It’s been four years since Rocksteady shook the world up and propelled themselves into fame with the glorious Batman: Arkham Asylum. Two years later, they followed it up with Arkham City, which is the game that cemented the studio as world class. After that, we were all left wondering what would come next for the Batman, and as we know that turned out to be a prequel led by newbies Warner Bros Montreal. Now, I had concerns with Arkham Origins when it was first announced, because I felt that Arkham Asylum made a massive statement when it forever raised the bar for licensed titles, and Arkham City too made a big statement by proving licensed games could stand up to the best of triple A games. But what is Batman: Arkham Origins saying? That there’s franchise potential here? That the universe has a big story? I don’t want this to be interpreted as me expecting each iteration to be the second coming of JC, but it says something about the pedigree that this series has, and that personally I really did not want it to reach a point where we consider its releases in much the same fashion as we do a new Assassin’s Creed for instance. Well, it’s not there yet, but this is a step in that direction.
Let’s ditch the philosophical questions and get into the game itself, starting with one of the main attractions: the story. There’s certainly an interesting premise here. For a quick recap, the game is set five years before the events of Arkham Asylum, in the early years of Batman’s career, when he has no allies and is still largely considered to be a myth. This younger and less refined Batman becomes a target of the crime lord Black Mask, who puts out a major hit on the Caped Crusader’s head, bringing eight of the world’s greatest assassins to Gotham City on Christmas Eve. I don’t like to say too much about story for fear of spoiling, so let me just say that setting the game early in Batman’s career definitely gave the studio a lot of playroom, and while it surely is an enjoyable, quality narrative that doesn’t take many wrong steps, it is unfortunately the bane of prequels (see what I did there?) that they will rarely ever surprise or dare to do the unexpected. Batman: Arkham Origins does what it can and tries to twist and turn wherever it can, but if you’re even a casual Batman comic reader you’ve most likely experienced many facets of this story before. It’s very nostalgic in a way, and packs fan service.
It’s probable that story is what you’ll be here for most given the setting and premise, and perhaps the most story intrigue is derived from the engaging side plots, and of course the strength of voice actors Roger Craig Smith (Batman) and Troy Baker (Joker), who absolutely kill their roles. You’ve no need to worry about Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil being absent, as Smith does an amazing job at portraying a more violent and brutal Batman that is alone and friendless, while Troy does a chillingly fantastic job at being somewhat Hamil-esque, but bringing a freshness and edge into the clown we love. The duo definitely go a long way, and I can easily see a future for them as the men who breathe life into these characters. But taking a step back from Batman and Joker, the overall story is somewhat telling of what you’ll get from this experience as a whole. For certain, it’s an enjoyable ride, but herein lies the biggest problem with Arkham Origins. To not beat around the bush at all, it just does not surprise or deliver a whole lot new. You’re getting exactly what you expect to get. Sure this works out great for those who simply want more of Arkham City, but for those hoping for another boundary pusher, this is not it.
Where Batman: Arkham Origins first became a bit difficult for me to appreciate as a huge Batman fan (and I think it’s safe to say everyone who frequents this site knows that I’m an unhealthily obsessive Batman freak) is when the narrative-gameplay dissonance started blatantly showing itself quite early on. To explain, the gameplay has been kept entirely identical to Arkham City, but in the cutscenes and narrative you’ll see plenty of evidence to suggest that this Batman is more brutal, alone and angry than the noble veteran from Rocksteady’s series. It creates a dissonance then that one moment Batman would be interrogating someone with an awesome level of violence that is bordering on villainous, and the next you’d be playing Arkham City 2.3, with the gameplay looking, feeling and playing exactly like it was before, with Batman fighting with the same level of grace, refinement and composure as he does in the two previous games. With the developers keeping story and gameplay as separate entities here, to someone who cares more and wants to get into the role of this raw, brutal and unrefined Batman, it becomes very difficult to connect, and the experience constantly jumps between fresh and too familiar.
