As far as uninspiring, flat-out concerning names go, Batman: Arkham Origins is a doozy. It’s a strange name for a game that isn’t actually set within Arkham, nor developed by the team behind the first two Arkham games. Worse still Batman’s origins are well catalogued at this point, between the recent films, the current ‘Zero Year’ run in the comics, and Frank Miller’s iconic ‘Year One’. It’s a relief then to discover that Origins is actually set two years into Batman’s career, and is intended as a sort-of backdoor origin story for another character, albeit one heavily cribbed from a certain popular Batman book (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers here). If you’ve been fearing the worst ever since the whole endeavour was announced (as I sort-of have), Arkham Origins is a relief altogether, even if it never reaches the heights of its predecessors.
Arkham Origins’ quality is largely down to the quality of its mimicry. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Arkham Origins is a big showy proposal delivered during a Super Bowl half-time show. Arkham Origins never, ever tries to be better than City. It’s an extremely conservative game, in terms of both its gameplay and its politics (more on that in a bit), playing things right down the line and replicating proven experiences from the previous games. A few details have been added or tweaked, but the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy at the game’s core is always clear. The good news here is the Arkham series was so very far from being broken that WB Games Montreal comfortably get away with this.
The plot set-up is simple. Black Mask has put out a $50 million bounty on Batman’s head on Christmas Eve, a grab-back of villains have been identified as potential assassins, and ol’ Bats decides that Alfred’s Christmas ham can wait until he’s gone out and made the streets of Gotham safe. This premise signals a structure that isn’t quite followed through on, as Batman spends little time actively tracking these assassins, but there’s a general understanding at all times that simply blazing forward will bring you into contact with his enemies sooner or later.
In theory, giving us a prequel after City’s wonderful ending seems like a bit of a cop-out, working out of the interesting corner the series wrote itself into rather than going about the more difficult but potentially satisfying task of tackling the aftermath of that game’s events. But even if it doesn’t aim high, Origins works as a Batman story. It provides a neat set-up for the events we’ve already witnessed, and gives some great insights into which pieces of the comic’s mythology have been brought into the Arkham universe. The script is serviceable and well performed by the cast, although there are occasional missteps (Jim Gordon in particular is a bit of a bore).
The action has moved into Gotham proper this time, which is theoretically a cool idea. Batman stories occasionally lose sight of what it is that draws Bruce to save Gotham, but Arkham City put the importance of Gotham’s safety front and centre as it drew to its conclusion. The steady expansion of the previous Arkham games made it feel as though Rocksteady were gradually working their way up to inserting their hero into a proper living world where not everyone is out for his blood. Alas, Arkham Origins happens inside a bizarro version of Gotham, where the streets have been taken over by goons and corrupt cops. There’s no one on the streets on Christmas Eve, no celebrations, no carols, no nothing. It’s an enormous wasted opportunity, one that further solidifies the true goal of the game – to replicate Arkham City as much as possible.
But while the city may be a disappointment, it’s a disappointment packed full of stuff to do. There doesn’t seem to be as many sidequests or hidden objects in this game as there were in the last one, but by any reasonable measure Origins is still absolutely stuffed with side activities outside of the main mission. The Riddler, bless him, is as proactive as ever, packing every exterior and interior location with enough objects to keep completionists going for an absurdly long time. A city with some breath in its lungs would have been nice, but what we’ve ended up with isn’t without merit.
The highlight of the Arkham games has always been the combat, which remains the case here. Rocksteady’s fighting system is beautiful, and the decision by the developers to leave it largely untouched was a wise one. The electro-gloves from the Wii U’s Armoured Edition of Arkham City make an appearance, but other than that changes are limited to a few enemy types that I didn’t recognise and slightly smoother animation. The experience and upgrade systems allow you to gradually get stronger and unlock new moves, which make for a nice sense of progression, and getting into a good state of flow as you rain blows down is as satisfying as ever. The ‘predator’ encounters – which involve entering a room full of armed men and taking them all down as quietly as possible – are exceptionally familiar, but the formula still works... although if you’re like me and tend to use the same effective strategies over and over, they can start to feel a bit humdrum. The separate score-based challenge maps are back as well. They’re more of the same, really, but the enthusiasm this series attracts guarantees that there’s an audience out there that isn’t yet tired of them.
But as great as the action is, Arkham Origins is noticeably less polished than its predecessors. The core engine holding all three Arkham games together may be rock solid, but Rocksteady simply had a better grasp of the design principles. The grapple’s range seems to vary wildly on a situation by situation basis, which can occasionally make exploration a chore. The missions don’t take you through many interesting locations, the checkpointing is occasionally horrendous, and waypoints and level designs frequently make the way forward unclear. I also encountered numerous glitches that forced checkpoint restarts, including one that seemed game-breaking and which was only resolved on my fourth attempt.
Despite some nice cutscene work, this Batman occasionally feels closer to Frank Miller’s abusive arsehole Batman than the conflicted Dark Knight he’s most commonly depicted as these days, which would be fine if the game didn’t lack nuance in its portrayal of the character. This won’t be a big issue for everyone, but the sheer effectiveness of intimidation and torture in this game wore me down. There’s a way of doing this and making it work, as the best Batman tales often do, but it’s a shame that the World’s Greatest Detective always gets his results by punching men in the face.
It’s worth mentioning that the game contains a multiplayer mode as well, which we didn’t get to test out yet. It hasn’t been considered for this review, but for what it’s worth it sounds like an interesting, albeit slightly unwieldy, addition – two teams fight it out with third person shooter controls, while ‘hero’ characters stalk them out, trying to win by building up an ‘intimidation’ meter. Whether the shooter controls hold up is anyone’s guess.
For all its faults, Arkham Origins lives up to the prestige associated with its name. It’s easy to be negative about it, simply because everything it does well the previous games also pulled off splendidly, but the fact is that if the other Arkham games didn’t exist this would be the best Batman game ever by a mile. Best case scenario, Arkham Origins is a well-meaning squeeze of the cash-cow’s teat designed to tide over fans and keep the franchise visible in the public eye while Rocksteady work on something truly special for the next generation of machines. This is the shady reality of the Triple A games industry, but we’d be damn lucky if every B-studio was turning out work this solid.