This review was originally posted on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly excited when it was announced that 2013 would bring a new Batman video game called Arkham Origins. I was actually kind of worried, because the developers that created the highly-acclaimed first two games in the series — 2009's Arkham Asylum and 2011's Arkham City — were handing it off to a new development studio, and instead of the story going forward, we’d instead be going back to the beginning of Batman’s career. Prequel games can be weird, especially in this instance, because the presence of some of the elements of the experience shouldn’t be there yet, but a continuity of player familiarity has to be maintained. So, we now have a new prequel game called Batman: Arkham Origins.
Developed by WB Games Montréal and published by WB Games, Arkham Origins takes place within the second year of Batman’s war on crime. He’s largely considered an urban myth, most criminals and citizens don’t believe he exists, and the city is in a far different place than the Gotham we’re largely accustomed to seeing. Corruption runs rampant through all of its institutions, and it’s only at this point that we begin to see the makings of the supercriminals that will come to define much of Batman’s time in Gotham. (2017 Update: In-game dialogue found in 2015's Batman: Arkham Knight places the events of Origins roughly eight years before the series' original game, Arkham Asylum.)
After failing to save the corrupt Commissioner Loeb from death at the hands of infamous Gotham gangster Black Mask, Batman learns that Mask, real name Roman Sionis, has placed a bounty on Batman’s head. If one of the eight assassins hired can kill him before midnight on Christmas Eve, then they get a cool $50 million payout. The adventure takes Batman all over Gotham, from the corrupt halls of the Gotham Police Department, to the depths of the sewers. He has to find Black Mask and put an end to the craziness, but something’s already set in motion that will lead Batman to a very different enemy by night’s end: an enemy that will truly define him and his mission for the rest of his life.
Single Player Gameplay
Because the basis for the actual gameplay in Arkham Origins is the ingeniously devised freeflow combat, detective, and predator systems designed by Rocksteady Studios, it is impossible to call it bad. While some tweaks have been made to the freeflow combat system in order to try and increase your skill with a fight’s timing, the power and dynamism that you felt in Asylum and City is intact. The “refinements” that WB Montréal attempted to make on top of the foundation, though ambitious, seem a little misguided. One of the additions is a gadget Batman acquires about 3/4 of the way through the story: the Electrocutioner’s, uh...electric gloves.
When you charge them up in the middle of a freeflow combat fight, your hits can actually penetrate riot shields, armored enemies, and baton-wielders, taking a great deal of the challenge of the more difficult combat encounters virtually out of the equation. The gloves seem to be reminiscent of a feature that WB Montréal introduced in the Arkham City Armored Edition for Wii U, operating much the same way as that game’s “B.A.T. Mode.” It kind of functions as an “easy button,” even when playing the game on the Hard difficulty, as I did.
One of the problems with the freeflow system in Arkham Origins isn’t actually the combat, but the level design. When in the middle of more than one tense encounter, I observed that elements of the game map would interfere with the camera, which caused me to get hit when I otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s frustrating and a rather glaring mistake, but thankfully these kinds of encounters, while noteworthy, were largely minimal.
For the most part, all of the gadgets from Arkham City return to your utility belt, though in different guises. The freeze cluster grenade, which could be used to freeze enemies in their tracks or create a raft of ice on a body of water, is now the “glue grenade,” functioning the exact same way except for the element being giant globs of quickly-hardening resin instead of ice. The game introduces the remote claw, which allows you to traverse hard to reach areas, or even to bind to two enemies and knock them down, allowing you to swoop in and take them out. The disruptor is now a gun-shaped piece of ordinance instead of a remote with a button, and the game actually brings back the double and triple batarang from Arkham Asylum, which was omitted from the 2011 follow-up.
The game’s boss fights are largely fun and interesting. With some of the best boss fights in modern video gaming having come from the first two entries in this series, really the only way that Origins would’ve been able to substantially change things would be in a downward direction, but they don’t do that. Fighting Deathstroke may be a little frustrating on your first pass, but once you get the timing and the cadences planned out, it becomes pretty fun. The best boss fight in the game, though? Firefly — hands down. Taking you through multiple stages and forcing you to hone both your timing and your gadget usage is easily the stand-out element of the single player experience simply because it seems to ask a bit more from you than the other encounters do, and it’s really fun to engage the synapses in that particularly tense encounter.