The best analogy I can give, when thinking about the entire experience here, is that it feels like Warner Bros only went halfway towards the big picture. In the quest to make it fresh and their own game, they redesigned all of the characters, which turned out excellently, they redid all the menus, the new voice talent is there and they invented their own setting, narrative and content. But then then when it came to the most important part, the gameplay, they backed away and were seemingly afraid to touch it. Now, I want to stress here that in no way did I expect a revolution or a reinvention of the gameplay, especially since Arkham City was as fantastic and as refined as they come and there’s no need to rebuild the wheel. But at the very least I expected them not to rehash all of the same animations and gadgets from the previous games and recycle quite a bit else, particularly with regards to the environments. We’re talking about a game that feels and plays essentially like an extension of Arkham City. I know it sounds like I’m nitpicking here, but you’d be surprised how simply making minor tweaks, changing up gear and redoing animations can make things feel fresh, as is the case with the Assassin’s Creed series. Now I may not hold that franchise in high regard these days, but I can respect the fact that between its three protagonists, combat for example always felt a little different and new, which was something.
To put it in a way that clearly illustrates my point, it’s as though the narrative is trying to tell you that this is fresh and new, but the gameplay is telling you that this is just another Batman game – just more Arkham City. Understand that for anyone, including myself, who loved Arkham City to bits, there is lots to enjoy here and there’s no reason you won’t do so. But there is very little chance that this game will blow you away or feel like the next big Batman game. It basically just feels like another iteration. It feels like more of the same, and it’s rather blatant how safe the developers played it with the gameplay. Again, you don’t want them to change what made Arkham City so good, and there’s no reason to change fundamentals drastically. But I take issue with nothing gameplay related even being tweaked, mixed up or visually redone. You even start the game with the same set of gadgets (five years in the past, right?) and Mr Freeze’s ice grenades have been replaced by glue grenades. Serious. Although, fair play to the developers as they did bring in one or two great new gadgets, such as the Remote Claw, which fires a projectile that latches two targets together by rope, and the Shock Gloves, which powers your fists up and lets you unleash fury for a limited time, electrocuting anyone you touch.
I’ve had a lot of criticisms for Batman: Arkham Origins so far, many of which you may call nitpicks or gripes. I just wanted to clearly establish the point that this game, for the most part, is predictable and more of what you’ve already had, and I’m disappointed in that because there are some genuinely excellent ideas here – ideas that are exactly what it should have had more of to be its own game. For instance, the crime scene investigations have been completely revamped, and now instead of just scanning one or two objects in an environment and maybe mixing it up by following a trail, you’ll digitally reconstruct crime scenes and have the freedom to pause and move back and forth through the holographic video, map out what took place and piece together a story like a detective would. While the gameplay is similar, it does a lot to make the detective gameplay more authentic, and these segments are a highlight. Another one of the best additions to the game are one-on-one boss fights. In both previous games, the only stand-out fight for me was Mr Freeze, but in Batman: Arkham Origins you’ll actually pay a nod to old-school, tiered boss fights as you take on some of the assassins in lengthy, challenging bouts that do what they can to mix things up, and provide good entertainment.
With the open world, Warner Bros has admirably sought to outdo Arkham City by building a much larger Gotham City to explore. One of the best things about the game is how big the world is and how much there is to do and earn. There are collectibles, Riddler is back to try and test you, although it won’t be with trophies or the usual riddles, various Crimes In Progress occur throughout the city for you to stop, your Most Wanted list tracks high profile villains and is essentially your side stories, and there are other cases to solve. In addition, a very cool feature is the ability to visit the real Batcave, which serves as a hub in which you can change your suit, upgrade equipment and access the challenge maps. Furthermore, with the help of the Batwing there is a fast travel system now, so once you unlock an area you can speedily get to it at any time. There are also Dark Knight challenges to complete, which grant huge XP bonuses and task you with various combat, predator and worldly tasks, such as clearing a room without being seen or finishing a fight in focus mode. These are cool to test yourself with, but the one thing that annoyed me about them was that you can only progress to the next challenge once you complete what comes before it, so even if you successfully do a hard challenge, it won’t count until you do its priors, which is lame. It especially is annoying since the unlockables are things you bought normally in Arkham City, like the Sonic Batterang or grapnel boost takedown.
