In the past two months, I played through Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Batman: Arkham Origins. Both of these games come from series that at one point in each of their respective lifespans, were among my favorites in video games. I was excited to play neither.
To me, Assassin’s Creed epitomizes the idea that annualized sequels will drain your audience of its enthusiasm for your franchise. Assassin’s Creed III was the fifth full-length console release the series had had in six years. Of Assassin’s Creeed’s four sequels, only two of them would feature what I consider to be meaningful steps forward in game quality (Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood). Assassin’s Creed II took the promising, but ultimately very shallow shell of a game that was the first Assassin’s Creed game and turned it into one of the deeper, more enjoyable open world games around. Brotherhood refined Assassin’s Creed II further, and added a simple recruiting and minion system that scratched my micromanagement itch in just the right way. The next two games were disappointments. Neither Assassin’s Creed: Revelations nor Assassin’s Creed III added much that was very good. Revelations took out a few enjoyable elements from the previous two games and added a weird tower defense mini game and some very uninspired first person puzzle-platforming sections. Assassin’s Creed III had some odd pacing choices and a fairly poorly designed iteration of the previous games’ city restoration subsystem. Assassin’s Creed III was so poorly received that in an obvious attempt to distance itself from the game, Black Flag was branded Assassin’s Creed IV, though based on the naming scheme adopted in the three Assassin’s Creed II games, it was most likely going to be “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag” and marketed as an Assassin’s Creed III game. Fortunately, it featured the one Assassin’s Creed III addition that most people seemed to like: sailing and naval battles. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t like that part of Assassin’s Creed III, so the “one good thing” about Assassin’s Creed III and the main selling point of Assassin’s Creed IV was not enough to get me excited for this game.
As so often happens with me (I didn’t fully appreciate Super Mario Galaxy until playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, or Batman: Arkham Asylum until I played Batman: Arkham City) the second time was the charm. Not only did I enjoy sailing in Black Flag, I spent 73 hours–minus however long the story missions take–doing it. I spent this much time doing things I think are dumb. I spent it hunting meaningless and capturing ships for my fleet in order to complete non-interactive side missions for minimal gain. I was driven by my desire to clean a map, which, upon its initial reveal, was so big that I thought there was no way I would actually visit every question mark, but I did that and more. It could have been so much better–the collectibles and ship missions could have been the slightest bit meaningful, for starters–but it didn’t even matter. I couldn’t help but pull out my spy glass whenever a red blip appeared on my mini map and if that ship turned out to have a decent amount of cargo, I was going to capture it.
The rest of the game, however, shows just how tired the Assassin’s Creed formula has become and how it desperately needs to innovate or reinvent itself. The period story missions were repetitive and plainly awful. The present day sections were what they always were: intriguing enough to get the player asking questions and wondering about what is really going on, but poorly executed enough that you feel embarrassed for caring and quickly decided that you actually don’t. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was both better than I expected and just as insubstantial as I expected.
Batman: Arkham Origins had a different hill to climb. The Arkham series had yet to have a disappointing game and had two years of breathing room between each game. Unfortunately, all the news surrounding Arkham Origins during its development was about what it didn’t have. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill weren’t going to be the voices of Batman and Joker. Paul Dini wasn’t writing the game’s story. Most damning was that Rocksteady was not developing the game. For a series that had done no wrong whatsoever (except to those who preferred Arkham Asylum’s more focused approach to Arkham City’s open setting), Arkham Origins had no excitement behind it.
As it would turn out, the game really isn’t worth getting excited over. The voices are fine, and the story is pretty good (arguably the best of the three), hitting the same comic book one-shot/limited series vibe the previous games had and doing it well. The game itself, though, is basically Arkham City again. The combat system that put this series on the map in Arkham Asylum remains unchanged and the open world structure introduced in Arkham City feels exactly the same. The one thing that stood out about this game compared to its predecessors was its boss battles. Well, at least the Deathstroke boss fight. Maybe it’s because this is the first Arkham game where I played with hints turned off (at least to start), but I thought this boss fight was more interesting and challenging than any other Arkham boss besides maybe Mr. Freeze in Arkham City (though for a very different reason). It felt like a real fight where I had to really pay attention and vary my attack and counter timing rather than mash my way through or complete a QTE to trigger the victory animation. Then again, I would later have to turn the hints on to get past another boss fight, so maybe the way to beat Deathstroke would have been printed on my screen then, as well.
Even though Arkham Origins doesn’t do much of anything to advance the Arkham series, its gameplay and mechanics aren’t so tired and played out that there isn’t a good time to be had in flying around Gotham and being the goddamn Batman and soaking in a perfectly competent Batman story. It’s not as special as Arkham Asylum or Arkham City, but it’s just as good.