Predator gameplay is largely unaltered. Except for the use of new gadgets and certain challenges encouraging you to play a predator room in a certain way, the dynamic is intact from prior games in the series, with the occasional new flourish added by the remote claw.
One thing that really interested me about the release of Origins was its announced multiplayer mode, independently developed by British studio Splash Damage. How could the incredible single player experience translate into a multiplayer game? The answer is: surprisingly well, and it definitely makes for a fun alternative to the main gameplay. It’s not without its limitations: for instance, you cannot play with any A.I. opponents locally on one console. This is online multiplayer only, but once you get past that, it’s pretty easy to get into it.
It works like this: a game lobby requires 8 players, who are randomly assigned to the session’s three different factions. Three of the players are assigned to Joker’s gang, three to Bane’s gang, and the remaining two become Batman and Robin. Since the chances are you’ll be playing as one of the gang members, your main objective is to wipe the other gang out by depleting their reinforcements through kills, or by capturing their base stations. In between games, you can use accrued XP to upgrade your weapons or devices, and each gang member is given a limited “enhanced vision,” which functions similarly to Batman’s detective vision, but with a shorter duration before needing to be recharged. At some point in the game, a player will have the chance to play as the boss of their respective side. When Joker or Bane becomes available, you head back to your spawn point, run toward the closed door they’re knocking on, and open it to become the boss. Playing as Joker or Bane gives you greater health and more powerful weapons, easily taking out opposing gang members with one shot from Joker’s massive gun or one hit from Bane’s hulking arms.
If you get the luck of the draw and play either as Batman or Robin, then your objective is a bit simpler: stop both sides. Using predator takedowns, gadgets, and brute force, Batman and Robin’s objective is to increase their “intimidation meter” to the max, thus scaring everyone away and foiling the gang fight. You can use your unlimited Detective Vision, stealth, and smoke bombs to take out unsuspecting enemies. Taking out regular gang members will only increase your intimidation meter marginally. If you really want a solid chance at putting an end to the game, then you have to be able to get the drop on either Joker or Bane, which will dramatically increase intimidation and thus your chances of winning the match for the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.
I’ve found the multiplayer to be thoroughly enjoyable, and it definitely helps give Origins a bit of an overall boost.
(2017 Update: As of December 4, 2016, the online services portion of Batman: Arkham Origins was retired, making the multiplayer portion of the game unplayable.)
Design and Story
The visual and open world map design of Arkham Origins shows, perhaps more than it should, how much this game truly owes to its predecessor. While the game map of Gotham City in Origins is approximately 50% larger than that of Arkham City‘s, the first 50% basically is Arkham City‘s, and is referred to as “Old Gotham.” Because this game takes place about eight years before the walled-off prison of Hugo Strange’s fantasies is incorporated, Old Gotham is cleaner, looks as if it’s been busier, and a lot of the previous game’s landmarks make their return in the same places they were located in the previous game. Because this story takes place during Christmas time and during a particularly intense winter storm, there’s a lot more snow on everything.
The new districts of the city are great, with well-designed skylines and a great classically Gotham atmosphere, even if it’s supposed to be “New Gotham.” It’s cleaner, yes, but it’s also got the same vibe of overarching danger as the rest of the city. The Gotham Royal Hotel, a pivotal locale after meeting the Joker for the first time, is awesome, and everything you’d expect a grand Gotham hotel to be, except for the fact that it’s under siege by the Harlequin of Hate.
When it comes back to the reused map elements, WB Montréal did a great job in giving the old map a fresh new coat of paint, and there’s a noticeable graphical upgrade overall, but the novelty of half of the game map wears off when the experience starts to feel so overridingly familiar. One of the more frustrating elements for me was the fact that some buildings you’d have expected to be in better shape eight years before Arkham City in some ways look worse than they do in the future, with the Church and Solomon Wayne Courthouse particularly coming to mind. Wasn’t there ever a time when the church was just a church? Why is a courthouse named after Bruce Wayne’s grandfather “abandoned” in a busy-looking part of the city?
