Monday, 28 October 2013

Return Of The Bat – Arkham Origins

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It was with some trepidation that I approached Batman: Arkham Origins. It’s predecessors Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were both stellar examples of how to craft a meaningful action-adventure game around a comic book licence. They are arguably the best comic book games of all time. Rocksteady, the London based developer of both Arkham games, came from relative obscurity to create what will be for many two of the best games of this current console cycle, myself included.

As the first game in the series not developed by Rocksteady, Arkham Origins has a lot to live up to, but I’m happy to say that it mostly delivers on the expectations players have from an Arkham title.

WB Games Montreal have made sure it features all the gameplay mechanics from the previous titles, so you can look forward to stealthily taking down a squad of goons from dark corners, solving Riddler challenges (Enigma at this point), investigating crime scenes and swooping over the streets of Gotham. Your back-up comes in the form of the ever faithful Wayne family butler, Alfred, who runs things back at the Batcave (Making it’s first proper appearance in the series) and keeps the Batwing fueled nicely for you.

In terms of additions to the single-player there is nothing earth-shatteringly new to be found. Gotham is split into two halves, Old and New, and Bats finds himself swooping from one end of the city to the other as he follows leads and clues. Those who have played through previous title Arkham City, will find Old Gotham very familiar as it’s basically the same space from that game, except this time it’s still in use as a City, rather than a massive Prison. This gives a strange sense of Deja-Vu, knowing that you’ve visited these places before, but now you get to see them as they were before the Arkham City storyline takes place.

As well as the extended play-space, which is open from the start, you have fast-travel points which utilise the Batwing to quickly drop you close to where you wish to go, although these need to be unlocked via some of the Enigma challenges. It’s a welcome addition as while gliding through the streets of Gotham is perfectly fine, it can take some time to move long distances.

The storyline is every bit as strong as previous titles, this time focusing on a younger, more aggressive Batman as he encounters some of his most notable villains for the first time. Mixed into this is a public that don’t believe he exists and a corrupt Police force out to bring him down, meaning that beyond Alfred, Bruce is very much alone in his quest.

However, despite the overall quality of the game there are some things that just don’t feel right.

Combat seems slightly off. Not by much, but if you are used to the combo timings from Asylum and City it can take some time to re-adjust to the tweaks made here. It’s most apparent when facing groups of five or more, which the game loves to do quite often, and can mean you making what seem to be very silly mistakes and missing obvious counters.

The grapnel seems quite flaky about what it will or won’t lock onto, often pulling you in completely the opposite direction if you aren’t paying attention. Sometimes it won’t lock onto a ledge five meters away, instead favouring the top of a crane in the distance. It’s a small annoyance that I found really noticeable, very quickly.

Coupled with the weird grapnel lock-on is what seems to be a lower ceiling for the glide manoeuvre. It just doesn’t seem to be able to get the height I would think it could. As mentioned before the grapnel just seems to refuse to lock onto certain things, especially over a certain height. I found the most notable example of this was on the bridge connecting Old and New Gotham. It’s not possible to scale the towers to the top, instead you get about half-way there, which leaves you very open to gunfire from below when gliding past.

There are other small things too. Sometimes I find Batman won’t climb on something that he very clearly should be able to. Sometime he appears to slide around on top of railings that he’s perched on.

There’s also at least one major bug in the PC version that requires a reload of your save game if you attempt to open up one of the Fast-Travel points. The only way to do it just now is to purposely activate a glitch within the game, which takes practise and patience, although a patch is surely on it’s way.

It’s a lot of mostly small things that all serve to make the game slightly less enjoyable as you’re hitting up against strange effects that draw you out of the experience. Luckily they are all fairly simple to ignore and you can continue on with the game more-or-less unimpeded.

This is definitely not a game I would recommend to a first time Arkham player. Arkham Asylum and City are both superior games and should be used as an entry point first before Origins.

However, if you are a fan of the previous titles Arkham Origins is very much a game worth your time. While it perhaps lacks the polish of Asylum and City it’s so very close to being there. Had they pushed it back a month or two to clean up those complaints you would easily be reading nothing but praise for it right now. As it stands it’s an ever so slightly flawed Gem and well worth considering.

Batman: Arkham Origins is out now on PC, PS3, 360 and Wii U

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

It’s Criminal

Yes I know, this came out three weeks ago. I know I’ve not mentioned it even slightly before and I know it’s completely different to all the other games I’ve written about so far. But I finally got my grubby, paupers hands on this last week and while I’m nowhere near even halfway through yet I think I’ve managed to get a basic handle on how I feel about it. Oh and there will be small mission SPOILERS for anyone who is concerned about that.

To understand what makes GTA V work, you have to look at the flaws in GTA IV.

