Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Warner Bros. Montreal
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Batman returns for his third outing in the Arkham series, this time flying the banner of a completely new developer created solely to take over from the now legendary Rocksteady. This puts the new studio in an awkward place, forced to decide between making the game their own or simply copying Arkham City, tossing in a few new pieces and forever standing in the shadow of what came before. Sadly they have chosen to go for the latter, be it through their own decision or at the behest of Warner Bros. simply demanding one more money-spinner before this generation reaches its end. Batman: Arkham Origin’s main theme is familiarity, from its gameplay to its lead villain. Yet that does not stop it from being excellent.
The premise is simplistic but provides ample reason for a selection of Batman’s enemies to make an appearance: it’s Christmas Eve and the Black Mask has placed a $50-million bounty on the head of Batman for one night only, an impressive sum of money which attracts the attention of eight would-be assassins from around the world, including Bane and Deathstroke. To make matters worse a storm is hitting Gotham City and a collection of Batman’s rogue gallery, like the Mad Hatter and Deadshot, have also decided to make a run for the Bat in the game’s side-missions. Origin’s takes place just two-years into Batman’s fable crime-fighting career, showing a green-behind-the-ears Batman encountering his first ever supervillains.
Considering how much the Black Mask has been built up by Warner Bros. in trailers and previews as the big baddie of the game, he is quickly shuffled off to the side in order for the Joker to once again take centre stage and lead the orchestra of carnage. As a fan of the character his return is welcome in one way, but disappointing in another. With the Black Mask present and a strong premise for the story the Joker simply didn’t need to be central villain for a third time running. His importance in the story was the first thing to bring a bitter, cynical edge to my thoughts, like Warner Bros had a panic attack after the ending of Arkham City, demanding that a prequel be made in order bring the Joker back. This is just one of the many ways in which Batman: Arkham Origins feels likes a stop-gap measure created only to generate cash while the world eagerly awaits Rocksteady’s next effort, assuming of course that they’re working on a new Batman game.
However, the developers do at least handle the character of the Joker well. A new voice actor is playing the role, putting on his best Mark Hamil impression and doing a damn good job of it in the process while bringing in just enough of his own performance to give the Joker in Origin a distinct sound. Since Origin is set during just second year of Batman’s career we get to explore the very first meeting between the Dark Knight and Clown Prince of Crime within this version of the universe, a moment that has been trampled by a myriad of comics over the years which examined every aspect of their intriguing relationship. It’s here where the game gets its moniker: this isn’t an origin story for Batman, it’s an origin story for the strange, twisted and dark connection between the vigilante and his greatest adversary To my delight Batman: Arkham Origins takes the time the time to delve into psychology of the Joker and his strange fascination with the Batman, treading dangerously into hallowed ground that many a comic book has explored, but doing so with an expert touch that quietly ensures that it can stand proudly alongside the best comic works that have tacked the very same subject. There’s a section of the game where the Joker meets the future Harley Quinn and talks about his first encounter with Batman, speaking as though he has fallen in love. It’s brilliantly written and riveting. In fact under Warner Bros. Montreal’s direction every scene with the Joker is fascinating to watch, easily rivalling and arguably surpassing those presented to us in the past two games. Mark Hamil may not be providing the voice of the Joker anymore, but this new version has a slight edge to his voice that I’ve come to love, leading me to believe that this is my favorite portrayal of the character in the Batman games. And now if you listen closely you can hear the anguished screams of rage from the Mark Hamil fans.
While it may occasionally miss a beat, and can at times feel a little rushed, this is still a well-told tale worthy of the current Scott Snyder comic run, masterfully capturing the dark dynamic between the Joker and Batman through beautiful cutscenes that sport damn good dialogue. There are several glorious scenes like the aforementioned foray into the Jokers mind and his view of the Batman, and a brief glimpse into the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, that outshine anything presented to us by Rocksteady. The Arkham games could never be accused of having anything more than simple overall plots, and Origin’s really is no different, but what’s done with it and the quality of writing is a step-up. While the rest of the game feels like an imitation of brilliant design struggling to capture the same spark which made the original so great, the story and what’s done with the characters is the sole area in which the imitators can claim to have surpassed the masters.