Speaking of an abandoned city, Gotham is really empty. Now, this doesn’t bother me as much as I’ve seen it bother other people who’ve played the game, but when looking at Arkham City the emptiness made sense. It was a walled off super prison with only a handful of political prisoners to save. Origins opens the game up to an entirely new set of districts in Gotham, but largely there are only criminals to be found on the streets. The game has an in-story excuse of a “city-wide” curfew caused by the inclement weather, but I’m more apt to blame the emptiness of Gotham more on current-gen hardware limitations more than anything else. Maybe by the time the franchise rolls onto the PS4 and Xbox One, we’ll get a more populated and vibrant Gotham.
The story itself is pretty awesome. I was nervous about the fact that Asylum and City writer Paul Dini had no involvement at all in Origins, but creative director Eric Holmes (Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) and writers Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Assassin’s Creed fame do a respectable job of creating a narrative that feels inspired by some of the best modern “early years” Batman comics, particularly Year One and The Long Halloween. This story represents some key aspects of those stories very well: Batman’s in conflict with the police department, criminals don’t know what to make of him, and the relationship between Batman and the Joker is given a very satisfying early look, particularly in one scene where you get to briefly play as the Joker. Several previous Arkham alums return to voice their old characters, and help add to the authenticity of the experience. Nolan North returns as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, not quite master of Gotham’s underworld, but still quite the bastard in his own right.
Wally Wingert returns to the role of the Riddler, who’s not yet known by that moniker and seems to have a vigilante mission of his own when he first “meets” Batman. Wingert’s Edward Nygma (or Nashton) is easily one of the standout characters of the entire series, and I’m glad to see that trend continue (even though I felt that there was virtually no payoff to the quest of getting all of the "Enigma" collectibles littered around the city). Martin Jarvis returns to the role of Alfred with the same, defining dry humor and wit, and Tom Kane even surprises by returning to briefly voice Quincy Sharp, future warden of Arkham Asylum and mayor of Gotham that spearheaded the Arkham City project.
Some old DC Animated Universe favorites also return to their previous characters, most notably Robert Costanzo as Detective Harvey Bullock. Even actress CCH Pounder shockingly returns in her former DCAU role as Suicide Squad handler Amanda Waller in a post-credits sequence, perhaps hinting at a future installment in the franchise.
The voice choices for both Batman and the Joker represent two very different elements to the story and truthfulness to the Arkham timeline. Roger Craig Smith delivers a great performance as Batman, particularly as the story progresses, but the properties of his voice for the character are very different when compared with that of iconic Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy’s. Conversely, Troy Baker’s outstanding performance as the Joker makes his casting very obvious, since he’s obviously channeling Mark Hamill’s iteration of the character to provide a younger look at the Arkham Joker. I’m just curious, though – why would the developers and casting director cast such a close mimic of one role and a relative departure for another? You’d think they’d apply one of those philosophies to both roles equally. Either way, the voice acting in the game is top-notch all-around, and though the returning actors and characters are great, this is largely due to the performances of Smith and Baker.
Batman: Arkham Origins is kind of an odd experience. There are some elements that at times can make it feel like a glorified expansion to Arkham City, and others where it briefly finds its own voice long enough for you to stop comparing it to its predecessor. That being said, it’s a ton of fun either way, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the mind-blowing experience that Asylum and City have spoiled us with before. Is it worth playing? Yes, absolutely. It’s still a lot better than many other games that you could be playing, and the true feathers in this game’s cap are its truthful story (and everything that comes with it) and the surprisingly solid addition of multiplayer. Those two elements alone warrant giving it a try. Replay value is also built into these games with the numerous side missions and collectibles you can pick up throughout the city, though the collectibles emphasis is decidedly more muted than it was the last time around.
If you don’t mind the fact that Origins doesn’t break ground like the previous two games did, but still want a fun Batman experience, then you should definitely give it a try. I’m glad that I played it and can continue to since I’m a diehard, but even if you don’t hold onto a copy as long as I do, I think you’ll find Arkham Origins worth checking out. I suppose that technically you could call it a “low” point in the series, but when it comes to the Arkham games, a low point is still a pretty damn high bar.