Rockstar’s Liberty City based tale of an Eastern European immigrant with a past looking for a new start was grim. It was a dark, depressing tale about the pursuit of the fabled American dream. Niko Bellic, was a man with a violent past who found himself getting pulled deeper into the organised crime and chaos of a digital New York when all he wanted was to live in peace and quite.

Not a bad story, but one that robbed the game of a lot of the humour that was present in its predecessors. Gone were the larger than life weirdoes and nutcases, with only one or two people left to fill that role.

The gameplay itself didn’t fit with the character of Niko, who always lamented the violence in his past, but had absolutely no problem amassing a huge body-count throughout the course of the game. In part that was down to the sandbox nature of the game, allowing players to do whatever they wanted within it, but it made the character seem hollow and hypocritical.

Liberty City itself was dirty, grimy and thoroughly depressing to inhabit as well. Grey, brown, rust and washed out colours made up every corner of this landscape. While no doubt a deliberate design decision it was perhaps too realistic in it’s portrayal of urban-decay. It was an astounding technical achievement and still looks phenomenal today, especially on PC with mods, but it just wasn’t a fun place to be a part of.

Beyond that there really wasn’t that much to do beyond the main missions either. Online modes aside, small mini-games littered the map and players could interact with other characters through their cell phone but it was a far cry from the diversions littering it’s immediate predecessor San Andreas.

GTA V capably addresses all of those concerns.

For the first time in the history of the franchise there is more than one playable character. The triumvirate of Michael, Franklin and Trevor take the franchise forward in a new way, allowing you to play missions from the perspective of whatever one you like and swap between them instantly. Each has a wildly different personality as well. Michael is a retired ex-thief who finds himself drawn back to his old life while his spoiled family falls apart around him. Franklin is the young up and comer, looking to make some money and get out of the gang culture he grew up with. Then there’s Trevor. Wonderful, crazy Trevor. He’s a psychopath pure and simple, but with unresolved history between himself and Michael.

Each character brings something to the table. Michael and Franklin are the straight men, designed to push on with the serious part of the storyline and taking on fairly serious (in tone) missions. Trevor however, is tailor made for all the crazy stuff players tend to get up to on their own. Within a few missions with Trevor you’ll have undergone an arson attack on a rival meth-gang, shot satellite dishes off trailer-park roofs with a Sniper Rifle and stuffed a drunk Chinese business-man into an Ice Box. Suffice to say there is no hypocrisy with him and going on a murderous rampage is entirely within character.

Then there is the city itself. Returning to the state of San Andreas you are treated to a sumptuous homage to modern-day Los Angeles. Los Santos is everything Liberty City was not. It’s bright, colourful and extends far off into the distance beyond it’s city limits.

While not as expansive as the original San Andreas game (There’s no cities of San Fierro or Las Venturas), there are still countless miles of wilderness to the North of the city. Beyond the main storyline there are many diversions including several sports games, hunting, stock market trading as well as the traditional Taxi and Ambulance side missions. Property purchasing makes a welcome return as well, allowing you a constant source of income and often opening up new missions relevant to what you’ve bought.

The traditional structure of getting jobs from characters hasn’t changed. What has been introduced are prep missions. In previous titles a heist would generally take place over one mission, from start to finish. Now you can select a crew and a strategy before doing your prep. Prep may involve stealing some vans that will get you into a target unnoticed, or casing the building with some light recon. These take place over two or three missions before finally carrying out the job. It adds a bit more depth to the game and follows on the style of what was quite easily the best mission from GTA IV

It also takes a couple of cues from Rockstar’s last sandbox epic, Red Dead Redemption. The inclusion of “Strangers and Freaks” side-missions, which involve small contained stories, and random events such as muggings and stick ups which you can intervene in however you see fit, have both made their way to Los Santos. One highly memorable S&F mission saw Michael fighting off drug-induced hallucinations of aliens with a mini-gun.

As always GTA V is as much a love letter to America as it is a scathing indictment of modern society. The parodies fly constantly, including LifeInvader (Facebook), Righteous Slaughter 7 (Call Of Duty) and the return of Republican Space Rangers (My personal favourite). Lazlow, radio shock-jock from each game since GTA III, is finally seen as the host of exploitative talent show Fame or Shame, as well as appearing on the talk radio station. There’s also a TV throwback to the Exploder movies mentioned in radio adverts in Vice City.

The game also comes with GTA Online, which went live a few days ago. At this point I’ve not really done more than dip my toe in it, but I’ll have some opinion up on that within the next week

Overall it’s yet another fantastic title from the team at Rockstar North. To release a title so late in this console cycle that can still impress as much as this does is no mean feat. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see just how much more impressive the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions will be when they finally get released.


GTA V is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360 at retailers or digital download.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Still Alive!

No I’ve not forgotten about this thing. Been a busy week gaming wise so I plan to have some posts up in the next few days.

Look forward to my thoughts on GTA V, a couple of browser based titles and a look at the Battlefield 4 beta all coming in the next week or so!