Game Reviews Sony Vita Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Steven McGehee Featured

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Written by Steven McGehee     November 04, 2013    
 
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Blackgate is a 2.5D handheld exclusive that is intended to be a compliment to the console version of Arkham Origins, not a replacement. In most respects, it does rather well for itself, but Armature Studio left considerable room for improvement.

Arkham Origins Blackgate, which I'll refer to simply as Blackgate, carries over some of the key gameplay elements that the Arkham franchise is known for, but simplifies these into what is overall a good portable title, not quite a great one. The premise of Blackgate is very different from Origins, but the gameplay will feel almost completely familiar to Arkham players. For starters, the controls are largely the same -- Square to attack, Triangle to counter, Circle for Cape Stun and crouch, and X to jump and interact with objects in the world. The d-pad is used to switch between gadgets, which include explosive gel and batarangs for starters, with L for aiming and R for firing (including the oft used batclaw). For detective mode, which is used very often to analyze the environment for optional and required information, simply tap the front screen and hold your finger down to control a circular-shaped focus area and hover over objects of interest.

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The controls work well, and all three main phases of the game -- the signature freeflow combat, predator aka stealth combat, and detective mode -- all feel right at home on the Vita. I thought Armature Studio did a fine job of capturing these key gameplay elements and bringing them to the Vita. I thought their story and the high-level design of the game was just fine as well. It's a little on the straight-forward or formulaic side, but for a handheld game, in which players might just be playing for ten or twenty minutes at a time if they're on the go, it's a design that works pretty good.

As mentioned earlier, the story is very different from Origins. The opening comicbook style cutscene shows the slinky Catwoman escaping from an apparently successful heist job, but Batman is right on her tail. The ten minute chase that proceeds introduces players to several of the game's mechanics. Soon after, Catwoman is caught and shipped to Blackgate, a highly secure facility packed with some of the most notorious criminals Gotham has ever known. Unfortunately, the prisoners manage to turn the tide against the guards and many of the workers at Blackgate are taken hostage deep inside the facility, in the Arkham wing no less. Gordon can't get his police officers safely into the facility without risking the lives of the hostages, so it's up to Batman to save the day (er, night). Upon arrival, he strikes a deal with Catwoman, who's short time there was already enough to gather a lot of information -- she'll provide overwatch from a secure area in the prison and feed data to Batman via his earpiece. In exchange, when this fracas is over, she'll get moved to a less-secure prison (which she'll likely escape from).

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That's the basic story, with the implementation being that three main areas of Blackgate are under the control of three different super villains. These include the Black Mask, the antagonist of Origins -- he and his thugs control the industrial or mechanical wing. The Penguin and his goons are in control of the cell blocks. Meanwhile, the Joker is running Administration. All three facilities contain objectives that intertwine, meaning you'll be moving about Blackgate between areas fairly regularly.

Therein lies what is ultimately my biggest gripe with Blackgate -- it's not so much the backtracking, but how it's handled. Between the lack of any in-game direction, i.e., like some kind of 'pulse' or navigation indicator to let you know that you are at least headed in the right direction, and the disappointing 2D map, getting around in the relatively large and frankly repetitive-looking Blackgate becomes a chore. This isn't a game-breaking issue, but for me it was a major one, especially given that this is a portable title. I should also point out that checkpoints are surprisingly distant at times. So if you happen to die, due to an environmental hazard or some of the respawn enemies (these are rare, but they do exist), the checkpoint could very well be rather far back, compounding the frustration and often leading to a reluctant break in play. But getting back to the main point, for a handheld (or really any game, but especially a handheld), getting lost trudging back through areas previously visited is a pacing and fun factor killer. I appreciate game and/or level design that has players revisiting areas so long as the reasoning makes sense, and for Blackgate, the reasoning is sound -- but the task of doing so is much more of a chore than it should have been.