But what are those missed beats I mentioned? Well, first and foremost Batman’s relative inexperience, much talked about by the developers before launch, never get’s utilised as much as it could or should have been past a few small mistakes he makes earlier on. With Batman still green behind the ears and this being the very first time he’s ever encountered villains of this high calibre Warner Bros Montreal missed a perfect change to craft a night of pure hell for Batman, the assassin’s and Joker razing the character to the ground before he is forged anew as the Batman we know from the later of games. With the likes of the Joker and the incredibly menacing Bane out for his blood this could have been Batman’s crucible, allowing for a tale which rips him apart physically and mentally, but ultimately Batman accepts the appearance of this strange people with relative calm. Only the Joker has a bit impact on him, and even then the writers never really take it far enough to make this a genuinely classic Batman tale.
The story is parceled up neatly in first-rate presentation. The cutscenes are astounding in their visual quality and have a real flair for cinematography that captures everything beautifully. Meanwhile the score is equally impressive. Hans Zimmerman continues to do brilliant work, creating a dark, brooding and exciting soundtrack for Batman that is genuinely a pleasurable listening experience. Hell, I’d be willing to buy the soundtrack separately, not something I do often, let me tell you.
The core of the gameplay remains a mixture of all-out combat and the sublime Predator sections which place you in a room of enemies and handy vantage points, tasking you with eliminating everyone. It’s these Predator areas that capture the power fantasy of being Batman so perfectly, allowing you to stalk your prey from the shadows using a variety of takedown moves to thin the herd, striking from around corners, grabbing enemies through windows, laying traps using explosive gel and stringing thugs up from the rafters. It’s a well-balanced blend of feeling immensely powerful – a feeling only emphasised by how your enemies grow more and more terrified as their comrades disappear, flinching at the merest sound and firing madly into the darkness – while at the same time remaining vulnerable to gunfire so as to make sure you never get too cocky. It’s these sections which are the highlights of Batman: Arkham Origins, at least from a gameplay perspective. As enjoyable as the Predator sections are the experience remains exactly the same as Arkham City, the developers presumably choosing to leave the formula completely alone for fear of ruining or, or because they simply had no idea how to improve upon it. Even Batman’s “new” gadgets are essentially reskinned versions of those seen in the previous games – the Glue Grenade replaces the Freeze Grenade, doing exactly the same thing, while the Line Launcher is now known as the Remote grapnel.
The freeflow combat system of the Batman games has been heralded by some as the best combat seen in a videogame. It’s a bold claim, but one that I can understand. The developers haven’t fiddled with the formula much here, either, tossing in just a few new enemy types to help keep you on your toes while recycling pretty much everything else. The most interesting of those new additions is the martial artist who tests your countering skills mid-battle. This is a combat system that revolves around timing and rhythm: as you land a blow you tap the button again to launch into the next attack. Doing so successfully builds your combo meeting, making your strikes faster and giving you access to special combo moves. The key is to flow from enemy to enemy, countering strikes as you go. Certain enemy types require you to do things differently, such as stunning a large man and initiating a Beatdown for heavy damage, or leaping over a thug wielding a stun baton. The only truly new addition to the freeflow combat outside of the enemies is a set of Shock Gloves which must have their charge built up throughout the fight. Once activated they enhance your blows considerably, and manage to slip into your repertoire fairly easily.
As good as the combat still is, something does feel a little strange about it here in Origins. The timing for strikes and counters seems to be just a little off from the previous games, a touch less consistent as well. Perhaps I’m only imagining it, but combat just doesn’t flow quite as well as it once did. Also, Batman seemed to have trouble targeting enemies properly on occasion, leaving him to flair ineffectually at the air, while other times I’d tap the button combination for a ground takedown and the caped crusader would merely stand there, seemingly baffled. To be sure I loaded up Arkham City, and Arkham Asylum for safe measure, and found none of these same problems.
The lack of improvement, refinement or modification to those two core tenants of the Arkham series is both commendable and disappointing. On the one hand it’s good that the developers choose not to unnecessarily mess with a winning formula, making changes merely for the sake of it, something which other companies have made the mistake of doing. And yet on the other hand the absence of change results in a sense of deja-vu, and reinforces the nagging feeling that the Arkham series is on the path to becoming a dangerous annual release along the lines of Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case it’s a pure copy and paste job, albeit one in which the level design for the Predator sections isn’t quit up to the same standard as in the previous games.
