No matter what WB Montreal had up their sleeve, they were going to be in an uphill battle. Having to create a prequel to a series in which both titles have garnered numerous game of the year awards (check out our reviews for Arkham Asylum and Arkham City) is about as difficult task as it gets. On top of that, they were expected to make due without returning cast members, they had to create a familiar yet not too familiar experience, and incorporate multiplayer. It was never going to to be an easy task.
Still, apart from a few big bumps along the way, I say they did a surprisingly good job.
Arkham Origins tells the tale of Batman two years into his career of crime fighting. He’s still new enough that many denizens of Gotham don’t even believe he’s real. On Christmas Eve, the mobster known as Black Mask breaks out of prison and places a huge bounty on the Dark Knight’s head. So not only does Batman have eight of the world’s deadliest assassins coming at him at once, he’s also got to figure out what Black Mask is up to. Because this is a prequel, he doesn’t even have the likes of Oracle, Robin, or Commissioner Gordon on his side. He’s got Alfred in his ear and that’s it.
As a Batman story, it kind of works. There’s a definite sense of urgency, as all of the various villains make Batman’s Christmas one to remember. He can’t simply stick with one villain at a time either. At any point, one of the assassins can jump in to try and take the bounty. It’s kind of hard to give Black Mask a proper interrogation when Copperhead shows up to poison you. It’s also interesting to see that Batman has got kind of an attitude problem, seeing as he’s still finding his footing in his new role as a costumed vigilante.
However, it doesn’t really work that well as a cohesive story. It’s kind of all over the place. Characters come and go, are forgotten, and then show up again just when you’ve finally forgotten about them. A few of the assassins are used as simple side missions, even though they’re supposed to be important to the plot. A few plot devices get overused, such as reviving someone with electric gloves. The game’s big twist is seen a mile away and leaves a bad taste in the mouth, as it pretty much means the game is retreading on old ground rather than truly giving someone else their time in the spotlight. Finally, let’s not forget this is an origin story. As such, there’s no fear for anyone’s life, as long as they’ve appeared in one of the previous titles. We know that Gordon will eventually side with the bat, that Penguin is more than just an up and comer, Harleen Quinzel isn’t going to stay a psychiatrist for long, etc. There are few surprises here.
Aesthetically, the game sticks to Arkham City as much as possible. The areas of Gotham you explore are largely identical, such that familiar indoor locations are commonplace. It’s mostly identical, pretty much; things have been cleaned up, and there are Christmas decorations everywhere, but that’s about it. The game even takes place in the same season as AC, so it can use the same weather effects and a few of the character models. A bit has been added though. Penguin’s got himself a boat as an HQ, the Joker has turned a grand hotel into a nightmare playground, and you’ll get to run around in Blackgate Prison for a change. There’s an acceptable amount of detail to everything, and the animations/character models are as solid as ever. Still, it’s hard to think this game couldn’t have come out two years ago and looked exactly the same. There just hasn’t been much effort to bump things up a notch.
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil are the quintessential Batman and Joker. There’s no denying that. Losing them was a pretty big deal. However, the new guys do a pretty bang up job. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker are seasoned veterans. They know what they’re doing. As for the rest of the package, it’s solid all around, with the other voice actors fitting their roles, quality music, and classic sound effects. It’s one of the best sounding games of the year, despite the supposed handicap the game had.
There’s not much to differentiate this game from its forebears. WBM stuck to the formula that worked, and only added a few personal touches here and there to make the game their own.
The Arkham series has a combat style that is unique and fun. It returns in full force, though it has hit a few snags this time around. Batman can launch into a combo with the square button. From there, he can keep pounding on the guy or use the left stick to switch to another target. Various gadgets can be used without breaking the combo meter, and reaching high multipliers unlock special moves that allow you to really bring the pain. Enemies won’t just stand there and take it though. They’re especially aggressive in this entry. When they come in to attack, a warning indicator will flash over their heads. Pressing the triangle button will allow you to counter the incoming attack. Things get mixed up when you add in various enemy types that have shields, wield knives, shoot guns, or are immune to regular strikes. When you get a perfect free flow combo against a group of a dozen armed bad guys, the sense of elation is unmatched.
To add some spice into the mixture, the developers have added a couple of signature touches. The first of these is a new enemy type that can actually counter you. These martial artists are especially deadly. They can get a second attack in even when you counter, and are immune to throws. I made it my mission to avoid them until I had enough space to deal with them properly. Also new is the shock gloves, which you’ll get about halfway through the game. They’re used to activate some panels and generators strewn about Gotham, but are really useful in combat. Landing blows builds up your charge meter, and you can unleash the gloves when it’s full. Charged attacks can’t be blocked, even by bosses, making them very useful. Each hit also adds two counts to your combo meter instead of one. The only danger you’ll face is getting too cocky and forgetting to counter once in a while.
