Let’s Talk Games: Batman: Arkham Origins Discussion And Concerns
If you suffer from “too long, didn’t read” syndrome, the video up above covers the content, courtesy of me! Below is if you’re unable to watch or would rather read.
Welcome to Let’s Talk Games. Today I’m going to be discussing Batman: Arkham Origins, the upcoming prequel to Rocksteady’s Arkham series. Before I get into it though, let me start by saying that I am a massive Batfreak. I’m sure many of you know this already. In fact I’m bordering strongly on being obsessive, and at the risk of sounding like a geek or complete freak, Batman is really one of my favourite things in the world. So when I say that there are some things that concern me as much as interest me with the upcoming game, know that it’s coming from someone who loves Batman and understands the character and storylines.
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With that out of the way, let me kick right off with one of the biggest points of discussion: the matter of voice actors. Fans took it really hard when the voice of Batman, Kevin Conroy, was not signed on for Arkham Origins, and instead the developers took to a younger-sounding voice in Roger Craig Smith. There was no choice about a new Joker voice, however, as lead man Mark Hamil retired after Arkham City. So now one of the gaming industry’s most well-known and dare I say awesome voice actors, Troy Baker, has stepped up for the role, just after his massive roles in The Last Of Us as Joel and BioShock: Infinite as Booker Dewitt.
Note: the part below about the voice actors is largely adapted from a previous article I wrote regarding whether or not it’s time to let go of Kevin Conroy as the definitive voice of Batman.
Here’s the sad reality though: nothing lasts forever, right? But the show must go on. It’s difficult because I can sympathise with Batfans in that Conroy has been the soul of Batman for such a long time, but I feel that there have been other talents who have voiced Batman in various movies, such as Peter Weller in The Dark Knight Returns adaptation, who have also performed really well with different takes on the character. The truth is that Conroy will retire at some point as well, and we need to have more talent lined up to fill his shoes.
Look, I love Conroy’s work, but personally I felt that he has always portrayed Batman as heroic, as him at his best, as him composed, and calm in the face of any threat. Subtly violent. Strong. Honourable. There are many amazing qualities to Conroy, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t believe he can portray Batman well in all roles. For instance, I do not think he would suit the cold, brutal, gritty and soldier-like Batman from The Dark Knight Returns. I feel, I haven’t really heard Conroy convey a darker side to Batman, or a more violent side. A side that enjoys violence, or the terror of his enemies. I haven’t heard Conroy portray Batman’s obsession, only his stubbornness and unrelenting determination. Yet obsession is one of the most prominent themes of Batman. And honestly, I don’t think Conroy would be well suited for some of these roles, because he’s too composed. I’ve never heard Conroy portray Batman as inexperienced, as someone who may not be on top of the situation and in full control, and isn’t this the core of the prequel, Arkham Origins? A younger, less dominating Dark Knight?
I’m someone who has read dozens of Batman comics, watched all the movies (even the trash ones), and of course watched the animated TV series and films. In many depictions, Batman is scary, he is an instrument of terror, and especially in more darker comics like The Dark Knight Returns, he enjoys the terror that his brutality brings. There are many depictions of Batman depending on the writer, the era, the setting and the time in The Dark Knight’s life. Even the awesome Nolan trilogy delivered a modern take on Batman, and a completely new take on the character of the Joker, who has been around for eighty years. The beauty of comic characters is that there is no single way to define them. They have many staple elements, sure, and things that, if taken away, would make the character cease to be. But their personalities, behaviours, dialogue, demeanour, actions and limits are all subject to change.
My point is that, there is so much untapped potential, there are ways to explore these characters in different lights. And in a video game or animated cartoon, what else defines the character besides the voice actor and the writer behind him? I really do love the new voice actors, from what I’ve heard of them so far. Batman sounds menacing, and violent, while The Joker sounds edgier and more sadistic. I feel we’re in for a treat in this department.
And really, this is part of what I wanted from Arkham Origins. I did not want Warner Bros to simply produce another Arkham City, or remain in the shadow of what came before. And that brings me to a really difficult topic. It’s always challenging with a prequel, both gameplay and story wise, to find the right balance. You don’t want the player to feel weaker than previous games, you don’t want features removed and so on. But one of my biggest concerns with Arkham Origins arose after watching the fifteen minute gameplay demonstration and hearing the presenters discuss the story.
