During this console generation, one of the best surprises was just how good Rocksteady’s Batman titles were. In the past, no game based specifically on comics was very good, and certainly not game of the year good. All of that changed when Arkham Asylum rocked the gaming world in 2009. They stepped their game up even further the astounding Arkham City, and now in 2013, a new studio, WB Montreal, is releasing a new entry into the Batman: Arkham series. WB Montreal certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel with Arkham Origins, but they didn’t break what makes the games so much fun.
Batman: Arkham Origins takes place in the second year of Bruce Wayne’s illustrious career as Batman, and about five or ten years before Arkham Asylum. Batman is still considered a rumor or myth, and has no friends inside of the police force. Up until this fateful Christmas Eve night, he has only taken on gangsters and mob bosses, not juiced up mercenaries or sociopath clowns. Batman’s entire world changes when Black Mask sets a $50,000,000 bounty on his head, and invites eight of the DC Universe’s deadliest killers to Gotham to claim the bounty.
As the story progresses, Batman will learn why the bounty was placed on his head, and what he needs to do to keep the city safe, all while fighting against assassins, crazed madmen, and the corrupt GCPD. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, but as the night goes on, Batman will find new allies, and lay the foundation for his relationships (both friendly and not) for the years to come. Unfortunately for the game, the over-arching story gets convoluted at times, and falls to heavily back on tropes of the Arkham series to keep me fully invested. Often times, I enjoyed the Most Wanted missions (side missions focusing on one villain) more than some of the tedious story missions. The story shines at a few moments, like the confrontation with Firefly, but is often held up by many areas that just feel incredibly long (I’m looking at you, Penguin’s lair).
Arkham Origin’s Batman is a young, less refined Batman. He is a bit bulkier then we normally see, and uses his brute force over finesse. The team at WB Montreal took cues from works like Batman Year One and Earth One to best showcase a Batman who is still learning how he can best try to save his city. Roger Craig Smith voices the Caped Crusader, and does his best to be a younger version of Kevin Conroy’s iconic voice. He does a surprisingly good job, though I found his voice a little off putting at first.
But what is Batman without his villains? Arkham Origins pits players against many of the classic members of Batman’s rouges gallery, like The Penguin and Bane, and great characters from the expanded DC Universe like Deathstroke and Deadshot. All of these characters are well voice acted, and are a great representation of their comic and animated series selves. Certain characters, like Deathstroke and Bane, certainly get to shine brighter than others, but no villain really felt under developed. Great performances from actors like Mark Rolston, Nolan North, and Wally Wingert round out the excellent villain cast.
The most important villain in any Batman story is, of course, the Joker. Arkham Origins shows the first time Batman and The Joker meet, and really explores why these two men will be obsessed with one another for many years to come. We see this relationship from both perspectives, and can see why the Joker feels the need to test our hero in extraordinary and insane ways (like we have already seen in Arkham Asylum and City). Troy Baker steps into the incredibly large shoes left by Mark Hamill, and knocks it out of the park. Baker channels many of Hamill’s mannerism, and yet crafts himself a unique take on the character.
With Arkham Origins, we have a full sized Gotham city to play in. The map is about twice the size of Arkham City, but really only the lower half of the map is new. The upper portion was the entire map for Arkham City, but with seemingly less detail. It’s not just likened quite a bit off Arkham City, it seems like it was basically ripped straight out of Arkham City’s code. The conspiracy theorist in me also thinks that the choice to set the game on Christmas Eve was just so they didn’t have to build any other weather setting. The Christmas Eve setting works well, but I can’t help but think it was just an excuse for less work or budget constraints.
This Gotham may be bigger, but it really feels devoid of life, or reasons that I should about it. There is quite a bit to do, like stopping street crimes and finding Riddler Data packets (which have replaced the trophies from Asylum and City) but their doesn’t seem to be any point to do any of it. The Most Wanted missions are back and do provide a showcase for some of Batman’s lesser villains like Anarky and Mad Hatter (and his singing thugs), while often showcasing a more cohesive story then the main plot. Unfortunately, many of these missions are just finding different objects around Gotham, and can feel repetitive quite quickly.
Batman always seems to have a gadget to get out of any situation, may it be Shark repellent bat-spray or the carefully placed batarang. Arkham Origins gives Batman a few new gadgets like the Remote grapple, which allows Batman to create a tether between two anchor points or fling an enemy into an object, and the Shock Gauntlets, which power up during your battles and, once powered up, allow you to punch through any defenses enemies have. I found the Shock Gloves to add a fun new element to combat, but the other new gadgets didn’t really feel needed to me.
