What’s this fall’s most-anticipated new TV show directed exclusively at nerds? Well, probably the new The Flash show, thanks to its devotion to comic-book style storytelling and reliance on sexy young men as major characters.
But that’s sort of irrelevant right now, since in a clear second place, we get Gotham, another DC universe adaptation, although how much of an adaptation it really is is sort of in doubt. Originally it was supposed to be a cop show based around increasingly more outlandish and supernormal criminals, who would of course be cadet Batman villains, but then it became apparent that this wouldn’t have wide enough appeal, and it became straight up Smallville with Batman instead of Superman.
I mention Gotham because it’s only the second Batman prequel to come out in a year – the other is highly successful video game and Grand Theft Auto V’s lone, audacious competitor, Batman: Arkham Oranges.
(I’m not reviewing GTA V, by the way. Even if I could have gotten it on PC by now, I’ve never really enjoyed the franchise.)
I’m a giant fan of the Batman Arkham series not just because they’re fantastically designed in both gameplay and visuals, but because they actually have some serious points to make about Batman and the world he lives in, and make those points with that same voodoo that Marvel Stoodoos so well.
I’m generally leery about the concept of prequels in general – like they say, a story should be the most important event in its world, and the entire concept of a prequel goes against that. But with this high standard, I was willing to give it a try – I had been presently surprised by superhero prequel movies before. Well, not many times…well, once.
Anyway, let’s start the game. While the openings of previous games have borrowed imagery from sources like Hammer Horror, H.P. Lovecraft and the freaking Bible to establish the themes and tone of the game, this one starts with… a bat.
It’s in the Batcave, where Batman is working on his rigid scowling regimen, as he listens to news reports about how it’s Christmas Eve in Gotham City, and everyone should stay indoors because there’s been a prison break. Batman goes to investigate, and finds out that the notorious criminal The Black Mask has broken his army of goons out of prison.
Who is the Black Mask, you ask? Meh, some dude with a black mask and an army of goons. I suppose it makes sense that he’s so shallow and uninteresting, given that this story is supposed to be the beginning of the standard Batman vs. villains dynamic, but it doesn’t sit quite right with me that this requires an incredibly boring dude to be the story’s main narrative force for about half the game.
To this end, after a combat tutorial Batman has to leave, and the Black Mage breaks everyone out of prison, on the condition that they kill Batman. Batman in turn vows not to rest until he can stop all these bad guys from hurting him or anyone else, setting up the game.
Let’s pause here, to say that this isn’t just a bad idea because it’s a prequel, it’s a bad idea because it’s a video game prequel. While prequels have run rampant in films and television of late (was the first example of a prequel TV show Highlander? Can’t be bothered to check), it’s much harder to do with a video game because by necessity a sequel has to advance, has to make its world bigger and denser and in higher fidelity, and that doesn’t usually translate to a story set in the past of an older and smaller one.
After checking Wikipedia’s exhaustive list and subtracting everything that was too low-effort (all the Assassin’s Creed and Castlevania tie-ins), too unconnected to the original (GTA Vice City, Ico: Shadow of the Colossus), too little story (The Sims 3, Street Fighter 4) or too bad (Silent Hill Origins, Halo Reach) I’m left with only a few good prequels to good video games: Deus Ex Human Revolution. Yoshi’s Island. Metal Gear Solid 3. Metroid Prime.
But Arkham Oranges isn’t going on that list, because unlike them it doesn’t really add anything to the world or play-style of the game. In fact, most of the changes it makes are for the worse. For a start, take a look at this here character design:
For another thing, the damn fine close quarter combat in previous games is treated in a strange way: On one hand we’re obviously meant to have played the previous games before, since we get very little tutorial before the difficulty level ramps up to the same high levels as the end of the last game. But on the other hand, there’s much less actual challenge to the fights – most of the little handicaps put on Batman have been removed, so he can evade goons and knock them out criminally fast (pun intended).
There’s only so bad any of this can get, since it’s still hugely satisfying to spend minutes on end flying around the intricate and masterfully-designed retro-futuristic rooftops, engage in one or two of the huge amount of tiny challenges or side quests, grapple onto a rooftop and take out three dudes before anyone’s realized you’re there, and finish off the last two by jamming their guns and slamming their heads into the exactingly-rendered snow. But the game still reaches that maximum badness level, and it doesn’t deserve any slack for falling as far as it can when that’s not a lot.
As for the progression of the game (which really needs its own word), it mostly consists of the standard runaround for these games: Batman is dropped into this big ol’ enclosed area with a central goal of stopping all the bad guys and also staying up all night, presumably with the aid of some Sanka in his utility belt. He has to get to the bottom of the huge central plot that’s obviously responsible for everything, but this requires him to parkour around the place to every villain’s goon-filled garrisons.
Every time he comes to a new bad guy HQ, he finds a different bad guy there from the one he was looking for, and has to defeat them in an interestingly-varied boss fight. Afterwards, he gets hit with a sidequest based around yet another villain, which leads to some more journeys around the city culminating in a boring, non-varied boss fight. Repeat six or seven times and you have a campaign!