Further reason to revisit areas of Blackgate come in the form of locked doors that require certain levels of cryptographic keys. These are provided, like Batman's gadgets, at pre-determined points and they give Batman the ability to hack locks that he couldn't otherwise. The hacking game is simple, but functional and sufficient. In it, you are given one number versus a matrix, sometimes a quickly changing matrix, from which you have to match your number to by using the left stick to pan around the matrix of random numbers. The goal is to match up enough combinations to find the right sequence, at which point you just press X. There is no time limit and you essentially cannot fail the hack, which makes it less dramatic. Going the extra mile to unlock some of the optional locked doors will help in creating cut-throughs or shortcuts for Bats, as well as opening up secret areas that might contain Wayne Tech storage bins. Within these bins, upgrade items can be found, i.e., if you find four of a certain type of upgrade item, Batman's suit is upgraded to better resist bullets. Other collectibles include a variety of clues to various cases. These cases are named and provide bits of backstory to the events at Blackgate, such as the prisoner takeover of the facility. Finding all of the pieces to a case and thus "solving" it also unlocks concept art viewable at the main menu. Also, each of the three villains has a collectible of their own -- skull artifacts placed randomly and often sneakily throughout that you have to not only spot, but target and hit with a batarang to "collect." Penguin has some robotic birds that will drop and explode on you if you get too close, I think there are twenty of these to find and destroy (ideally with a batarang instead Batman's head).

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A few other miscellaneous notes I took include the observation that there are just a hell of a lot of grates and air ducts that Batman has to get into and also a lot of walls and floors to blow up with the explosive gel. The volume of these didn't help the immersion factor as it was a design choice that was a little over-used. Plus, as a bit of a nuisance, you have to scan all of the explosive surfaces first with detective mode, and you cannot use the analysis (i.e. where you hold your finger and scroll on the touchscreen) mechanic while moving. There were some weird issues at times with the riot strips, which are rows of spikes used in low-ceiling corridors that you have to literally roll over. It's odd you can't just approach them and swing or jump over them, you have to roll. At times my timing on this was off and I would all but get completely stuck in the strips, taking damage about every second. One time I even ran out of health, but the health meter was immediately refilled right as I got out of that awkward loop of bouncing from one side of the strip to the other. Also, there was one point where an elevator, which was docked right in front of me and had an activation switch that scanned as functional, was restricted with no explanation. Instead, an invisible wall kept me from entering it. These issues are head-scratchers and unfortunate, but not damning.

As far as the presentation, I thought the graphics were very good and fluid, and reminded me of the impressive power of the Vita. On the other hand, the art design for much of the interior of the facility was monotonous, making many areas hard to distinguish from others. Fallen enemies also disappear almost the moment they hit the ground and sometimes they fall down with the exact same body position (rare, but something I noted). On the other hand, the comicbook style cutscenes were fine, and the voice-acting was excellent. Effects in general, and the soundtrack, are also really good. Some of the machinery at Blackgate and the sound of Penguin's robotic birds that you often hear before you see are two examples of memorable sound effects.

With that, let's get to the summary...

Editor reviews

Blackgate falls shy of greatness due to a few gameplay design flaws, but it's still an overall solid experience that Vita owners should investigate further.
Overall rating 
 
7.4
Gameplay 
 
7.0
Presentation 
 
8.0
Value  
 
7.0
Fun Factor 
 
7.0
Tilt 
 
8.0
Steven McGehee Reviewed by Steven McGehee November 04, 2013
Top 10 Reviewer  -   View all my reviews (895)

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate

Blackgate falls shy of greatness due to a few gameplay design flaws, but it's still an overall solid experience that Vita owners should investigate further.

Videogames

Gameplay
Much of the experience feels like playing one of the Arkham console games (Asylum especially, given the playable environment) on a handheld, so in that regard Blackgate does very well. The level design and especially the back-tracking / navigation were a headache though. While some fast-traveling between the three areas exists, I still found myself either getting tired of revisiting areas or worse, being lost in the process.
Presentation
Technically, Blackgate looks and sounds great, but the art design, which admittedly is a challenge given the size and nature of the environment (i.e., a large prison facility) left something to be desired. There are some cool looking backgrounds and some great lighting at times, but a few too many areas felt identical to each other.
Value
For me, a significant -- not most or even half mind you, but a large portion of time playing Blackgate was spent being lost and navigating back through areas previously cleared. That part of the experience is bad and artifically extended the play time for me. That aside, as an addition to the Arkham series and as a first outing on a handheld, I think Blackgate is overall a good thing, and while it's not worth alone buying a Vita (or 3DS) for, it is one of the best third party titles available on the starving platform.
Fun Factor
Blackgate is a lot of fun other than those times of being lost. It feels a lot like playing an Arkham game on the consoles, although the game design is a lot flatter and more 'cookie-cutter' style, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
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