written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
After the masterpiece of gameplay and storytelling that was Batman: Arkham City, the timeline takes a little step back returning instead to the origins of the Dark Knight and how he first met some of the greatest members of his rouges gallery as a young caped crusader. This is a game I have equally been anticipating and worried for, I have played Arkham Asylum/City multiple times and spent countless hours beating down thugs in challenge maps and exploring every inch of the environment, especially being in an open world like the last game, it’s sufficient to say I really got my money’s worth out of these games.
As much as I loved Rocksteady’s take on the Batman mythos (I was sold when they cast Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in Arkham Asylum) I was hesitant to allow myself to get hyped up when I found out that not only was Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill not returning for Batman: Arkham Origins but also that the game would be developed by WB Games Montreal using assets provided by Rocksteady. I assume that this was because Rocksteady is currently working on a next-gen Arkham game. My faith in outsourcing development of a sequel to another developer hasn’t been iron clad, Knights of the Old Republic 2 (developed by Obsidian) was a buggy shell of how great the original KOTOR was, and while I loved Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas (also developed by Obsidian) felt like absolute shite and did not capture the same experience I had playing its former.
As a Batman fan and a die hard follower of the Arkham series, I had to give this game a shot (for better or for worse) but to be honest, the core gameplay of the Arkham games sits at such a sweet level of damn near perfection that even if the story of Arkham Origins was absolute garbage, I would still enjoy the game for the gameplay alone.
It’s Christmas Eve and Black Mask has put a bounty on your head, by this point Bruce Wayne has been Batman for only two years; he’s raw, stubborn, and intensely untrusting of the GCPD. The city is empty and citizens are urged to stay indoors. The streets are empty save for members of the GCPD and various thugs working for one of the many criminal elements in the city, in an effort to protect the denizens of Gotham, Batman goes out into a snow covered city to apprehend the assassins chasing him.
At first I was curious about how the Joker would fit into this, when they were announcing the list of villains, characters like Copperhead or Deathstroke fit right in with the list of assassins, but Joker is the kind of villain you can’t really put into words. His involvement will eventually become something you were not expecting and this reveal was hands down my favorite moment from the narrative. As an origin story, the mythos is already solidified but to see how the Arkham universe finds its origin is ultimately satisfying.
One aspect I was very critical of, I assume is because of how well crafted the story of Arkham City was, is that I was not as engaged with Origins as I was with City. The core story I thought was good but many of the side missions felt more like throwaway segments, not really contributing much to the overall story, with Arkham City all the stories woven into side quests had that one common denominator with the main narrative, we are all trapped here in Arkham City and these are the stories of the criminals forced to survive it. Disarming Anarky’s bombs and hunting down Black Mask’s drug stashes can’t hold a candle to the Hush side quest or the even Bane’s side quest from City. It may be a bit of a spoiler but I feel like I need to address this, while eight assassins are chasing Batman, not all the encounters feel like the epic battles they should. Shiva and Deadshot are very easy to miss since prompting their encounters involve triggering more of a side quest rather than being part of the main quest, and the way they handled the Electrocutioner… absolute disappointment.
The DC Universe was mentioned quite often in the narrative, from cues about Metropolis to storage containers with the Queen Industries logo slapped on it. Those who have a strong understanding of Batman in the comics will also notice references ripped directly from the pages of “Knightfall” and “A Killing Joke” right alongside this tale of a younger Batman. There was one scene that I saw where I absolutely lost it, slight spoiler but it involves the Joker and one of his many possible origin stories.
So how did it measure up after absolutely falling in love with Arkham City? To be honest, it didn’t feel the same but I did enjoy it. I’m a bit of a Batman purist and I could see a storyline like this occur in one of the many comic book arcs. Little nods to the DC Universe and some unexpected cameos make for a satisfying story, regardless of where it falls short of excellence.
Visually, the game looks great! It looks a lot like how Arkham City looked, retaining the same visual aesthetic. Areas in this younger Gotham that appeared in Arkham City are almost brick for brick the same. Visually, I have no initial complaints… but I do have some complaints after playing a few hours. The game looks great when it works, but far too often (especially after a load screen) there is some serious texture pop in, when battles get a bit too heavy there are some frame rate issues. The former is more manageable, sure it ends up pulling me out of the core narrative a bit, but the later can make up the difference between keeping my high combo or getting blindsided by a baddie with a metal pipe. The game looks fantastic I think perhaps WB Games Montreal bit off a little more than they could chew developing it for the current generation, it really does push the console hardware to its absolute limit, while this can create some fantastic imagery… far too often it adversely affects the visuals.
Sometimes pre-rendered cut scenes face the frame rate drop, slowing down to a crawl with audio cutting out, nothing really affected the story of the game but it happened far too often to ignore.