I’m not underselling it, here – gameplay-wise it’s the same formula over and over, changed only by the boss fights – which I’ll admit get quite a lot of mileage out of the pretty simple controls.
Well, there is one new feature: There’s been an effort to advance the crime scene investigation stuff, where Batman occasionally . I say “an effort” because it fails – these games are designed for the sort of people who are stumped by the Pipe Dream puzzles in BioShock, so there’s only so smart you need to be to figure everything out.
I’m being mean to start out here, but the only place where the game measures up to its predecessors is the story. Luckily, since I care about that sort of thing, this is enough to elevate it all the way back up to “decent”. Arkham Origins emulates the very wise decision that the ‘80s Batman movie made, but the new Gotham show forgets: That there’s nothing really interesting or even necessary about Batman’s origin story, because the whole point of him is that he’s the axis around which his world revolves – a scowly, pointy-eared rock, that is only of interest when it gets knocked over, or falls down on someone important.
So, like I mentioned, the Black Adder has brought a range of bad into town, and is paying them to kill Batman, who everyone thought was an urban myth until now. Apparently, he wasn’t very thorough about maintaining this secrecy, because no one seems to be very reluctant to believe that you exist, and your regular patrol route brings you into contact with quite a few people who are on roofs, for no reason other than to confirm that you’re real.
(I’ll note that similar real life prizes for proving myths go unclaimed.)
Batman’s first idea is to find the Black Beard and force him to call everything off, but it turns out his home has been wrecked. Supercomputer detection skills reveal that a mysterious dude torched the place and kidnapped the Black Butler after forcing him to kill his family, and Batman has to sneak into the police department to find ouIT’S THE JOKER IT’S THE JOKER IT’S SO OBVIOUSLY THE JOKER.
But they find a way to work with this – it sort of plays like an episode of Columbo, especially with the presence of not-yet-Commissioner Gordon doing his usual well-meaning-but-ineffectual Inspector Lestrade routine. After he tries to fix the corruption problem in Gotham City with his fists, he catches up to the rest of us in realizing it’s obviously the Joker, and heads around town to track the Black Swan.
The environmental design is up to the usual ridiculously high standards of the series – the costume designs have suffered, but these retain that timeless blend of technologies and architectural styles that put me in mind of stuff like Brazil or Blade Runner.
Anyway, Batman never finds the Black Mask, because as he sneaks around his inner sanctum he discovers that it’s actually the Joker, wearing a black mask!
Yeah, it’s a pretty nice twist. I like how it’s sort of the same as the opening of The Dark Knight, and I didn’t really see it coming – I thought the Joker would take over the story, not that he would be in charge since the beginning. Way to exceed my low expectations!
After the Joker blows things up, he sics one of his brand new bad guy buddies on him – Copperhead, a Latina lady who injects Batman with snake venom which makes him have hallucinations of his fears. The trouble is, Batman having hallucinations of his fears appears to be the new “player character death in a Modern Warfare game” gimmick – hollow, ineffectual, and completely expected so all the shock is lost. It looks like the next game is doing its damndest to stop this by setting the whole game around the Scarecrow (now looking like the Dishonored dude, and played by Dr. Walter Fringe), but until then you have to suffer through a really boring boss fight, where we’re treated to the profound revelation that Batman feels guilty about not being able to save people’s lives. How would I ever have guessed?
Batman recovers ridiculously quickly from this hallucinogenic neurotoxin after a trip to the Batcave. Oh, right – you can visit the Batcave in the game. It’s…the Batcave. Not much else needs to be said. It has Alfred in it, I guess that’s something.
After that siesta, Batman tracks down the Joker, who’s converted an abandoned hotel…wait, an abandoned hotel? Okay, I guess…an abandoned hotel into an amusement park obstacle course, purely for Batman’s benefit. “It’s funny”, the Joker says. “I’ve managed to accomplish more in a few days in this town than you have in two years!”
I like this sort of “Deadpool, but way scaled back” version of the Joker,especially since he isn’t as overexposed as he is in the other games. As the Clown Prince himself might tell you, if you get exposed to something for long enough it stops being funny. Of course, he’d probably go on to say that the laughing gas he’s currently pumping into the room is the exception to this rule, and then blow up your house…but I’m getting away from myself. The Joker has (sigh) an ace up his sleeve: There’s one of his cronies he hasn’t told you about, and who he sics on Batman when he bursts in the room: Bane.
You know, you hear about how popular movie adaptations change the original work, but this is the first time I’ve really been able to see the full progression of that: You see, as someone who became a comic book nerd the second I stepped out of the theater for The Avengers, I got into the scene just before The Dark Knight Rises came out, and thus I was introduced to Bane as a strange sort of Jekyll and Hyde figure – he was presented as having intelligence and determination to match Batman’s own, but he feels much more of a brute, Solomon Grundy type – his vast intellect usually just means he bursts in at a crucial moment to announce that he’s deduced all of Batman’s plans, and proceeds to duke it out with him, in full Strong Bad gear.
