Whenever I play games that feature any kind of morality or alignment system, I inevitably skew toward good or lawful... unless lawful turns out to be the more dickish side of things, that is. I just can't bring myself to be a jerk, even to pretend people in a video game.
As far as hang-ups go, it's a pretty mild one. But Batman: Arkham Origins has shattered my personal aspirations and sense of morality. It has made me face the cold light of reality and realize that I'm better suited to be a criminal than a hero.
Maybe it's my own fault for being so far out of the loop. Playing through the Batman Arkham games -- Arkham Asylum and Arkham City -- has been on my to-do list for years. They look great, but who has the time these days? So when I signed up to take an appointment for a demo of Arkham Origins, the upcoming third game in the series, I figured I was in for a low-pressure intro the franchise that might whet my appetite and finally push me to play the first two games.
When I actually got to the appointment, I began to experience an ominous foreboding. "Yeah, that was definitely a surprise," I heard someone from the previous session exclaim as they left the building. I saw press agents speaking about some "big reveal" in hushed, ambiguous tones. And when the game's producer started to talk to us about wanting to add new ideas to Origins, a cold chill ran down my spine as I realized what he was about to say: I'd inadvertently signed up for a surprise multiplayer demo. A multiplayer session with other media folks who had taken the demo out of their enthusiasm for the franchise! Because they'd spent so much time with the first two games!
It was the worst possible place to be for anyone with zero experience with the series to be.
Much to my surprise, though, it actually turned out to be worse than I expected. When we sat down at the demo stations to figure out who would be taking on the different roles, it was just my stupid luck that the numbers came up with me wearing Batman's cowl for our first round.
See, Origins' multiplayer works like this: It's an asymmetrical competition with two more-or-less evenly matched teams of criminal goons (the Joker gang and the Bane gang) working to take control of a map by holding checkpoints or wiping out the other team. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin stick to the shadows, taking out (not killing!) bad guys in order to raise the gangs' terror meter and drive them away in fear. Arkham Origins takes about zero percent of its inspiration from Batman Year One from what I've seen, but the idea of skulking around and driving criminals away in fear seems right in line with the wraith-like image Frank Miller created in that definitive work.
The problem is that to be effective at terrorizing cowardly and superstitious lots, you really need a good handle on the controls. Granted, Origins will probably take some getting used to for even a seasoned player, since Batman controls a little differently than in the earlier games -- at least for multiplayer, that is. Because you're battling other people in a multiplayer setting rather than artificial intelligence in a single-player framework, Arkham's trademark melee dodge-and-counter combat system has been totally discarded for this mode. You can't very well have the game running in slo-mo every time Batman gets into a fistfight, right? So basically, Batman's imperative is to use up-close combat only as a measure of last resort.
This change removes a major component of Batman's Arkham arsenal. To compensate, however, he and Robin have a few other perks to give them certain advantages over the criminals' more formidable numbers. The heroes can use "detective vision" at will, allowing them to see other players anywhere on the map through any kind of obstacle. While the criminals also enjoy some version of this, it's a less-capable battery-powered device that eats through its electrical charge like it's one of Adam Jensen's augments. The heroes, however, have no such limitation, as detective vision is an innate skill -- their only limitation is that they move more deliberately when using it.
Batman and Robin also excel at traversal. Their grappling wires allow them to zip to areas inaccessible to the villains, and they can make free use of ducts and tunnels that the bad guys can't. Of course, if you're only playing an Arkham game for the very first time and thrust into controlling Batman against seasoned players with no tutorial, all those special skills and gadgets don't do much good because you have no idea which button does what. So you might duck down into a grate in the floor and end up staying there for most of the match because you can't remember how to grapple up to a high point. Or maybe you'll swoop down to descend upon a gang member only to find yourself accidentally locked in a leisurely glide that lets him empty a shotgun at you so that you're dead before you hit the floor. You know. For example.
So by the end of round one, my Batman could claim a single takedown versus about half a dozen deaths. That's the kind of track record that would get a guy laughed right out of the Great Lakes Avengers, let alone Gotham City.
Playing as a gang member for the next hour and a half, though, I felt much more at home. The criminals play more like they're from a standard third-person cover shooter (with the addition of the ability to see through walls for short stints). Die, or succumb to the stealth of a Batman more capable than myself, and your fallen gang member will be replaced by a reinforcement until the gang runs out of members. Eventually, one player will be able to let the gang leader onto the map (replacing his current gangster) to wreck things up; Joker and Bane are unique units that don't respawn, but they're vastly more durable and powerful than any other character in multiplayer -- even more so than Batman. It's even possible to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat; a gang out of reinforcements can earn extra goons by gunning down heroes.
It's an interestingly lopsided affair, with the two highly desirable hero character roles grossly outnumbered but capable of impressive feats (in the proper hands, that is). Maybe it's just the weight of sheer numbers that made my villainous turn so much more effective than my attempts to be a hero. I sure hope so. I kind of like being a good guy.
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