When telling an origins story, there is a point many video games flirt with but becomes hard to connect to in general. Take this year’s Tomb Raider, a phenomenal game that had Lara Croft rebooted into tougher, grittier action heroine on a heart-pounding.
The problem in this case was that we’ve seen so many reboots of the series that there are only things to look forward to. There is another way, which is to have a prequel that tells an origins story which doesn’t directly segue into events of the first game. That’s what one would expect with WB Games Montreal’s Batman: Arkham Origins – a growing up experience for Bruce Wayne, showcasing how he became the legend we know today, beating through a league (but not THE league) of assassins while apprehending Black Mask.
But more than anything, Rocksteady’s replacement did something else – they went into the origins of the Arkham video game franchise itself, laying bare a dynamic that has been driving the series since the beginning. This dynamic is of course, the relationship between Batman and The Joker. We’ve seen their battle in the Asylum that dipped us into the murky world of Arkham; we’ve seen their conclusive finale, taking the property into a direction that the comic books have been flirting with for years. Now we get to see how their relationship would evolve into a bond culminating in years of battle was formed. The good news is we get a very good game out of the exchange as well.
That’s “very good”, not “perfect”. Rocksteady’s Arkham City was as close to being the perfect game as any developer could possibly get. It was all the more well-received due to the over-arching changes in the game and its expansion from the confines of a single prison into an open world teeming with secrets, puzzles, villains, horrors and a compelling if somewhat plot-hole infested story. With Arkham Origins, the leap hasn’t necessarily been as gargantuan. Level layouts feel and arguably look the same. You’ll be gliding through an open world and grapple accelerating from one crime to the next.
The Free Flow combat system is as addictive and challenging as ever, even bringing a couple of bugs from the previous game along for the ride. If you finished Arkham City and wanted to continue right where you left off, then Arkham Origins is perfect for you. It’s like being away from a really cool friend for two years and then meeting them again. He’s still the same, lots of fun to hang out with and has aged magnificently.
The problem is, compared to Arkham City, Arkham Origins hasn’t evolved the franchise and we as players have matured over these past two years to the point of expecting something new. This is a game where the déjà vu is all-encompassing but the little wrinkles introduced throughout are significant enough to separate it from its predecessor.
It’s holiday season in Gotham City and Bruce Wayne is spending the evening alone. Batman, on the other hand, is getting ready to respond to a crime at Blackgate Prison in which the mob boss Black Mask has kidnapped the fairly corrupt GCPD police commissioner. After a failed rescue and an encounter with Killer Croc, Batman discovers that Black Mask has put a hit on him for $50 million dollars and invited the top assassins in the DC universe to kill him.
This includes Firefly, Deathstroke, Deadshot, Lady Shiva, The Electrocutioner, Copperhead and Bane, but you’ll come across other rogues demanding your attention for the crimes they commit. Whether you tussle with Penguin or rescue Alice from the Mad Hatter’s evil machinations, the roster is fully jam-packed in Arkham Origins. The Joker is perhaps the biggest star of the game, with Troy Baker admirably assuming voice-acting responsibilities from Mark Hamill. The standard “agent of chaos” hamming is present, but Baker renders a side of The Joker we’ve yet to experience , namely how he came to be, how he now is and what he intends to do about it. It’s an amazing portrayal, even if it doesn’t extract the key number of chills that WB Games Montreal no doubt intended for it to.
Along with a bunch of new enemies, Arkham Origins introduces a ton of new mechanics into the traditional open world. You now have the Batwing to travel between locations and you can unlock radio towers, which the villain “Enigma” has laid siege to, for additional fast travel points. It helps reduce the time between important objectives without discouraging active traveling.
You can also head back to the Batcave to pick up weapons, interact with Alfred or take a stab at the training console, which adds more maps and challenges as you progress through the game. Unlike previous games, some of these challenges will reward you with XP and sharpen your skills, making it worth your while to revisit them every now and then. You can ignore the challenges completely however and focus on the main game in terms of progression. The difficulty scales well and you’ll never be completely overwhelmed at any point during fights, though some will certainly be tougher than others.
Its business as usual when it comes to sneaking through GCPD HQ or tracking down The Joker in key instances. Use your gadgets such as the Cryptographic Sequencer to unlock doors, grapple certain doors and grates to pull them off and create new routes, enter areas full of gun-toting baddies and take them down one by one – everything that even remotely dictated the Arkham experience of previous games is present and accounted for.
The real thrill of the game comes from flying around as Batman and swooping down on enemies, beating them black and blue. This rings especially true for the new Crimes in Progress, though it doesn’t have any lasting effect on your progress other than giving you something to do every now and then. Enigma aka The Riddler still has a strong presence in Gotham City and you’ll be able to unlock various Extortion files and disable relays to get all the closer to disrupting his presence. It’s not an ingenuous as the multiple puzzles and hidden locations in Arkham City, at times coming off as a watered down substitute, but it does offer a few challenges for your gliding and projectile skills.