Boss battles within the Arkham series have been something of a mixed bag. In Origins’ they’re more consistent in their quality, offering up some fun battles, but once again familiarity does rear it’s head. We’re forced to tangle with Bane once again on several occasions, and his moveset remains almost identical, leading to a frustrating battle as all of the problems present in past confrontations with the hulking man remain, namely that swamping the fight with minions makes it frustrating, not fun, especially given that evading his attacks is a bit haphazard. A fiece back-and-forth with Deathstroke is enjoyable, but is ultimately a glorified quick-time event with repeating animations. Meanwhile the Firefly and Copperhead fights draw heavily on the Poison Ivy and Ra’s Al Ghul fights of the previous games, but remain enjoyable enough.
Detective mode has been fleshed out, although the changes are really neither for the worse or for the better. Batman’s handy detective technology can now construct a holographic display of what happened at the crime scene which can then be rewound in order to find clues and solve the case. It’s a great idea in principle but in execution you are once again just along for the ride. Clues are highlighted with a bright red triangle, so there’s no feeling of satisfaction to be gained from scouring a scene yourself. Rewinding a crime scene is almost solely used for finding out where an item fell or where a bullet came from, and again the trajectories of these things are highlighted for you, so you’re little more than a passive participant that’s occasionally asked to hold down the “scan” button. Still, at least a shade more emphasis has been placed on Batman’s deductive reasoning this time during the story, although I’d still like his status as the worlds greatest detective utilised more.
Given that almost everything in Arkham Origins has been simply copied over from Arkham City one of the biggest selling points that the developers have been pushing during the build-up to the game’s launch is that they’ve doubled the size of map, introducing a whole new section of Gotham for you to explore. They certainly weren’t exaggerating: venture over the long bridge connection to two sections of the city and you’ll find yourself in a whole area filled with much taller buildings, but it’s ultimately just more space added in for no discernible reason. It’s an amateur mistake, assuming that making the world bigger automatically makes the game better, and it’s simply not true. Arkham City lost some of the focus that worked so well in Arkham Asylum by introducing an open-world for players to explore, and Arkham Origins has compounded that mistakes by presenting us with a chunk of empty space that’s just there. There’s nothing filling that space aside from a few side missions and collectibles, all of which could have been fitted neatly into a smaller area. Nor is this new slice of Gotham all that interesting: it seems to lack the same amount of personality and detail exhibited by places like Amusement Mile and the like. A harsh “super” storm is mentioned early in the game as a haphazard explanation as to why this supposedly alive city has no people bar thugs roaming the streets on Christmas Eve. It’s a paper-thin excuse that clearly holds no water, and the lack of life on the city streets is a little disconcerting. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, nor will you notice too much since most of your time is spent gliding through the night sky, but it would still be nice to see at least the occasional person running for cover or doing some last-minute shopping.
To get around this expanded city you’ve got access to the Bat-Wing, but only in cutscene form as it can be used to fast-travel around the place, a most welcome time-saving feature given the increased scope of the game. In the meantime we’ll just have to maintain hope that Rocksteady or whoever is developing the next Batman game will finally allow us to get behind the wheel of the Batmobile or the stick of the Bat-Wing, and thereby make all of your slightly childish but no less awesome dreams come true. In order to travel around, though, you must first disable towers located around the map, an idea that sounds awfully familiar having been used by what feels like every damn studio in Montreal. What’s up with that?
Spread around the murky streets of Gotham are Enigma’s collectibles, forerunners to the Riddler’s very same mini-puzzles found in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. They’ve lost much of their addictive charm here, though, with each little puzzle completed in seconds using methods you’ve already used many times prior, both in Origins itself and in the previous two games, relying mostly on an abundance of code-locked doors and remote batarang mazes. And speaking of code-locked doors Origins has the bloody things in abundance, seemingly determined that the best way to combat the otherwise linear progression is to stick locked doors in your path at every possible opportunity. Side-missions are also present around the city, used to introduce you to a variety of Batman’s lesser known enemies, although to be fair the likes of Copperhead from the main storyline are hardly names that spring to mind when citing Batman’s main foes. They’re enjoyable little romps that help to flesh out the game’s length, but most of them don’t have great narrative resolutions to them which is a real shame.
