There was no shortage of panic when I initially heard about Batman: Arkham Origins. A prequel set before the events of Rocksteady’s acclaimed Arkham series, the deck was immediately stacked against it as Warner Bros. announced it would be developed by WB Montreal, a developer whose only other credit was the WiiU port of Batman: Arkham City.
Okay, maybe panic wasn’t the right word. It was fear. The kind of fear the Scarecrow would revel in. The kind of fear a parent feels when you hand your teenager the keys to the car for their first night out alone. Yes, you want to trust them, as they did an amiable job the first time they were in the car with you, but that slow, creeping dread that something not only can go wrong, but will go wrong in the worst possible way, lingers.
That was my fear – that given the keys to the franchise, this newcomer was going to drive what I consider one of the highlights of this (or any) generation into the murky depths. I am thankful, oh so thankful, that those fears were not realized. While it never reaches the highest heights of the two games that came before it, Origins keeps itself from the lowest lows to deliver a solid entry to the series.
Setting its story in the early stages of his career as the Caped Crusader, Arkham Origins tells the story of another one of those tragically bad nights that seem to dog Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting career. Black Mask, in between running the Gotham underworld and paying off the GCPD, decides he has had his fill of Batman interfering with his criminal empire. Staging a mass escape from Blackgate Prison, Black Mask sends an offer to eight assassins, promising 50 million dollars to the one that kills the Bat. Catching wind of the plot while attempting to put a stop to the breakout, Batman determines that the only way to end this craziness is to find Black Mask and confront the assassins that would like nothing more than to collect the bounty on his head.
As you can imagine, things escalate from there, and it manages to pack in a delicious amount of comic excitement, fan service, and world building, fleshing out the Arkham-verse in a way that was only accomplished through the profiles and back stories from the previous entries. It asks a lot of the player to get to that point, though, requiring enough suspension of disbelief to cover both Batman’s actual adventure, and the knowledge that he is encountering a better portion of his secondary cast for the first time on a single night. It’s a bit too much to bear sometimes, especially when the Joker, forcefully hijacks the narrative in his own special, yet brilliant way.
It was a bit of a disappointment to see them go to the Joker/Bats well again, especially given the absence of Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince’s voice. Troy Baker’s younger take, as well as the writing that backs it up, doesn’t give you much to sulk about, however. I meant it when I said he hijacks the story – his appearance, and Baker’s joyful malevolence, shift the balance, adding madness to what becomes the actual origin of the title. Seen through the lens of the future Arkham stories, this origin and its subsequent realizations outline a truly abusive love story, the meeting of two soul mates whose very existence drives each other to acts of insanity and violence.
While I can’t say enough about Baker’s Joker, I would also like to note that the rest of the game is chock full of excellent performances. Nolan North is back and rather under utilized as the Penguin, and Roger Craig Smith manages to hold up surprisingly well in place of Kevin Conroy, who not only voiced The Bat in the last two Arkham games but has served that role for the past 20+ years. Smith’s Batman carries with it a youthful anger, mixing the self-assured nature that will eventually turn into Conroy years later, with a grating anger matching Christian Bale’s gravel-throated crime fighter from the Christopher Nolan movies.
With plot points woven so deftly, one could rightly expect an equal amount of care to have been shown to the gameplay. Given the fact that so much was carried over from previous releases, I found it a bit shocking that this is where Origins began to take a downward turn. Being a prequel, the developers stressed throughout production that the story they were telling was one where Batman, while still completely capable, was still learning, and not as refined as his later incarnation. This showed in combat, where more flourish and exaggerated motions resulted in slightly longer move times, which really felt like it added more weight to every blow.
This change would have been fine, but in doing so, other details were either missed or adjusted. I would have called Countering a precisely timed dance in Arkham City; in Origins, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Caught with enough time, it’s easy to stay ahead of the groups that are thrown at you, but the AI feels like it’s been ripped from a Madden game, as thugs are able to take huge, almost Batman-like strides during their animations. Where City had moves that would take me out enemy range, allowing me to breathe and prioritize remaining targets, I had to watch my step much more in Origins, with AI taking steps that seemed to be on skates, closing distances they couldn’t before.
Batman also has a harder time dealing with the dangers presented in free flow. Higher-threat weapons, like guns and stun batons, are passed in favor of bats and knives, and he tends to stutter, dropping combos by throwing punches into the wind. In a game that now grades and gives experience points based on your performance in combat situations, getting that kind of detail right is crucial. Losing the tightness of combat from a previous game, while simultaneously reusing a huge number of assets from said game seems counter-productive, revealing the inexperience of the men working behind the curtain.
Those little missed details also affect Batman in the more expansive open world. Origins takes the portions of Gotham that were walled off as Arkham City, adds a bridge, and connects it to New Gotham, something more commercial when compared to the industrial districts of the older content. It looks nice, but it doesn’t fit with the picture of Gotham we were previously given. While Arkham City was a shattered, broken visage, it was not an island unto itself. Portions were walled off from Gotham because they connected directly to the city. Both sections are now islands, and with major landmarks like Wayne Tower missing from New Gotham, are there more islands to Gotham that we’re not privy too? Is Gotham City really an archipelago?
