Defeat eight legendary assassins who are out for your pointy-eared head.
PC Release: October 25, 2013
By Ian Coppock
And now we come to the awkward phase of the Arkham series. Arkham Origins is a difficult game to review because it’s basically the BioShock 2 of the Arkham franchise. I.e., not a bad game in and of itself, but it pales in comparison to its forebears and doesn’t really capture the grand vision that the wizards at Rocksteady had in mind. It’s a worthwhile addition to the franchise and a fascinating rendition of Batman’s early crime-fighting days, but many of you might find that to be too little comfort for its staleness.
When Rocksteady went to Warner Bros. and said, “Hey, this Arkham Knight project is going to take longer than two years”, Warner Bros. said, “Alright, we’ll commission one of our local studios to fill the void until you guys are ready to go”. Arkham Origins was made by Warner Bros. Montreal, who I imagine were both excited and terrified to be given temporary stewardship of the series. Fencing a game to another studio doesn’t always end in tragedy (KOTOR II and Fallout: New Vegas are good examples) but Arkham Origins feels more like a giant DLC for Arkham City than its own game with its own identity.
Arkham Origins takes places five years before the events of Arkham Asylum, and follows a younger Batman who is only in his second year of vigilante crime-fighting. Batman, who has contended mostly against the traditional mobs and mafias of Gotham City, has yet to go up against any true supervillains. This situation changes immediately when crime lord Black Mask, Gotham’s most prominent underworld figure, places a $50 million bounty on the Dark Knight’s head. The prize draws eight of the world’s deadliest assassins to Gotham City on Christmas Eve, all of whom are eager to pin Batman’s wings back and walk away set for life.
Against his butler Alfred’s suggestion to just stay home and throw a Christmas party, Batman suits up and flies into Gotham to meet his hunters head-on, as well as a cadre of other antagonists who are up to no good on Christmas Eve. You’ll face series regulars like Bane and Killer Croc, but new arrivals to the Arkham series include the New 52 female Copperhead, the pyromaniac Firefly, and Deathstroke, the legendary assassin and Suicide Squad alumnus.
A lot of professional critics panned Arkham Origins for shining the spotlight on less well-known villains, but I think it was a refreshing change of pace from the lineup we’re use to seeing by now. Some of the villains in Arkham Origins are making their third series appearance by now, and it was nice to change things up and introduce a few more obscure characters. You’ll get your Penguin, you’ll get your Riddler (or Enigma, as he’s known in his early days) but you can also experience a few lesser-told tales from enemies I found to be just as if not more fascinating than the usual crew.
The area that Arkham Origins has the most positive impact on is the boss fights. In one of my last reviews, I talked about how the boss fights in Asylum and City are awkward affairs, usually against giant monsters. You have to fiddle with poor arena camera controls and repetitive attacks, but Arkham Origin‘s encounters against smaller, more devious foes are a welcome change.
The boss fight against Deathstroke is hands-down the best boss fight in the entire Arkham series, and second to that is the epic airborne battle against Firefly. These encounters feature much more refined camera controls and a more personal sense of combat.
Unfortunately for Arkham Origins, the boss fights and the introduction of lesser-known supervillains are the only main differences between this game and Arkham City. Origns’ gameplay is identical to that of Arkham City, with the exact same gadgets and mechanics (including, curiously, devices that didn’t appear until after Arkham Asylum). The only two new gadgets that Warner Bros. Montreal does introduce are an awkward predecessor to the zipline, which requires you to shoot both ends of a zipline and then grapple up to it, and a pair of electric gloves that break the game with how easily you can electrocute foes into unconsciousness.
The map for Arkham Origins is also little changed from Arkham City. You travel around in the exact same areas that will one day be turned into the massive super-prison. Yeah, they’re not covered in concrete barriers and patrolled by TYGER guards, yet, but they’re identical otherwise, apart from a few Christmas decorations. To the game’s credit, Arkham Origins does introduce another island connected to Future Arkham City via a big suspension bridge, but it comprises less than half of the traveling and gameplay area. They might as well have copy/pasted Future Arkham City for how different it looked.
