Review: Batman: Arkham Origins
Licensed tie-ins have always been a bit like that kid at school with the rich dad: always promising stuff to his mates, like cool toys or old games, but never quite delivering (much to the detriment of us poor folk). But a relationship with someone based purely on offers of untold child treasures (most likely Eastern exclusive Pokémon toys) is a superficial one and not built to last. Licensed games, even if they aren’t trying, promise many things to many people. Whether that is the thought of Rick Grimes-esque Walker dispatching action in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, or more famously, capturing the incorruptible innocence of childhood wonder in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (as it turns out, that sense of childhood wonder now lies in a landfill in Alamagordo, New Mexico in the form of millions of unsold Atari cartridges).
Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum completely stuck its finger up to reputation and gave gamers everything a licensed game should be (and everything a Batman game should be). It had authentic and passionate voice acting and writing grounded in the franchises’ varied history (thankfully drawing from the excellent animated series of the ’90s, rather than Adam West). It had fluid control movement and artful combo based combat that required the eager button masher to be conservative or face a total pummelling. Arkham City followed in 2011 and did everything again but even better – opting for a detailed open world setting filled with a rich gallery of famous rogues to face off against.
Greeted with as much enthusiasm as a Razorlight reunion, the announcement of this year’s Batman: Arkham Origins was understandably treated with concern amongst fans due to a studio change up. Replacing Rocksteady, Origins is instead developed by Warner Bros’ in-house developer Warner Bros. Games Montreal. Rocksteady, like some kind of British Punk movement in games, originally seemed to have come out of nowhere and yet gave us something that is arguably one of the best games ever made. But just like when EMI signed The Sex Pistols and spoilt all the fun for everyone, Warner Bros. decided to do a little bit more messing around with the Batman franchise. Or at least this is how it seemed to fans.
In reality upon release, the scepticism towards Arkham Origins was both ill-founded and understandable. Ill-founded because there is a clear, professional strive by Warner Bros. Montral to give fans of Arkham City exactly what they want, but understandable because they do this too much so: opting for a game that is so similar to the former that you can’t shake that ‘cash cow’ feeling. Set as an origins story that skips the boring beginning, Arkham Origins shows a younger Dark Knight in his far more reckless days. The events take place on Christmas Eve, as Batman discovers that eight of the deadliest assassins in Gotham have been hired to put an end to his vigilante shenanigans. It must be said that from the very start Origins’ story is an Aladdin’s cave of fan favourites. From the early fights with Killer Croc and Death Stroke to the later encounters I will not mention, it gives the player excellent action set pieces in which to revel with the many characters of the comics.
Likewise, the story itself, while it might seem a bit thin in premise, develops well across a series of great twists and surprises that lead up to an excellent introduction to a beloved villain. This is helped by how fleshed out Bruce’s detective sequences are, which present the only major new feature that is introduced in Origins. Obviously detective work has always been a part of Batman’s story and the Arkham series, but here it becomes a sizeable chunk of the gameplay that forces the player to carefully explore the environment with fancy tech. By focusing on clues, using special technology to recreate the crime scene and then carefully scrutinising the footage by rewinding and playing through, the player gradually solves the riddle of the crime. It’s a distinctive and welcome slow-paced break from the usual blockbuster action.
After the impressive story and unique detective work though, we start to descend into very familiar territory. Origins is an identical mix of a small open-world setting, well-timed beat-em-up combat, stealth mechanics and light platforming. Introducing the city of Gotham as the major setting, rather than the titular Arkham Asylum/City, the game presents the largest environment to explore to date. Radio stations must be decrypted in order to serve as fast travel points for the Batwing: thus making it easy to glide and grapnel gun swiftly across the city. Riddler puzzles are back and numerous: as are gliding challenges, Dark Knight challenges and Enigma Packs (filling in as the obligatory collectables). Combat is still an excellent mixture of gadget use, well-timed button taps and countering; while stealth is still a viable part of Batman. Sneaking through vents, zipping across ledges and flying down to quickly dispatch an enemy from the dark is as satisfying as ever. The levelling system isn’t exactly engrossing or customisable, but the gradual unlocking of abilities does create a good pacing to your move roster – allowing players to get used to the controls at a reasonable pace. On top of that the challenge mode returns – offering a great way to hone your skills – and a new multiplayer mode pits the men of Bane and Joker against each other, with Batman and Robin also there to mess things up big time.
It truly is an impressive amount of content. So much so that it is difficult to fit it into one paragraph, but those who have played the previous titles or have a passing knowledge will know exactly what to expect. And that is the trouble with Arkham Origins: there is truly nothing new on offer here (bar the minor inclusion of more advanced detective work). Likewise, the massive Gotham setting should be fantastic, but there’s a repetitive and uninspiring level design which is undermined by Batman regularly getting stuck in the environment. Arkham City was a literal city of criminals, but now we’re in Gotham proper it makes no sense that everyone on the street is a criminal ready to take a beating. Or perhaps even the grannies of Gotham have some kind of meth business going on.
There seems to be a culture in video games in which we expect something more when it comes to sequels. We hate repetition, we hate similarities. But Warner Bros. knew they were on to a winner with Arkham City, so they’ve given fans exactly the same thing again. So if you’re looking for more of the same Dark Knight action, you cannot go wrong with Arkham Origins. Unfortunately, what spoils the plan is the fact that it’s also noticeably worse than its predecessor –bugs, dodgy camera angles, nonsensical setting, typical tacked on multiplayer and regularly uninspiring environments plague The Dark Knights’ adventures across Gotham. Still, it’s got a pretty great story and the comforting reality is that Rocksteady are almost certainly off somewhere making a next-gen Arkham that will surely make us fall in love with the series all over again. If you really can’t wait for that, then Arkham Origins is a meaty enough instalment to tie you over. If you have the patience, then it’s probably a better idea to await the true and enthusiastic sequel that Arkham City deserves.
To sum up
So here’s to Batman: Arkham Origins – the licensed game that both shows what brilliance can be achieved and simultaneously highlights the financial motivation that regularly undermines the medium.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360
Batman: Arkham Origins is out now on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC.