Brawling my way through Batman: Arkham Origins

I keep hearing that winter is coming, but in Gotham, it's already here. Snowflakes swirl as I glide through the dim moonlight and onto another empty rooftop. My boots crunch into inches of fresh powder, and the next thing I hear is voices below. The crude, thuggish banter tells me what to expect before I even peer over the ledge. There's at least half a dozen of 'em, some armed and armored, and all oblivious to the shadow perched above.

My mission lies blocks away, and these miscreants aren't related. But they're here and, well, I can't help myself. A moment later, I'm careening through the night toward my first target. His body crumples into the pavement, crushed under my weight. Then the dance begins.

The next victim gets clocked before he realizes what's happening. I connect again and again while his compatriots clue in and begin to circle. One swings a pipe, but my deft counter delivers a critical hit. The next few minutes are a flurry of violence. I leap between opponents like a wrecking ball, my attacks growing more brutal with the building momentum. Most strikes are delivered with carefully timed precision. Every so often, though, I give in to the beast and explode in a burst of unbridled aggression.

Time slows down as the last man falls. For a moment, I feel at peace. This is exactly why I was so excited to play Batman: Arkham Origins.

This franchise and its satisfying combat system were introduced in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Two years later, Arkham City polished the package and added a giant city to the mix. Both of those games were created by Rocksteady Studios, but the torch was passed to Warner Bros. Games Montreal for the latest Arkham Origins chapter. That fact made me nervous at first, but a few moments with the game confirm that the core principles remain intact.

For me, the Batman games are all about brawling. Arkham Origins sticks to the established formula here. The controls are tight, and the mechanics reward thoughtful, coordinated attacks over frantic button mashing. Reckless assaults will still do in a pinch, though. The balance between aggression and restraint is what makes the combat so addictive for me. Every encounter is different, and Arkham Origins adds a couple of new enemies to spice things up.

Some situations demand a stealthier approach. Players often find themselves in cavernous settings littered with heavily armed opponents and multiple ways to skulk around. Enemies must be picked off carefully, and there are several ways to subdue them from above, below, and with the gadgets stowed in our hero's utility belt. Arkham Origins has a couple of new toys, including a slick double-ended claw that strings up tightropes and can be used to hurl explosive canisters at enemies.

Although much of the action offers players multiple paths and methods, some of the boss fights feel very scripted. One of the early ones is pretty much just an endless stream of quick-time counters. I couldn't pass it without robotically following the on-screen cues, and even then, it took a couple of tries. That sapped all the fun out of the experience.

The indoor missions lead players along linear paths, and there's generally only one way around a given obstacle. The hand-holding continues with the detective work, which is essentially an interactive cinematic that revolves around "finding" clues identified by giant red markers. It's neat to see crimes recreated from the evidence, but there's no real thinking involved.

Outdoors, Arkham Origins provides a vast playground filled with side quests, activities, and random thugs to engage. There's a new fast-travel system that can be unlocked by capturing various control points across Gotham. I like having the option to warp across the map, but so far, I've been traveling on foot and grappling between rooftops. Coupled with the gliding and diving dynamics, the ability to accelerate past grapple points makes covering distance easy. There's plenty of scenery to take in, too.

I've been playing on a hot-clocked GeForce GTX 680 with the eye candy and PhysX dials turned all the way up. The graphics aren't mind blowing, but this is still a good-looking game with some very slick effects. The snow is especially crystalline; though it doesn't swirl with particle-driven excess during battle, beatdowns leave a nice impression, as do the player's feet. There's some neat heat shimmer and smoke, too, and Batman's cape looks reasonably fluid, despite a few clipping problems. Perhaps I'm spoiled, but some of the models and textures could use more detail. The same goes for the cinematics I've seen thus far.

After nine hours of play time, I'm about halfway through the story. The narrative hasn't really grabbed me, perhaps because I'm constantly distracted by random street fights and other excuses to throw down. The challenge maps are particularly fun; they serve up one fist fight after another and are perfect for quick sessions. Arkham Origins also has a whole online multiplayer component I haven't even touched.

Since I haven't sampled the multiplayer, which is all new and developed by Splash Damage, it seems a little unfair to criticize the game for offering more of the same. But the single-player component very much feels like a tweaked and massaged version of Arkham City. There's some comfort to the familiarity, and there's nothing wrong with offering a slight variation on a successful recipe. I clearly haven't tired of brawling. However, part of me wishes Arkham Origins brought something bigger to the experience. There was a quite a jump between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but the step up to the latest chapter feels like a small one. I hope a bolder leap forward lies in Batman's future—just as long as it doesn't ruin the combat.

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