Of course, in just a couple months, Rises proceeded to portray him as a Kingpin-style figure – an ass-kicking mob boss who relies on a huge information network the same way Batman hacked into people’s phones in the last movie. So now this has become the default mode of his character: He appears here as a sort of Mexican shogun, bound to a code of honor which he upholds in his army of goons. This code presumably has allowances for crazy clowns offering money to kill vigilantes, since he’s all about killing Batman.
Bane and Batman have a long, very hard fight on the roof of the abandoned hotel, which is one of the only really bad boss fights – the lack of creativity compared to skill meant I had to listen to it over and over. Bane has been beaten, so it looks like he’s gonna have to jump!
The final straw is that you don’t even really defeat him – but you get the next best thing, since Batman calls the police and presents them with the Joker. He tries to pull Batman and himself off the roof, but he manages to save them both, and the Joker is fascinated with him.
In a much better hallucinatory fear sequence than the venom thing, the Joker sits in his cell and ponders his backstory, which is exactly the same as in The Killing Joke. Sort of ruins the whole fun of the Joker, probably the most popular comics character with no origin story at all (eat it, Donna Troy!), but it’s well-executed and has some genuinely scary moments in it.
Back in the realm of sanity, Batman tracks down Bane to his lair, where there are lots of his samurai goons, talking about honor and revenge and so forth, even though they’re using some pretty underhanded tactics to counter all of Batman’s tricks. Whatever – even Bane’s completely dropped the whole shogun thing by this point, and is up to his old tricks again: He’s found out Batman’s secret identity using methods, and is currently looking for ways into the Batcave. This is an effective surprise, but the impact is lessened because it’s sort of obvious Batman will find a way out of it. This goes against the idea of consequences, which has been central to this series since the beginning. Batman’s choices matter, and he needs to accept that by not turning down help or advice, the games say. And yet here, a solution will present itself almost immediately, and without too much fuss.
Unfortunately, Batman has more immediate problems: The last of the Joker’s bad guy buddies, a huge sci-fi fan named Firefly, has threatened to blow up the Gotham Bridge unless Batman kidnaps Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion for him. After finding out he’s too late, since the former is off in the Marvel universe and the latter is in space playing Green Lantern, Batman has to do an extended platform battle sequence on the destroyed bridge. It’s my favorite sequence in the game because even though the platforming and destoryed building fights are such a departure from the norm, it’s designed perfectly: Always straightforward, never too hard, and all the voiceover is done by not-yet-Commissioner Gordon, who’s probably the only person I’m willing to listen to for more than about ten minutes (Yeah, I said the Joker was used sparingly, but he gets annoying when he’s doing public address as you murder dudes).
But all too soon, Bane also manages to hack into your radio, with the clever technique of the writers saying he’s really smart, to say that he’s stormed the Batcave and has almost killed Alfred, intentionally leaving him alive so that Bruce will be there when his last family member dies, and his grief will take him over the edge and make him a worthy opponent. You know what, I take it back: Bane is smart enough to know that the only way he could ever hope to have Batman die is to kill an important hero and hope like hell this is an imaginary story.
Unfortunately, he didn’t consider the possibility of the Deus Ex Machina. You see, remember how I called the combat “unchallenging”? That’s mostly because in the middle of the game, you get an upgrade to your gloves that gives you electric powers (ironically turning this close Batman prequel into a distant Batman sequel). Part of these electric powers include your fists turning into a defibrillator – which, as we all know, is code for “Phylactery”.
Batman saves Alfred’s life by punching him in the gut with his fis’ fulla loitnin’, and decides to finally get over his prejudice against the police by calling in not-yet-Commissioner Gordon to help transport Bane to jail.
When they get there, they find (of course) that Joker has taken over the prison, sending Batman through a gauntlet of goons as he sends cheery messages over the creepy PA system. I get what they were going for here, trying to tie this to the rest of the series by doing the exact same thing as Arkham Asylum, but it just goes to show that on the whole, the entire thing was a step forward and two steps back.
One last fight with Bane, where he creates and takes the Captain America serum from the first game in an effort to beat you, which has the side effect of wiping his memory about who Batman is. This is that lazy solution I was complaining about to set everything back to normal – Batman never really had to do anything about his secret being out, other than punch a guy he liked and a guy he didn’t like. Joker realizes they’re going to be doing this forever, Gordon gets a promotion and realizes that there are lots more supervillains on the way, and decides to ask Batman for help in stopping them, and roll credits.
I’m not as disappointed with Arkham Oranges as I am with lots of other prequels, but it still doesn’t live up to the first two games in any respect – although it pleasantly surprised me how close it came. Don’t bother with it – especially since chances are you’re reading this after the big finale has come out.
TWO THUMBS UP: The part on the bridge, that deal with the Joker
THUMBS UP: The environments
THUMBS DOWN: The character designs and the story
TWO THUMBS DOWN: The gameplay structure – again, about as bad as it can possibly be