I wish I was more careful of what I wished for. Ridiculous, yes, but that’s where playing Batman: Arkham Origins has left me. My time with the latest in the remarkable built-like-a-fridge-vigilante franchise has opened my eyes, made me lucid to my desires. After finishing its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, all I wanted was more. That’s what I got. Unfortunately.
No longer developed by Rocksteady Studios, Arkham Origins has been passed on across the pond from London to Warner Bros. Games Montréal. It tells the story of a younger and more reckless Batman, a mere two years into his career as the Caped Crusader. He, as a crime fighter, is still seen as more of a myth than reality in the eyes of the public.
The Gotham underground, however, knows better, so Black Mask organizes a manhunt. On Christmas Eve, he breaks out of Blackgate Prison and invites eight of the world’s best killers to compete for a $50 million bounty on the Bat’s head. And as he is wont to do, Batman decides it’s best to put an end to it on his terms so that no one gets hurt that doesn’t have to get hurt.
Luckily, the streets of Gotham are mostly empty. In fact, they’re strangely empty. Much in the same way as Arkham City contained nothing but bad guys in the streets and on the rooftops, everyone is fair game to get beaten to a bat-scented pulp, including members of the Gotham City Police Department. It is a major disappointment as 1) it is haphazardly explained away by the winter storm and warnings of danger in the streets, and 2) with the promise and fulfillment of a bigger open world, there was fair hope for seeing a living, breathing Gotham.
It represents the thematic problems with the game at its core, which is to say it’s sloppy. Sure, Batman is a little rougher around the edges this early into his return to Gotham, and sure, most of the cops in the city are corrupt, but he stills beats them around like they’re street thugs. And when you get the concussion grenade from the Batcave, Alfred says it’s so you don’t have to beat up policemen. But then you do anyways because the concussion grenade isn’t actually all that helpful in combat.
It’s meandering and imprecise. Arkham Asylum was about overcoming fear and becoming a better self. Arkham City was about the balance and necessity of good along with evil. Arkham Origins is about…Batman being kind of an ass? That’s not to say it’s a bad story, but it’s not as consistent as it should be and strangely relegates many of the eight assassins to side quests and cameos. The writing, however, is probably the best of the series, though Kevin Conroy is missed as Batman. (Troy Baker, however, is absolutely fantastic as The Joker.)
Mechanically, though, the game is still as taut as you remember. That’s because nothing has changed. The combat is almost entirely identical with some new enemy types, but you still attack, counter, quick-fire gadgets, and flip over dudes with shields. Sneaking around still leaves you in detective mode while hiding on vantage points and inside of vents while you lure guards into secluded areas one by one. It is all almost exactly as you remember.
And that’s great! It is still as manically fun and obsession-inducing to get a perfect combo in a massive group encounter; to do double and triple counters before summoning up a whirlwind of bats to sun everyone around you; and to cape stun a dude and then beat him into submission with a stunning and rapid succession of punches to the face. But it is still more of the same, and sadly, it shows the limits of the game’s framework. What else can you add now that you’ve maxed out controller usage (and, worse/better yet, cognitive usage)?
The navigation in the open world has also gone unchanged in Arkham Origins. Grapnel up to rooftops, launch yourself in the air, and glide away into the night. Grapnel takedowns were added, but that’s about it. It’s the same skeleton with a new skin, a new set of rooftops and buildings to infiltrate and stalk.
The problem is that it’s a worse skin. Traversing the world is a chore because half of it seems inexplicably impossible to grapnel onto. Fast travel is an ugly concession for a poor design; if the world and the game are worth it, players would be willing do the dirty work themselves.
Combat scenarios don’t get more intricate with challenging setups involving varying heights and enemies and instead just throw more and more dudes at you. All of your old tricks in the predator bits still work and they’re still just as tiring once you get into the late game. At best, some of the predator sequences happen outside and you don’t realize they’re stealth sections until you’re all up in them, which is a pleasant change of pace.
More interesting, though, is the fact that there’s somewhat of a switch in the plot about halfway through. (Trust me, this is not a spoiler, but if you want to go in completely unaware in terms of story, just skip this paragraph.) The game suddenly concerns itself with the genesis of Batman and the Joker’s strange, twisted, beautiful relationship. If you got all the case files in the past games, you might recall some of the mythos previously established, but seeing at least some of it play it is utterly delicious and warped.
But that’s about as change-of-pace-y as it gets. The collectibles are different, but they still amount to mild puzzles and trophies. Thinking about playing this back-to-back with Arkham City is heartbreaking because Arkham Origins is a good game, but it’s not a great game. If this was the first Arkham game, it would be an excellent first step. But it’s not, which lands it squarely in the Same Old bucket. Batman: Arkham Origins is more of the same, but more of the same thrown down a hill and told to stand up straight so no one sees all the bruises. But hey, I got what I wished for.
+ Still looks and sounds great
+ Fantastic voice acting and all-around quality writing
+ The parts involving The Joker are incredibly compelling
– A strangely high number of framerate issues and clipping bugs
– See more of the same gameplay highlights the limitations of the mechanics
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Batman: Arkham Origins
Release: October 25, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montéal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Players: 1 offline, 8 online