The upgrade system returns, allowing you to unlock and improve Batman and his selection of gadgets as the game goes on, but Montreal have played with the formula and not for the better. Previously it was possible to unlock special combo moves before anything else or improve your armor first, but now you’re forced to increase Batman’s armor before you’re allowed to access the extra combat moves. On top of that most of the upgrades are not all that interesting or really needed.
Batman: Arkham Origins also heralds the first time multiplayer has made an appearance in the series, developed by Splash Damage rather than the team in charge of singleplayer. On paper it’s an intriguing concept: three players take on the role of the Joker’s goons, another three are Bane’s thugs, and the final two players step into the boots of Batman and Robin. To win while playing as a hapless goon you need to lower the enemy team’s reinforcement count to zero, done by killing enemies and capturing the three points around the map. If you’re wearing the tight leather pants of a hero then victory is achieved by filling up the intimidation meter, which is done by taking out thugs from either gang. While that means you’ve got a total of 6-targets at any given time, there is a catch: get killed and the intimidation meter loses a chunk, encouraging you to play carefully and stick to the shadows. Meanwhile performing varied takedowns fills the meter quicker. Finally both teams of thugs can call in their respective villain – Bane or the Joker – during the match, quickly turning the tide of battle.
So, we’ve got an interesting idea that fits in decently with the Batman lore, even if it’s not made clear why Robin is present given that he is never mentioned within the singleplayer portion of the game. There’s a palpable sense of dread when playing as a thug because you know that out there in the shadows somewhere Batman is waiting for you, creating a tense atmosphere as you shuffle around the map trying to get on with things while keeping a wary eye out for the merest hint of a cape. On the other side of that coin there’s a lovely sense of smug satisfaction to be gained from playing as Batman or Robin and taking down human players using your predatory tactics and selection of gadgets.
However, everything begins to fall quickly apart once you actually begin playing for a while. As a thug you can look forward to a basic cover system and sluggish movement couple with loose aiming, , quickly sucking out any sense of fun. This leaves you to just spray and pray much of the time and struggling to combat the much more fluid and faster heroes who are determined to make your life miserable. Meanwhile controlling Batman and his sidekick is a considerably more fun experience, the control scheme that works so well in the singleplayer proving to be a little less suited to the quicker pace of multiplayer and the reactions of human players but managing to work nonetheless. Gliding around the maps, picking of stragglers as you go, brings a smile to the face, but mostly just suceeded in making me hate my time as a goon more. Balancing is something of a problem as well: at the moment it feels like that in the hands of a semi-skilled player either of the heroes are a devastating force that the thugs struggle too much to combat while attempting to get on with their own objectives. To try and balance this out neither hero can take much damage, but even with this something about it still feels unfair. However, I struggle to think of a way that the heroes could be weakened without compromising what makes them so much fun to play as. Perhaps the sound of their footsteps and capes could be increased to give thugs a chance to hear them coming. IN the interests of being fair, though, I didn’t manage to get a lot of time in with the multiplayer, so it’s very possible that some of the unlockable gear helps counter the reign of terror that is Batman and Robin. Both the of villains feel overpowered as well, capable of rampaging through the opposing force with reckless abandon, the Joker using his one-shot pistol and Bane his rocket launcher. While these powerful buggers can help a struggling team get back in the game, it can also help a team already ahead dominate the match.
There are also numerous things which suggest that nowhere near enough time was spent developing the multiplayer. Actually finding a match can take up to five minutes because the game demands eight players in order to begin playing, despite the fact that in private games 2v2 with another person taking on the role of Batman seemed to work well enough. You can’t party up with your friends, either, so playing together requires some considerable communication. At the moment there’s also just one mode and half a dozen maps to play, so after a short while you’ll likely be feeling fed up.
I had fun with the multiplayer portion of Arkham Origins, but mostly only when I was playing as Batman or Robin, enjoying the sensation of being an all-powerful stealth machine striking fear into the hears of unobservant gamers everywhere. Playing as a one of the gang members, though, was a bland third-person shooter experience. Still, there is real potential hidden away here, and I for one hope that Warner Bros. and Rocksteady/Montreal are willing to build on the foundations laid here in a future game because it could be something unique and enjoyable.
