Batman: Arkham Origins is the first title developed outside series creators Rocksteady Games. The news that the third title in the critically acclaimed franchise would be developed by a newly minted Warner Bros. studio left a lot of fans skeptical of Arkham Origin’s eventual quality. Unfortunately, their fears hold some merit, but not all is amiss with what is still a fun superhero romp.
Arkham Origins tells the story of a younger/angrier Batman on his quest to stop eight assassins from collecting a $50 million dollar bounty on his head. What follows is a strong story filled with many twists and turns. A showdown with Killer Croc at Blackgate prison leads Batman to discover that Black Mask has orchestrated a Christmas Eve of bounty hunting for the world’s greatest assassins, so the Dark Knight sets out into a mostly deserted Gotham City to stop the parade of villains. But it is with these assassins that the story falters. Series mainstays like Deathstroke, Deadshot, and Bane may not come as a surprise to longtime DC Comics fans, but others, like Copperhead and Electrocutioner, may leave anyone but the most ardent Batman readers scratching their heads.
I commend Warner Bros. Montreal for trying to share the spotlight with lesser known characters in the DC lineup, but it’s a shame they didn’t take the time to flesh out any sort of back-story for these assassins. Suffice it to say, if you didn’t know anything about Copperhead or Deathstroke before, Arkham Origins isn’t going to teach you anything new about them. The story also explores Batman’s relationship with James Gordon. While Gordon hunts Batman at first, the game does a good job of showing the mutual trust the two characters eventually come to. Thankfully, the story also moves away from the assassin subplot pretty quickly with the inclusion of the Joker–in this narrative decision, Arkham Origins shines. While delving deep into the psychology of both characters and witnessing the early throes of a relationship expunged in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, players are treated to a unique look at the Joker, which mirrors his personality from storylines like "The Killing Joke" and "Death in a Family." The Joker and Batman are brought to life in fantastic performances by Troy Baker and Roger Craig Smith, respectively, who effortlessly carry the mantle of younger versions of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy.
Though Warner Bros. Montreal would have you believe that Batman is a rookie superhero in Arkham Origins, the gameplay doesn’t do an effective job showing it. The only time I believed Batman was in his rookie years were in his communications with butler Alfred. Alfred provides tips and acts as a concerned father figure throughout the story, making Batman look more human than the act he puts on. As Batman takes on the expert assassins out for his bounty, his combat prowess–still based on the fluid counter system established by Rocksteady–belies an ability and stamina we’re meant to believe he shouldn’t have yet. And with Deathstroke being DC Comics’ most dangerous mercenary and assassin, it was hard for me to believe Batman would be able to take on Deathstroke head-on, in hand-to-hand combat, with only two years of experience under his crusader belt.
Indeed, the combat of Arkham Origins remains mostly unchanged from its predecessor. Batman moves flawlessly across the battlefield, jumping from one enemy to another with the free-flow combat system of Rocksteady’s design. Batman can strike, counter, dodge, evade, and use his gadgets to defeat his enemies. Though the combat remains mostly unchanged, the difficulty in enemy encounters has been increased, sometimes by substantial amounts. AI aggression is up, so no longer are players able to just strike and counter; at some point or another, all combat tools are required to survive. A couple of new enemy types mix up proceedings. One is a martial arts expert able to dodge, counter, counter your counters, and avoid all takedown abilities. Though these enemies are exciting to fight at first, they quickly grow tedious, especially when dealing with more than one. You’ll have to adopt a defensive stance for almost the entire fight, which feels awkward and tiresome in the mix of Arkham’s otherwise fast-paced, aggressive melee encounters.
One of the highlights of Arkham Origins are the boss fights. In past Arkham games, Batman was faced with bigger, stronger, and (sometimes) indestructible foes. Origins, on the other hand, deals with bosses on par with Batman’s skills. The fight against Deathstroke is one of the most enjoyable of the series so far. The development team did an excellent job of pitting the two against each other in exciting, face-to-face combat that focuses on both mens’ martial arts abilities. The fight comes across as a careful battle of rock-paper-scissors and carefully timed strikes and counters. It borders on becoming a over-long QTE session, but there’s enough chance for error and decision to make the fight feel like your own. My only complaints about the boss fights in general are the reuse of many animations during important counters and phase shifts, along with the sheer difficulty of the final boss fight leaving me frustrated enough to take a break and come back later.
