (to me) easily the best game of 2011 not named Skyrim.
I don’t think anybody was expecting the sequel to be able to top the memorable and empowering experience that was Arkham Asylum, but they managed. By opening up Gotham for players to explore, adding great side quests, playable Catwoman, and improving almost every aspect of the gameplay while still delivering a great story, Arkham City was (to me) easily the best game of 2011 not named Skyrim.
After two amazing and universally lauded games, Rocksteady and veteran multimedia Batman mastermind Paul Dini (who wrote the first two games) were edged out in favor of Warner Brothers’ own development studio in Montreal for the prequel. Could these upstarts possibly replicate the success of the original team? And even more daunting, how would it even be possible to improve on an almost perfect game?
More of the same plus multiplayer?
That’s right, Harley; more of the same plus multiplayer. Now, don’t get me wrong, Arkham Origins is in fact a pretty solid game, and it would have seemed spectacular five years ago. But unfortunately, it’s already been done better. Twice. The story is genuinely good, and the replacement voice actors do an amazing job of replicating the grit of Kevin Conroy as Batman and the lunacy of Mark Hammill’s Joker, but the gameplay is almost point-for-point identical to Arkham City.
Not only is it identical to the previous game, but it feels a little off. The combat is less smooth, for instance. And the boss battles. Oi, the boss battles. The premise of some of the deadliest assassins in the DC Universe descending on Gotham on Christmas Eve to collect a bounty on a younger, angrier Batman is an amazing one. But several of these encounters are just regular, boring old fights.
Lady Shiva in particular is practically indistinguishable from a regular assassin enemy type and attacks with a contingent of them as if to accentuate the fact. And Copperhead (who should have been Cheshire) just has a bunch of duplicates of herself. I defeated Electrocutioner (they really couldn’t have come up with anyone better?) in seconds with a single strike, and Deathstroke was bordering on a repetitive quicktime battle. So much lost potential there.
This guy, on the other hand, was a blast.
So good story but redundant uncreative gameplay is the verdict. What about that other thing: the one with more than one player? Right. Invisible Predator Online is a great concept. You take one gang of a villain’s henchmen, pit them against an opposing villain’s gang of henchmen, and drop Batman and Robin in there to give them both hell. It’s a recipe for badassness.
Even putting aside the many horrendous and headache-inducing technical issues following launch, the multiplayer has that dreaded “tacked-on” feel.
Even putting aside the many horrendous and headache-inducing technical issues following launch (which I could take up this entire article discussing), the multiplayer has that dreaded “tacked-on” feel. There is a ton of great customization, but with only Bane or Joker’s forces and four maps to choose from, there isn’t much actual variety. When it works it’s genuinely fun in spite of the air of scrubbiness about the whole thing, but I can’t help but feel that a better development team could have really nailed this and made it worth the price of the game by itself. There’s just not enough content here to live up to the potential and the finished product feels like a beta test as a result. And I’ve played much better betas. MUCH.
The game has only been out a couple weeks, and I’m already looking to the future. That’s not really a good thing. So now that we’ve covered where the Arkham series has been to pad my column space with things you probably already know, we’re right back at the question at the top of this column: where do we go from here?
I’m going to avoid direct spoilers here, but what I will say is that there is a post-credit epilogue in Arkham Origins that hints at the possibility of moving away from Batman altogether and expanding this series into the larger DC Universe. I would call that a wise choice. I think that they’ve taken the Caped Crusader as far as they can with single player and it’s time to open up the rest of that world.
The original concept of Origins was going to include members of the Justice League and there are still reports that Rocksteady is at work on this concept. The problem, I’m sure, is how to do that without breaking the gritty in-game world of a street-level vigilante. You kind of can’t. But what you can potentially do is establish a DC video game universe the way Marvel has done in with their movies. If they could find a way to make this game engine work with characters like Wonder Woman, Superman, and The Flash, then something really great could come about in the future.
I think that they’ve taken the Caped Crusader as far as they can with single player and it’s time to open up the rest of that world.
But that’s not really in the immediate cards. Warner Brothers wisely appears to be starting small, hinting at a potential team-based venture for some smaller-time DC characters. And if they can make that work, expanding on it to include metahuman powers in future installments could be very doable.
At this time, this is all speculation on my part. There’s always the possibility that Warner Brothers is going to stick with Batman since he’s the one everybody can’t get enough of. I’d have to say that this would likely consign the series to future mediocrity, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But I still think it’s salvageable.
I believe the key to any future Arkham installments will be the multiplayer. Invisible Predator Online needs a ton of smoothing out (four tons, really), but the core of an amazing game is there. It just needs more of everything and it needs to actually work properly. But what it needs the most of is playable characters.
One of the themes in the final act of Origins was Batman realizing that sometimes he can’t do it all on his own. In the comics, this led him to form the “Bat Family”, including the likes of Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl/Oracle, Catwoman, and occasionally Huntress along with others. This is begging to be explored in the games beyond Catwoman’s role in Arkham City and other characters being playable solo in DLC. You can only use Batman’s same old set of gadgets to solve the same old puzzles for so long before the whole thing feels tired, but Gotham City has plenty of other protectors.
I believe the key to any future Arkham installments will be the multiplayer.
With Gotham being open world now, I’d think cooperative game modes would be a given. I’d even consider doing something similar to GTA Online and allow many players to occupy the same map as different characters with villains being an option as well. Some players could choose to play as one of the rogue’s gallery with a set of villainous objectives (kill the Bat, rob a bank, etc.) and other players could play as heroes whose job is to bring them in and stop other crimes around the city. It could work.
This, on the other hand, will not.
The way I see it, these are the two avenues to success for this franchise. They can either retain the story-based foundation and deviate from the Bat-centricity that is the series’ hallmark and make a united DC video game universe reality, or they can open up the multiplayer aspect (hopefully with a more competent development team) and utilize more of the mythos of the world that the Dark Knight inhabits to give gamers new aspects to explore. But it’s clear that doing the exact same thing over and over with half-assed additions will only serve to kill the brand.
Alright, Bat-fans, it’s your turn. Where do you see the series going from this point forward? Do you just want more great stories with the tried-and-true or are you ready for some major changes?