For starters, the developers repeatedly emphasise that Batman will be raw and inexperienced, yet I feel there is a gameplay-narrative dissonance in the sense that Batman fights exactly like he does in Arkham City. With the same animations, the same proficiency and elegance, the same moves. I highly expected that a raw Batman would be more violent, more aggressive, more wild, and a younger Batman would surely be faster and like a hurricane in his prime. I’m not saying I want the free flow combat system to change, please, don’t fix what isn’t broken and the system itself is damn near flawless, but I am really disappointed so far that the animations have all been recycled.
It’s just one element that makes me feel like the developers are only going to show Batman as “raw” and “inexperienced” in the cutscenes and story itself. This was a bit evident in one of the trailers where Bane beats Batman’s socks off. I feel that it creates a bit of a divide between narrative and gameplay. Much like in Tomb Raider, for instance, where there’s this five minute emotional scene where Lara struggles and accidentally kills someone and weeps over it, yet five minutes later she’s cleaning house by wiping out twenty guys. It just breaks believability for someone who takes story more seriously like I do. I understand that you don’t want the player to feel weaker, but as such a passionate Batman fan, it’s hard for me to accept, based on what I’ve seen so far, that this Batman is raw and inexperienced. I would imagine he’d take a punch here and there when he counters, or have a more brutish and unrefined fighting style, or at least a more violent and heavy-handed one. Animations are a powerful thing in gaming, and I feel that Arkham Origins really needed to dress up this Batman’s fighting style in a new coat of painting.
And it puzzles me a bit why the developers didn’t do it. Perhaps they never considered it? I mean, looking at the Assassin’s Creed franchise for instance, Altair, Ezio and Connor fight extremely differently from each other, yet it’s not like the gameplay is evolving. There are simply entirely new animations at work and minor combat tweaks and they do a lot to mix up the experience and make it feel fresh. However, on the flip side, this did let me down a little because so far the developers have done great by making the title their own, such as by impressively redesigning the villains and Batman’s armour, acquiring the new voice actors, slightly editing the user interface and making a great innovation with Detective Mode. The game definitely should do more of that to make it its own game. I agree that you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken or make the game unrecognisable from its predecessors and alienate the audience, but I do feel when a new studio takes over they should put their own stamps on the project rather than relying on or reliving what came before.
As a small nitpick, it’s things like the Grapnel boost being in the game that bug me a bit, because in Arkham City it’s clearly called a prototype device and not suitable yet for field-use. So why would it be around five years before Arkham City, ready for field use? Another minor nitpick maybe, but it’s part and parcel of the danger prequels face with remaining canonnically correct and “toning down”.
And at the moment, Arkham Origins is half right for me and half in need of changes. The other area that’s a bit dodgy for me is a little detail the developers let slip about the story. I really like the premise, it sounds absolutely awesome, but what puzzles me is that Batman is in the second year of his career, yet he has no friends on the police force and many still consider him to be an urban myth. Why wasn’t this game set in the first year of his career, or year zero? It sounds like a small thing I’m nitpicking, but if I look at the comic book Batman: Year One, the go-to origin story for Batman, after one year Batman is seen as a cult hero by the people, done a lot in Gotham and acquires friends in Harvey Dent and Gordon. It’s hard for me to believe that he can remain friendless and unknown in his second year of his career, and I really hope that the story explores this, because there are so many possibilities when it comes to Batman still being an unknown entity. I’m excited to see what Warner Bros are going to do, but I am a bit cautious about some of the directions they’re taking and decisions they’ve made.
I mean, there are so many ways Warner Bros can take this project and make their own, much like they’ve done with the Detective Mode feature of the game. Don’t just be the next Batman game, be the fresh Batman game. Much like Arkham City was after Arkham Asylum. Overall though, it’s Batman, and I’m dying to play it. I will pick it up day one, and I’m seriously excited for many of the things Warner Bros are bringing to the table. Just the new voice talents for Batman and The Joker and the Detective Mode overhaul are enough to get me hyped up. But I am approaching this with a certain amount of caution, because there are things I’m uncertain about going into it, and I hope that with future trailers, and when I actually play the game for myself, that these issues turn out to be nothing to worry about.
And in the end, it’s really just these few issues of gameplay, story and differentiation that are concerning me right now, and I hope that when I play Arkham Origins in October, that it blows me away and does right for this phenomenal franchise.