A few bugs and problems hampered my time with the game. Three crashes forced me to restart the console, while twice I encountered a glitch which stopped me interrogating an enemy, one of which resulted in me being stuck in a small room, again making me restart. I also ran in to some confused enemies stuck at the bottom of ladders. On the multiplayer front guns some times refused to fire or the sprint didn’t want to work. Playing as Batman or Robin I’d get caught up in scenery or my glide-kick attack would halt in mid-air for no discernible reason. All of these problems can be fixed with patches, but it’s one more area in which Montreal demonstrate a lack of polish and detail in comparison to Rocksteady.
It’s incredibly easy to feel immensely cynical about Batman: Origins. Something about it simply exudes this feeling of being little more than a money generating tool for Warner Bros designed purely to tide them over until Rocksteady return with a fully fledged sequel, assuming that’s what they’re doing. Even the return of the Joker and his subsequent role in the story can be viewed from a cynical perspective, namely that Warner Bros desperately wanted to bring him back simply to help sell their game, worried that they and the developers would not be able to craft a story around another villain, namely the Black Mask who I feel could have indeed carried the entire plot had he been given the chance. They even brought back Bane for his third outing, for reasons best known to themselves, although I assume it has something to do with the fact that he was in The Dark Knight Rises last year. And then there’s the multiplayer, which again can be viewed as nothing more than a company attempting to tack stuff on in a bid to attract a bigger audience, although I must say that there’s definite unrealised potential there. The truth is that Rocksteady made a great game, not Warner Bros Montreal – they simply chucked a few more things in that frankly did nothing to improve the overall game except in a few small ways, while Splash Damage constructed an intriguing but flawed multiplayer. Predator mode has a few extra toys that are merely reskinned versions of gadgets that came before, freeflow has a few extra enemies and there’s a massive chunk of empty city with little reason for existing past being a selling point for the back of the box. The only thing which Montreal can lay claim to is for writing a good plot which outshines that which was seen in the previous two games, which for many players will likely be enough to tempt them into picking up Origins.
But do not think that Batman: Arkham Origins is a bad game. It’s not. It’s great. It’s arguably just as good as Batman: Arkham City, albeit missing a certain undefinable spark that Rocksteady. It’s simply a very familiar game, and the problem that I’ve always when writing reviews is exactly how do you tackle such a thing? Should points be removed from the final score for being largely the same as what came before? If so, how many points? Yet to do so is unfair to anyone who hasn’t played the previous games, it is to do the game an injustice. What if a newcomer reads this review and comes away thinking the game is terrible because of the score, when really it isn’t? Thus should a game perhaps not be reviewed for its own merits? Reviews from all schools of thought range across the net, including Jim Sterling’s brilliant review where he awarded the game just 3.5/10. I understand the stand Jim was making in that review. I applaud it, but for me it did the game an injustice, because the game isn’t bad and ultimately that’s what I’m here to try to determine. Yet the sense of deja vu cannot and should not be ignored, either, otherwise we end up with annual releases that do little more than copy and paste everything from the last game. So at what point do we draw the line? At what point does familiarity become too much? Clearly that would differ with each game.
God, who knew this reviewing malarky could make me think so hard? My head hurts.
And then there’s Montreal themselves, placed in a terrible position having been given the keys to a monumental franchise and tasked with creating a new game out of it. There’s the constant fear of how much should be changed. Do you risk making it your own game, making big changes and thus risk alienating fans? Or do you play it safe, and risk the wrath of critics and gamers alike for creating something that feels like a copy and paste job? It’s not an easy thing to do.
No, it’s enough for me to tell you about how similar Arkham Origins is to Arkham City. And to proclaim loudly that Warner Bros. should not rest on their laurels with this truly excellent franchise. Batman deserves better than this. The score shall reflect the quality of the game, and the quality is damn good. Great, even. It’s another fine Batman romp which places you in the armored boots of one of the greatest comic heroes of all time, that places you in a beautiful power-fantasy where you are a feared predator who strikes from the shadows.
+ Strong story.
+ Stalking fools.
+ The Joker!
– Familiar gameplay.
– Larger city means even less focus.
– Multiplayer doesn’t really work. Yet.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
While it lacks the same spark that makes the Rocksteady Batman titles so exceptional this is a great game, albeit one that has not had its gameplay improved nor refined in any meaningful since the previous title.