When it was announced in April of this year that the next game in the award-winning Batman: Arkham video game series would be coming from WB Games Montreal, a studio that had previously only ever handled a port of a game to a new platform, a line in the sand was drawn. On one side was the fans who were excited for a new Arkham game, no matter who was in charge of its development, and on the other, a group of more cautiously optimistic fans who voiced legitimate concerns about such a highly regarded series now being in the hands of an unproven development team. For them, there was a better than average chance that WB Montreal wouldn’t be able to handle the Dark Knight’s next adventure with the same level of class and polish that Rocksteady had proven to deliver on two separate occasions.
Now that Arkham Origins has been released, however, it turns out that the latter group’s concerns were unwarranted, at least for the most part. What the new studio has delivered with Batman’s third stealth-action sandbox is largely an impressive and fun addition to the series, even if it does suffer from a bit of uninspired design flaws.
The Adventures of Young Bruce Wayne
Arkham Origins plays out as a prequel to 2009’s Batman: Arkam Asylum. Set just two years after Bruce Wayne first donned the cape and cowl to terrorize the filth of Gotham City, The Batman is still largely a myth, a scary story to tell thugs who would otherwise be unchecked in this corrupt city. It’s with this aspect of the game that Arkham Origins first begins to shine. The dedication to the idea that this is a young Batman first unleashed onto Gotham is there at every turn throughout the game. From large, grandiose displays like Batman’s future confidant Jim Gordon being completely distrusting of him; to small, intricate details like the many thugs you encounter and subsequently pummel voicing surprise both in Batman’s true existence and his skill as a fighter.
It makes the city of Gotham feel real. As you soar over the rooftops in the familiar Detective Mode, you’ll hear groups of criminals arguing with each other over rumors of The Batman, whether he exists or is just a ghost made up by the cops. The cops who, in their own right, want nothing to do with this masked vigilante patrolling their streets, as they have become quite comfortable being paid off by any of the many notorious gangsters that really run the city.
The police force represents a new foe in the game, even if it is mainly a pallette-swap from thugs to men in uniform, it’s still fun to see Batman square off against men who have also sworn to protect the city the same as him. And the main reason those fights occur comes thanks to the story told in Arkham Origins.
The Beginnings of a Twisted Relationship
It’s Christmas Eve in Gotham and Batman is a wanted man. The infamous Black Mask has brought in eight deadly assassin’s to dispatch Batman at all costs, including the $50 million he’s put up for the murder of our hero. What’s nice to see with this game is that the developer didn’t go with the mainstays of Batman’s ridiculously dense Rogues Gallery. While you certainly meet up with plenty of them, the assassins themselves are mostly made up of B or even C level foes from Batman’s past. Instead of Two Face or Catwoman, you face the likes of Copperhead, Firefly and the Electrocutioner. If you don’t know those names, I don’t blame you, they certainly get less air-time in popular culture than someone like the Joker (which we will touch on later).
As Batman determines that he cannot let such a large group of dangerous men and women roam Gotham unchecked while looking for him, he decides the best course of action is to take the challenge head on. Throughout the game you square off against criminal and civil protector alike in all of the familiar scenarios. Your average street brawls see Batman’s martial arts prowess on full display as you bounce back and forth from enemy to enemy, chaining together combos with special takedowns and all of the Dark Knight’s wonderful toys. And the silent predator confrontations are back as well, where you must stalk your prey silently, taking out each enemy without being seen in order to progress. Everything works exactly as you remember it did, thanks largely to the reusing of the animation and graphical assets left by Rocksteady.
It’s that familiarity that hurts Origins just a little bit. From Arkham Asylum to City, there was a significant leap in the feel of the games combat, the setting and the challenges for players, but with Origins that innovation simply isn’t there. Instead of Riddler trophies you are tormented by the younger version of the most intelligent villain in the world, known simply as Enigma, who’s hidden packs of data on all of Gotham’s elite in hopes of extorting them for all they’re worth. However, the way these are hidden throughout the city are all too familiar, with almost no deviation from the puzzles you had to solve in the previous game. Combat animations remain unchanged as well, only you swap Mr Freeze’s ice grenades for a glue grenade of Batman’s own creation in this game, the effects remain identical.
It’s not a bad thing, because even when you’re mimicking something blatantly, if the source material is great, there’s a good chance the results will be nearly equal. That’s exactly what you get with this game, a near by-the-numbers remake of Arkham City, with a different story painted over it. It’s all just as fun as I remember, but it doesn’t leave me near as impressed, thanks to feeling like a retread.
What is great, though, is the story. I’d like to get this out-of-the-way first; even though the story in this game is very enjoyable, this series is in desperate need of a game that doesn’t focus on The Joker as the main antagonist. The Joker is easily the most recognizable and best written villain for Batman. His popularity is probably even larger than Batman himself, as he’s become a force unto his own, but it’s time we retired him for a year or two.
Thankfully, I don’t think it’s possible for even Rocksteady to top some of Joker’s best moments in this game, so whomever takes over the inevitable sequel to this series might have an easy out for not including him. There is a segment about halfway through this game that involves the Joker that may go down as my all-time favorite Batman moment ever, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. There’s nothing more I can say to convince anyone with concerns about the story of this game than that. While the assassin storyline feels like a long-forgotten afterthought in Arkham Origins, the final half of the game has enough great moments including a particularly wonderful performance from 2013’s man of the year Troy Baker as the Clown Prince of Crime himself, to keep any dedicated fan of Batman satisfied.
While it’s hard to shake the feeling of crushing familiarity, Arkham Origins still does what the entire series has done best. Some technical issues brought down my enjoyment a bit, the frame rate chugged horribly for me anytime the game tried to throw too much on-screen at once, and a few freezes of my console were certainly not apprecgiated. But it remains an admirable addition to the series, and one that any fan should enjoy thoroughly. While it doesn’t reach the same highs that Arkham City did, few games do. If you’re searching for something to play while waiting for the new consoles to drop in a few short days, or even skipping out on the next generation launch completely, there are far worse games you could spend your time and money on.