Content was certainly added with its expansion to a second island, but the city feels devoid of life and purpose. This made sense in City, where the walled off portion of Gotham was serving as a prison, and aside from the political prisoners Batman would save, the only other people left on the streets were criminals. Origins tries to justify this lack of civilian life with the fact that, this being Christmas Eve, every law abiding citizen is safely spending time inside their own homes. I don’t know if the developers have ever studied a city like Gotham, whose closest analog is a nighttime New York, but the streets are never empty, and while many would call streets full of criminals an apt comparison, it loses the point of why Batman is doing what he does.
To draw this point to a close, at the beginning of the story, upon returning from the first breakout of Blackgate, Batman speaks to Alfred about the threat posed by the assassins. Alfred, most poignantly, remarks that since he is the only one who knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, that if Mr. Wayne were to just sit this one out, to stay home and enjoy Christmas Eve and the meal Alfred has prepared, that the assassins would never find him. Batman replies that they would turn on the city to draw him out. Given the obedient state of the Gotham citizenry, and their ability to stay inside and out of trouble when presented with these circumstances, I think Alfred may very well have been right.
Origins expands on the previous games idea of searching crime scenes for clues. Using the power of the Bat-computer, Batman is able to recreate and replay crimes, searching them for additional clues to allow him to track down, and eventually apprehend, the subject in question. It’s a neat idea, and hearing Batman work through the crime is a delight, but it’s a very guided experience. Batman is The World’s Greatest Detective, so it’s not a stretch for him to be able to identify where to look next, but the scenes never let you put the clues together for yourself, so you end up watching Bats solve a mystery rather than being Batman solving the mystery.
Making a return appearance with even more collectibles is the Riddler. Another first time meeting, Origins tasks you with disrupting his network by taking out wireless routers all over the city, as well as collecting extortion files, which serve as this game’s version of Riddler trophies. The dismantling of his network also opens up new Fast Travel points, which are sorely needed given the size of the city, and its wanton need to have you gliding from one corner to the other. The gliding works as it did in City, even providing you with a grapnel boost from the outset, the existence of which is never explained. With Batman having to pass gliding challenges in order to gain access to this invention in City, how Bats has gained access to it in the PAST is another one of those details that seems to have just been missed.
It also pains me to note, especially with the PS3 version of the game that I purchased, that Origins falls victim to a ridiculously inconsistent frame rate and a number of bugs ranging from annoying to outright gamebreaking. I am normally the last person to notice inconsistencies in things like frame rates, but Origins falls apart whenever you attempt to do anything while it’s saving (which it does at a fair clip) or whenever you enter the open world from a cut scene or a closed environment. Those transitions, especially from cutscenes, are brutal, and I actually had to stop what I was doing surprisingly often to let the game calm down. There have also been reports of numerous progression bugs, and while I am thankful I never ran into those, I have had the game lock and require a reboot numerous times.
This seemed to happen most often when trying to connect to Origins‘ multiplayer offering. Of all the pointless, nonsensical, and overall unnecessary things they could have done, the adding of a multiplayer mode to a highly successful single-player franchise just blows my mind. When Rocksteady pulled development on their own idea for multiplayer because they couldn’t get it right, what made WB even think to attempt it?
Worked on by Splash Damage, a studio whose most recent credit is Brink, Origins multiplayer is a muddled mess of semi-competent ideas thrown against the ugliest backdrops you could possibly imagine. Every frame rate and combat stuttering problem from the main game makes it’s way in to this offering, and when combined with the server’s ability to freeze the game, or simply not let you join anything, my heart is left to weep at the thought that this might be the first Arkham game I play that I don’t get the platinum trophy for. Meaningless notion, yes, but one really cuts me where it hurts.
The one mode available, Invisible Predator, pits two teams of three gun-wielding thugs against each other, while letting two players zip above them as Batman and Robin. There are a number of fun ideas here, especially for those that get to put their predatory prowess to work as the Dynamic Duo. Halfway through a match, those on one of the two thug teams get to race to call on their prospective gang leaders, either Bane of the Joker, with one player taking over and wreaking havoc as the villain until they are brought down. The one time I got to try that was fun, but it also highlighted the choppy animation, as Bane would often bounce and slide in place while throwing an opponent into a wall. I did get to “break” the person playing Batman though… so there is that.
It’s often said that the devil is in the details, and it’s a real shame that red bastard was allowed to run roughshod all over this release. While still a good game, it remains overshadowed by those previous entries. Rocksteady got right all the little things that WB Montreal seemed to miss. The flaws won’t stop me from trying to continue to enjoy the game as much as I have those other entries, but they do leave a lingering thought, one I can’t even believe I am capable of having: we would have been better served waiting for another entry in the series.