Everything hasn’t transitioned smoothly though. While a veteran of the series can jump right in and start doing well out of the box, they’re bound to notice a few hiccups. There are times when you’ll drop a combo because Batman simply refuses to go in a certain direction. Ground takedowns, allowing you to finish a baddie off before he can get back up, work only half of the time. Aiming in general is a little off, and the combat needed a bit more polishing before the game was released. It’s not game breaking or anything, but it can certainly be annoying.
The other half of the Arkham experience is the predator gameplay. This is where you really get to be Batman, as you’ll use stealth and gadgets to take down droves of heavily armed foes without setting off an alarm. Batman has most of his usual tools, but they took out the sonic batarang for some reason. Replacing the line launcher is the remote claw. While this new tool is limited to certain anchor points, you can actually use it on enemies. Basically, you can tag an enemy and a gas canister, and they’ll end up colliding into each other. It can be fun to play around with to be sure. Beyond that though, these sections have nothing new up their sleeves. You’ll have seen it all if you’ve played AC before.
That feeling of sameness is felt throughout the entire game. A mysterious character named “Enigma” has hidden packets all over the city. You’ll need to throw batarangs at pressure pads, crawl through obstacles, and use various gadgets in order to claim them. Sound familiar? Another side missions involves hunting down barrels of poison and using explosive gel to destroy them. Gee, I think I’ve done that before. Let’s not forget the flying missions where you need to glide Batman through floating rings. Sigh. Been there. Done that. It’s still fun and all, but it really feels like they stopped trying.
There are a couple of new things to mention. By taking down comm towers throughout the city, you’ll unlock fast travel locations that make getting from one end to the other go by much quicker. Also, you’ll have crimes in progress that pop up from time to time. Responding to these gets you caught up in a big battle and nets you plenty of experience, so it’s worth it if you need to boost your stats a bit. Crime scenes also pop up where you’ll use detective vision to find clues. There’s an interesting fast forward/rewind mechanic, although it isn’t full fleshed out. It’s kind of like playing a very simple first person adventure game. They’re not a very dynamic or interesting set of mechanics, but they definitely add to the game.
What would an open world game be without bugs? Well, this one doesn’t try to figure that out. It’s full of them. I’ve completed objectives only to have them reappear on the map, I’ve gotten stuck in locations where I have to reload the game in order to get back out, I’ve seen bosses get stuck in corners, enemies drop through the floor, and a tight rope that decided to break every time I stepped on it. More times than in the other two Batman games combined, I had to reload from a checkpoint because of some game breaking bug. While I’m sure a patch is on the way, this is simply unacceptable.
Finally, let’s get to the multiplayer. Now, the single player is solid apart from a few missteps. I can’t honestly say it was ignored in order to implement the multiplayer. In fact, following a common trend in recent games, Origins‘ multiplayer was farmed out to a different developer.
The idea here is that there are three opposing teams. Two of these teams are made up of rival gang members that work exactly like a third person shooter, and the third team consists of Batman and Robin. The goons are working to wipe out the other team completely, while the dynamic duo is out to boost their intimidation factor so high that no one wants to fight anymore. Joker or Bane can be called in, equipment is unlocked by leveling up, and you can spend real money to buy in game boosts. In many regards, it’s like a checklist of modern shooter mechanics. There’s only the one mode though, and scant few maps make it hard to play for long. Having the duo in the mix is the only thing keeping this mode from being a complete wash, though it’s still close. It just doesn’t feel right control-wise, and there’s little incentive to keep playing.
This game is begging for you to keep playing. While there are few side missions with some substance, there are a whole lot of them overall. Also returning are challenge maps that task you with being the best martial artist/invisible predator you can be. Training missions teach you the basics in a hands on way. There are even two different, new game modes. New game plus lets you keep your upgrades, but ditches the warning for incoming attacks and jacks up the difficulty. If you can get through that, you’ll unlock a new mode that gives you one life to make it through the entire game. You can’t save either. Hardcore fans will surely have a blast with that one.
Personally, I enjoyed my time with this game. They definitely went with a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. They’ve kept pretty much everything I loved about Arkham City intact. The few hiccups along the way are forgivable, provided the game ending glitches are patched up shortly. The multiplayer is forgettable, but it doesn’t distract from the main game. All in all, this is an acceptable game that will tide me over until Rocksteady is ready to take the helm again.
Short Attention Span Summary
Batman: Arkham Origins is probably better than you expect, but not as good as it should have been. For as much as WB Montreal has stuck to what was done in Arkham City, they’ve hit a few bumps along the way. The combat isn’t quite as refined, the objectives are all too familiar, and the story has the same big twist that we’ve seen time and again. However, there’s nothing overtly bad here, and the core formula is still so fun that it makes up for the problems. The multiplayer is a wash, but at least it didn’t distract from the main game. If you loved the previous games in the franchise, you’ll probably want to play this. It doesn’t reach the pedestal those games sit on, but it does more than enough to justify its existence.