One “new” gadget, the glue grenade, is just a re-skin of the freeze grenades from previous games. You even through it into the water and use it as a raft like the freeze grenades. That kind of blatant laziness just irks me the wrong way. The game does expand on the Cryptographic Sequencer, by adding in challenges where you must complete multiple synchs during one timed sitting, and upping the difficulty on the normally easy synchs. Detective mode sees an upgrade as well, where it can literally recreate crime scenes. It’s full potential is only shown off a few times, but it’s a welcome addition that reminds us Batman is still suppose to be the world’s greatest detective.
The freeflow combat system returns in this title, and it is just as smooth and satisfying as ever. Freeflow was such a brilliant system that very little has really been changed by WB Montreal. The Shock Gloves I spoke about above add the biggest change, as they will allow you punch through any defenses, like shields or body armor, that the enemies have. New enemies have also been added like the martial arts master, who has to be countered twice, and the Brute, who you have to ultra-stun to attack at all. These new additions are ok, but they don’t quite feel like natural evolutions. Seeing Penguin randomly have a Kung Fu specialist on his staff when all others are basic thugs just feels odd, and took me out of the action. While I love freeflow, I’m also really hoping to see it evolve with the times, but WB Montreal played it safe, and gave us more of the same.
One moment that truly excelled though, was the boss fight against Deathstroke. Deathstroke is one of the greatest warriors in the DC Universe, and when Batman is still learning, he is arguably better than the Caped Crusader in a fight. His boss fight is easily the most difficult of the game, but it’s also the most rewarding. You have to time your counters just perfectly, and be quick with all of your actions in order to defeat him. I failed this fight about 6 times, but realized it was brilliantly designed to test your skills at a level never before needed. This trend continued in later boss fights, but never to quite the same level of the Deathstroke fight.
Challenges maps have returned, and still continue to offer the best condensed moments of fun that Arkham offers. I have always loved going into both the combat and predator challenges and trying to get the highest score possible, and Origins adds all new challenges. By buying the game new, I am able to play as my favorite character: Deathstroke. Deathstroke played a lot like Nightwing from Arkham City, but has a bit more brute force to nearly all of his strikes. Overall, players can continue to try to get more trophies and high scores on the challenge maps, and keep having a good time with a focused experience.
Developer Splash Damage brings multiplayer to the Arkham franchise for the first time, pitting players in 3v3v2 matches. Two teams of three will play as members of either Joker or Bane’s gang, where they fight over control of different points, and attempt to lower the opponents respawn counter. Two other players play as Batman and Robin, where they must take-down members of each team to increase the fear meter. Once the meter is full, the two gangs flee and Batman and Robin win. The gangs can lower the meter by killing the Dark Knight or Boy Wonder, and can even play as either Bane or Joker to get their kills quicker. These gang bosses both feel unique, and offer an extremely diverse style compared to the third person shooting style of the gang members, or classic gameplay of the heroes.
The game ships with four multiplayer maps, and they all played ok. None really jumped out as overly impressive, but I’m sure Splash Damage will release more down the road as DLC. Players can customize their gang member with different shirts, pants, masks, hair, and much more. Batman and Robin also get different skins, though almost all of them are ripped directly from Arkham City’s DLC costumes. Overall, the multiplayer is a fun addition, but I can’t see myself getting too deep into it.
All of the Arkham titles have run on the Unreal Engine 3, and the engine still manages to impress. There is basically no texture pop-ins, or any real loading times beyond the initial boot up. Animations outside of cutscenes are well done, and I didn’t notice any drops on frame rate on the Xbox 360. The voice acting is all around good, as I already touched on, but Commissioner Gordon’s voice just felt phoned in. The score of title imitated both the Animated series (and subsequently, previous Arkham games) and Hans Zimmer’s famous score from the Dark Knight films. It had it’s moments of wowing me, but the overall game around it wasn’t up to it’s level.
Overall WB Montreal has created a fun game that takes no real risks. They took everything that worked from the Arkham series and did not fundamentally change any of it. Heck, it seems they even ripped many parts directly from Arkham City, and put a new coat of paint on them. Multiplayer does add fun, but isn’t isn’t strong enough to be the main reason to buy the game. It’s worrying that this level of change, or lack of change, could become standard if two studios are now working on Batman games. If you’re looking for the evolution of Batman games, you will not find it in Arkham Origins. However, if you loved what the previously titles did, and want more great stories and moments with Batman, then look no further than Arkham Origins.
Overall Score: 3 out of 5
Full disclosure: I played Batman: Arkham Origins on Xbox 360 with a copy purchased from Gamestop. The campaign took about 11 hours to complete, and I only completed a few side missions (specifically: Anarky’s and another character’s). I am also an unabashed Deathstroke fan, and played through only his challenge maps thus far. I completed four matches of multiplayer, playing one as Robin, and the other three as gang members. Images taken from Warner Brother’s official website. The Batman and Robin image was taken from OXM UK.