The voice acting is stellar again, with Mark Hamill retiring from the role (especially after the events of Arkham City) and Kevin Conroy in the booth for the next Arkham installment. They went to Roger “EZIO” Craig Smith and Troy “the Daniel Day Lewis of voice acting” Baker to portray Batman and The Joker respectively. Troy Baker literally stole the show with his portrayal, his take on the Mark Hamill Joker is so good it sent chills up and down my spine. Roger Craig Smith plays the Dark Knight very well and actually sounds like he could have been a younger Kevin Conroy Batman, there were a few moments he slipped into Christian Bale growl mode but those were brief and never really lasted beyond a line or two. A strong support cast including Martin Jarvis, Steve Blum, Chris Cox, Kelly Hu, and Matthew Mercer (to name a few) round out what I believe to be one of the best casted Batman games yet… yes even better than the casting in Arkham City.
The music is impressive and retains that signature sound/feel of the Arkham games established in Arkham Asylum. No complaints here when it comes to the music.
Ah yes, the bread and butter of this game. My favorite aspect of the Arkham games and I am pleased to announce that it is still in tact. Primarily the free flow brawling mechanic established since the first game. Build up a high enough combo and you can perform a quick take down on a specific foe or even several downed foes. Armored goons and shield goons return along with the many other variations of melee weapon equipped thugs. New to the opposition are martial artists, elite strong men, and venom users. Martial artists will pose the most annoying bit of opposition for Batman, unlike the elite strong men or the venom users who I can dodge and flip over, martial artists can blindside the Bat and break a combo, this is especially annoying when I build a high enough combo then BOOM! Stupid karate kid.
Predator encounters are my favorite encounters in an Arkham game, this is largely unchanged. If you played any of the prior Arkham games, this will feel very familiar.
Many of the gadgets return, but they did manage to throw in some impressive new gadgets. After the Deathstroke battle, you get his remote grapple to creating tight ropes to even attaching each end to a guard and making them bash into each other. Other applications involve sending propane tanks or fire extinguishers right into unsuspecting thugs and even (after an upgrade) zipping an unsuspecting foe to a vantage point. The glue grenade pretty much replaces the freeze grenade from Arkham City. The most impressive new gadget come from a downed Electrocutioner, you integrate his shock gloves into your gloves and after beating down on a few foes, you can activate them and lay waste to anyone in your way. Of course this doesn’t last the whole battle, but when you charge them this can turn the tide in battle… especially since shielded foes and armored foes fall to standard punches.
Detective mode is given a new added upgrade, now you can recreate a crime scene and rewind it in the Batcomputer. This creates another opportunity to flex his detective skills and also make for some good side quests, though after a few crime scene side quests the overall mechanic gets a bit stale.
Zipping around the city is very reminiscent of Arkham City. The grapnel boost is unlocked from the start, but that doesn’t make much sense since (if I remember correctly) the grapnel boost was an experimental gadget you could unlock in Arkham City, so I wonder how they justified it here? Perhaps they assumed not too many people unlocked that upgrade in City? Other than that slight hiccup, the gameplay is mostly unchanged. I did notice a few things that I may have to verify but the Batman in Origins feels heavier compared to the Batman in Asylum or City. Not that much of a complaint but it did take some getting used to.
One big change is the ability to go back to the Batcave, this younger Batman doesn’t have the Batmobile yet, instead he zips around the city on his Batwing. With the Gotham of Origins being much bigger than City’s, newly added to the map are drop points to fast travel, though these do come at a price, a shadowy figure you know only as Enigma has hacked GCR towers to interfere with the Batwing’s on board computer, until you deactivate the tower you can’t use the drop point. I love the fast travel but exploring the city was still my first priority.
The boss battles were all very reminiscent of earlier Arkham games. Copperhead and Shiva’s battles were a lot like the Ra’s al Ghul battle, the final Bane encounter felt a lot like the Mister Freeze battle. The only ones that really felt unique were the Deathstroke, Deadshot, and Firefly battle. The side quests proved to be interesting, I like how more obscure villains like Anarky were introduced. The Mad Hatter returns and his side quest resembled the Scarecrow challenge maps more than his role in Arkham City. Batman: Arkham Origins is more of the same, which isn’t a bad thing considering how much I loved the previous games.
I wanted to mention the multiplayer but I’ve had trouble with matches, servers migrating and matches that end abruptly. I won’t factor this into the review but I will follow up with a feature about multiplayer at a later date.
A few hiccups keep this game from being the masterpiece that Batman: Arkham City was. But a satisfying story and more of the same in the gameplay department keep me happy… that is until I get a new Arkham game. See you next-gen Rocksteady!