As mentioned, the game starts off on Christmas Eve in Old Gotham, the same part of the city that Batman will later explore in Arkham City. New Gotham is available, as well, but no matter where you go, you’ll find skyscrapers and Christmas decorations aplenty. It was nice to see Arkham City with its bridges and buildings still well-kept and intact, and Arkham City vets will instantly recognize about half of the game’s landmarks and locations. However, in Arkham Origins, Batman has access to all of his exploration skills and equipment from the get-go. The Batgrapple accelerator, formerly awarded for completing gliding challenges in Arkham City, is just one such tool available from the outset, streamlining gameplay but undermining our sense of the less-seasoned Batman we’re supposed to be playing.
The game’s world is full of optional activities to take on, but most of them require completing simplistic and repetitive tasks. The Riddler, calling himself E. Nigma here, returns to challenge Batman’s intellectual prowess, this time placing blackmail data packs around the city. These packs replace the Riddler Trophies of past Arkham games and largely serve the same exploratory purpose. Meanwhile, as a replacement for the hostage situations from Arkham City, Batman must disable radio broadcast stations in order to track Enigma down and open up fast travel locations to different districts in the city. Breaking into these towers unfortunately isn’t difficult or time-consuming, though some infiltrations require gadgets not available until later in the game. Ultimately, most side quests in the game require Batman to travel to a set location and beat up thugs or complete familiar objectives. Though the side quests add extra villains to the game, such as Edward Nigma and the Mad Hatter, WB Montreal takes a few of the eight core assassins hunting down Batman and places them in side storylines of their own, behind missions that aren’t required to finish the story. As a result, these villains are essentially eliminated from the core narrative–it’s a shame that some players won’t end up facing all of the eight assassins that are, supposedly, the game’s main threat.
Still, improvements abound and counter the steps backward. Detective missions are one such area of benefit. Though featured in both previous games, the murder quests of Origins are a separate entity this time. Using Batman’s detective mode, players examine crime scenes to find clues and evidence, often recreating the crime itself with a new virtual reality mode. Players can then rewind and fast-forward the events of the crime to find clues that may have been missed. Unfortunately, the game holds the player’s hand throughout most of the investigations, with Batman constantly saying what he needs to examine and what he is looking for. There’s almost no opportunity to actually solve the case for yourself, and most cases simply devolve into beating the culprit until he confesses to the crime.
Meanwhile, Arkham Origins uses a modified experience points system that places upgrades behind completion of certain tasks or better mission performance. Upon leveling up, players can distribute skill points among two categories: Close Combat and Invisible Predator. Close Combat allows Batman to increase his resistance to melee damage and firearm damage, while Invisible Predator upgrades Batman’s gadgets, from proximity-triggered explosive gel to unlocking more batarangs for throwing. New single player challenges can be completed for large experience bonuses and extra gadget abilities; while optional to the game at large, these challenges pose a good degree of difficulty and are required for 100-percent completion.
Origins is the first game in the Arkham franchise to feature multiplayer, pitting teams of four against each other in Team Deathmatch. The unique addition is the inclusion of Batman and Robin, controlled by two additional players. Teams score points by holding capture points or killing opposing players. Batman and Robin, on the other hand, have to subdue members from both teams trying to fill up a hero meter that, once full, heralds victory. Batman and Robin have access to all of the single-player campaign’s predator abilities, giving them a distinct advantage. A standard upgrade system allows players to unlock new guns, skills, and equipment, such as detective vision and remote-controlled drones. Unfortunately, the multiplayer suffers from bad lag, poor shooting mechanics, bad hit detection, and tank controls. After player’s respawn tokens fall below the halfway point, Bane and Joker become available for use by their respective teams. Though a nice addition to the game, both characters are severely overpowered. Joker comes equipped with a hand cannon that kills enemies in a single shot and a revolver that shoots explosive rounds. Bane, on the other hand, is a melee fighter able to run up and smash the ground, knocking out everyone in the vicinity, or grab players and throw them into walls, also resulting in an instant kill.
Other issues I ran into with the game were the sheer amount of framerate drops that took place after every cutscene, sometimes freezing and crashing my system. I also ran into a game-breaking bug toward the end of the game where, upon activating an elevator, the elevator doors never opened, leaving me unable to continue with the story. Luckily, I was able to grab my save from PlayStation Plus online storage and return to an earlier point, but other players might not be so lucky.
Though Arkham Origins doesn’t change much in the Arkham formula established by Rocksteady, WB Montreal’s effort hints at a refined franchise future, even if character misuse, a tacked-on multiplayer mode, and boring side quests leave me wondering if it’s heading in the right direction. All told, better investigations, memorable boss fights, fantastic voice acting, and a stellar (if inconsistent) story give Batman: Arkham Origins refinements the franchise deserves, even if core elements aren’t given the innovative love they need right now.