The biggest new addition comes by way of investigations. Toggle Detective Mode for key points and you’ll be analysing key elements of a crime scene to discern how the crime took place. Analysing some bits and pieces will open the scene up for digital reconstruction, allowing you to fast forward and rewind the event in order to discover more clues. It’s interesting at first, but by the third investigation or so, you’ll be pouring over the scene of the crime, desperately looking for the next little triangle to scan.
Free Flow Combat is slightly different this time around. It’s still faster than Arkham Asylum, but now, you’ll have Critical Counters instead of Critical Strikes. Time your attack well enough and you can earn two hits instead of one on your multiplier. Of course, the higher your multiplier, the more powerful your attacks become. Special moves such as multi-takedown attacks are still present and you’ll come across new foes that require multiple counters and cape stuns to effectively defeat.
The addition of the Shock Gloves serves as your means for Critical Striking and help bypass the need to cape stun opponents. Electric attacks are devastating but never tilt the odds very strongly in your favour. Once depleted, you’ll need to score higher chains of attacks to reuse the Shock Gloves. A simple and effective means for a Rage Mode, even if it’s not the most original concept to arrive in a third person brawler. In terms of gadgets, we enjoyed the addition of the Remote Claw, which allows you to effectively throw fire extinguishers and explosive canisters at enemies to create diversions or advantages in fights.
Boss fights in the game, especially with the assassins, have been hyped since the initial reveal in which Batman fought off Deathstroke and Deadshot at once. It’s hard to really summarize the fights, because they neither overstay their welcome nor become the knock-down, epic brawls that fighting a Ra’s al Ghul were or even the mind-melting head-games that a Scarecrow would have inflicted. There is an interesting amount of challenge to be had while fighting Deathstroke, in which you need to carefully measure your counters and strikes, but other battles with foes such as Copperhead and Bane feel like homages to mechanics we’ve experienced before. They’re appropriately challenging, sure, but could’ve been so much more.
The battle with The Joker is a protracted one, however. By contrast, Arkham City was about Batman fighting for his survival as a deadly toxin administered by The Joker threatens to claim his life. Arkham Origins focuses more on Batman attempting to understand The Joker and vice versa. It’s heavily psychological and you’ll experience emotions from more than one perspective. Considering that Arkham City took a somewhat stop-and-start approach with The Joker conflict, thanks to the Protocol Ten and League of Shadows sub-plots, it’s good to see Batman’s arch-nemesis being the focus in Arkham Origins and the bond between the two given sufficient amount of time to flourish. It would have been great to see a better dynamic between Batman and Gordon from the outset a la Arkham City, but it is what it is.
Visually, Origins represents a decent leap over Arkham City. Environments are more detailed and feel fleshed out and lived in as opposed to grimy and neon-washed (though if you were a fan of that, don’t worry – there will be plenty of hallucinatory sequences). Animation is improved significantly but the odd few snafus including Batman botching his final attack on an enemy in a brawl depending on the foe’s positioning. For the most part, every character is convincing enough in both casting and design. The atmosphere is suitably more gothic and dark but somehow, the reduced amount of collectibles, discoveries and Easter eggs serve to dilute a connection one may have with the city.
In Arkham City, you had to struggle to keep focus as either a shiny Riddler Trophy caught your attention, Zsasz called to send you on a wild chase, Azrael demanded your attention to speak of the fate to befall Gotham, or a million other things sprung up. Origins streamlines and compartmentalizes its activities significantly, serving up a limited but well-organized buffet as opposed to a seemingly endless smorgasbord. It’s easier to manage, but at some points, you’ll actually look around to find something to distract you thanks to Arkham City’s influence.
Batman: Arkham Origins isn’t the next big game to arrive in the saga. If you came into this expecting a brand new experience that would blow you away like nothing before it, you’ll either begrudgingly accept that it continues where Arkham City left off or reject it completely. Is it a well-made game on its own? Some bugs do tend to crop up here and there in terms of clipping and collision detection. There are also some frame rate issues, with the action dipping down slightly as things become more chaotic, but it’s nothing that will break the game. If anything, it’s the inability to effectively manage fighting on steps in some cases which will annoy players more.
Arkham Origins, for better or worse, can be considered The Dark Knight Rises of the trilogy. It may or may not be better than the first game. It’s definitely not as great as the second game, which it draws from to an almost surreal extent. It stands on its own as a compelling open world action adventure game though and one that you can honestly have fun with. It could’ve been so much more but ends up being just enough.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.