The other gripe I have with Origins’ gameplay is that it introduces a fast-travel mechanic. You can jet around various locations of the city in the Batwing jet. Seen as an innovation by some, I hardly used it, because flying around the city is a huge part of the Arkham series’s character. Gliding over to a goal means a few minutes of adventuring fun along the way, as you complete side quests and ambush baddies, but fast-traveling imperils this aspect of Arkham and makes the game feel more sterile. The system is given pause by the side quests, which reappear in Arkham Origins the exact same way as they did in Arkham City.
The issue a few of the hardcore purists out there might also grapple with is the voice acting. Kevin Conroy, busy with Arkham Knight, was replaced as Batman by Roger Craig Smith, one of gaming’s boda fides, and the Joker is given a decent performance by Troy Baker. Both are great voice actors, but I’m not sure either were up to the task of filling Conroy’s and Hamill’s shoes. The other performances given were fine, nothing particularly great or terrible to say about them.
Despite evolving the franchise in only one major way and being in lockstep with Arkham City on absolutely everything else, the story in Arkham Origins was stronger than the guys and gals over at the big review networks may have indicated. Warner Bros. Montreal penned an interesting story about a younger, less confident Batman. That overconfident smugness I bitched about in the last two games is gone, replaced by an understandable doubt about going up against these big baddies. To reinforce this notion, criminals scream that a creature is attacking them when you descend. The cops don’t know who you are yet. There is no reputation preceding Batman, the isolation of whom makes him a more vulnerable character.
The plot also manages to keep up Arkham‘s tradition of stuffing tons of villains into a narrative that’s still fluid (the antithesis of the 2007 Spider-Man 3 film). Villains weave in and out of the main story and will sometimes steal into Gotham City for you to hunt down. There’s a simmering conflict between Batman and Alfred, the latter of whom is worried that Bruce Wayne is squandering his family’s fortune. You can also investigate “normal” crimes committed by normal people (murders, assaults, kidnappings) fed to you by the Batcomputer. The crime scene investigation mechanic incorporates a crime reconstruction video mechanic that divided critics and fans. I thought it was a neat concept, but it was also an unnecessary complication.
Despite its inconsistencies with gameplay, Arkham Origins is able to be consistent with its holiday theme. Arkham Origins: Cold, Cold Heart, a piece of DLC content, is set a week after Arkham Origins and tells the origin story of Mr. Freeze.
Cold, Cold Heart comes in a bit short at about four hours of content, but its narrative is surprisingly strong for a DLC. Basically, Bruce Wayne is hosting a humanitarian award ceremony, only for Mr. Freeze to crash the party and abscond with the award nominee. As Batman gives pursuit, an increasingly ugly tale of love and betrayal starts to unwind across Gotham. This story is made better by Batman’s new suit, which allows him to punch with goddamn fireballs, but let’s be honest… anything can be made better with fireball boxing gloves.
Arkham Origins is not a bad game, but as I said up top, it feels more like an Arkham City DLC than its own game. Aside from some improved bossfights, clunky new gadgets, and a travel system that takes the soul out of the series, this game is in rigid synchronization with everything else that Arkham City did. Part of me wonders if Warner Bros. Montreal did this simply because they were so terrified of screwing the pooch on a critically acclaimed series, but the fear to innovate is what kept it down all the same. Assuming that was the reason this game is so samey to City.
My advice? Get this game on sale, and if you’re a hardcore Arkham City fan. I advise you not to expect anything amazing, but there’s more novelty to this tale of a young, insecure Batman than meets the eye. Couple this with appearances from rare comic book villains and a dystopian aesthetic, and what we have is a game that at least preserves what made Arkham City great. It’s just too bad it didn’t concoct anything truly great on its own.
You can buy Batman: Arkham Origins here.
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