If I may speak a little about the characterisation, I’d like to comment on a few things. I’ve already praised Smith’s Batman and Baker’s Joker, and it’s no surprise that they easily surpass any of the other talents in this game. But I’d just like to point out that Detective Gordon is a massive prick in Batman: Arkham Origins. I get that they wanted to have Batman and Gordon seem like unlikely allies, and Gordon to have the wrong impressions of Batman before getting to know him, but he’s so keen on being a stubborn, stuck-up ass-hat that even blatant acts of goodness from the Batman leave him unimpressed and bitchy, as though he’s the best fit judge to tell you exactly how to live. He’s just an absolute tool in this game, to say the least. Regarding the villains, other than Bane and The Joker the rest of the group doesn’t get much screen time, but when they do they’re mostly good, with the exception of the Electrocutioner who was terrible, but the game was blatant about that and knew he was a bit of a joke.
Batman: Arkham Origins does, however, deserve recognition for the amount of content it offers. The campaign will take you around fifteen hours to complete if you meander with some extras here and there, but you could really bring that figure up by delving into all it has to offer. Plus there are all the challenge maps as per usual, plenty to explore in the world itself and of course the attractive New Game Plus, which is always a great incentive for a second playthrough. If you’re feeling really gutsy, you can opt to try out the new “I Am the Night” mode, which tasks you with going through the full game with just one life, and you’ll have to restart the entire game if Batman dies. It’s up to you and how much of a freak you are, but it may be fun to mess around or test yourself with. And as many may know, new to Batman: Arkham Origins is a multiplayer mode, dubbed Invisible Predator Online, which splits eight players up into three teams, namely the Joker Gang, Bane Gang and Batman and Robin. One thing to immediately like about the online is how much customisation there is, and there’s lots to unlock by means of cosmetics or weapons and perks. It’s standard, but appropriately brimming with goodies.
In this mode, the two gangs will fight it over for control points, while the two-player team of Batman and Robin will stalk the six other players and try to take them down silently in order to fill the Intimidation Meter. This meter decreases as Batman or Robin die, but increases by performing varying takedowns and playing well. Batman and Robin can instantly win a match by taking out a gang leader, which is either Bane or Joker. Playing with Batman or Robin is exactly what you’re used to, and is basically playing invisible predator sections with human opponents, so it’s far easier to get killed. However, playing as a gang member means you’ll be experiencing a third person cover shooter, and will need to work as a team to control points and wipe out the other gang’s reinforcements, while watching out for the caped predators. On paper this probably sounds fantastic, as playing with a gang member means you’ll need to keep one eye out behind you and above while you fight the rival gang, making for intense match ups, but the reality isn’t quite in line with the paper. The truth is that this mode ends up being fun for a few matches, and then loses its appeal, as playing with the gangs isn’t really that entertaining, there is a lack of actual game content and the appeal just wears off after a short while.
Batman: Arkham Origins is a very attractive game. It doesn’t look massively different to Arkham City, but it’s a noticeable upgrade and the most credit probably has to go to the redesigns, which are awesome. Batman’s armour in particular looks bad ass. Another area worthy of credit are the stunning cutscenes, which suit the game well and are not in any way intrusive. I criticized recycled animations and visuals earlier on, and that stands, with some buildings and landmarks basically cut and paste from Arkham City despite this being five years in the past. On that note, there are quite a few cases of bad interior design as more than once I got completely lost with the environment doing little to help me find my way. But looking past that, the setting is great and Warner Bros have done a good job of making it look distinct next to Arkham City with its theme. I was pleased that the game performed without any hitches despite the size of the city and my lengthy play sessions, so I don’t have any technical issues to report. I’ve already praised the stellar voice acting, with the exception of some bad apples, and I also have to say that the soundtrack is pretty good, but sadly it is not nearly as memorable as its predecessor, and I can only recall one theme that was epic enough to latch itself into my memory bank.
Batman: Arkham Origins had plenty of good ideas, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Warner Bros Montreal were too reserved and didn’t do enough to make this title their own, playing it far too safe and ending up with a game that feels more like a routine expansion to Arkham City than a complete sequel. Those who are attracted to the story or who simply want more of what they had in Arkham City will find a lot to love here and little to be disappointed by, but those hoping for another Batman game that pushes boundaries will quickly discover that Arkham Origins is not it. In the end, while it will satisfy your Batman fix and is not a bad game, it sadly lurks in the shadows of its predecessors.