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Batman: Arkham Origins

Your enjoyment of Batman: Arkham Origins is entirely predicated on your feelings toward the previous game in the series, Arkham City. Did you like that game and its open city? Did you buy the DLC? Do you find yourself longingly staring at its case on your shelf, wishing there was more? Then I think you’re in for a good time. If, however, you weren’t such a big fan of all the choices that game made, but dedicated to completing games before you review them, Arkham Origins can be a bit of a slog.

Set two years into Batman’s war on crime in Gotham, Arkham Origins takes place, as is series tradition, over one night. This time it’s Christmas Eve and the Black Mask has just put a $50,000,000 bounty on the Dark Knight’s head. Despite Alfred’s objections, Batman sets out to beat up all the super villains who’ve come to town to capitalize on this and to find why the hell this is going on.

Taking place early in Batman’s career lends Arkham Origins a lot of the story trappings you might expect. Batman’s more moody and cocky. The cops don’t really recognize him as a friend or foe, just a vigilante, and thugs treat him more like a myth… Or a monster. Gordon isn’t commissioner yet, and he too wants Batman arrested. The Joker hasn’t even gone public, although, as you might expect given the arc of the last two games, that changes over the course of this story.

Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammill have been replaced as Batman and the Joker by Roger Craig Smith and video game superstar Troy Baker, who are both good, but basically do impressions of their predecessors. And that’s kind of the whole story – it does a fine job, maybe even better than the storytelling in the previous games, but it breaks basically no new ground. I feel like Batman’s first years on the job are extremely well-worn territory, and while there are fits of inspiration, there’s not a whole lot in Arkham Origins that has shocking impact that the ending of the last game did.

I’m still not that big on the open world gameplay, especially now that we’re in ghostly Gotham City proper. Big surprise: it’s full on criminals. Sure, Arkham City‘s weird setting let it get away with not having civilians on the street, but here it is jarring. The game explains that away by saying there’s a big storm, but it makes the city seem so desolate and crime-ridden that it’s hard to understand why Batman would want to save it. It’s also just weird to think of Batman just flying around in his free time, randomly beating on dudes who are otherwise just standing there. Yeah, they are bad guys, but not high priority targets in the least.

This is the stuff that I think the developers could have really capitalized on to make Arkham Origins stand out. Remember Year One and The Long Halloween comics? Part of what makes those compelling stories is following the passage of time, as Batman evolves as a crimefighter while solving a particular case. Why couldn’t that work in this game? Why does it have to be the story of one of the most chaotic, disastrous Christmas Eves of all time? Some truly horrible stuff happens, which leads to some extremely quick character development that would be better if it was allowed to happen over time.

Lest we get bogged down in the overall design choices of the game, at this point I’d like to remind everyone that these games have really, really great stealth components and some of the best melee combat in the industry. A few new gadgets (which is a weird prequel thing, why doesn’t he have these later?) spice up the stalking gameplay, which I still really love. It is so fun to hang a goon from a gargoyle or knock one out by blowing a wall up on them. It is still kind of weird how easy it is for them to lose Batman when he zips away, and yet how quickly they can hear him when he knocks out one of their buddies a few hundred feet away. I don’t like stealth in a lot of games, Arkham Origins still doesn’t it really well.

Fist fights are still fast and furious, depending heavily on counters and careful timing. It still doesn’t quite make sense to me how this somewhat simplistic, rhythmic approach to combat can be so satisfying, but it really easy. Building up that combo meter was one of the biggest motivators for me throughout the entire game. Thugs with knives and shields, giant monster men, and others add variety to the fighting, but it’s still can be fun just to take on a gang of regular guys and just flatten them in one long streak. Others, notably Assassin’s Creed, have mimicked this system, but it is still at its best in the Arkham games.

If you remember piecing together crime scenes and tracking people and all that stuff in the other games, that’s all back here too. What’s new, and coolest, is the ability to scan a crime scene really heavily, to the point where Batman is watching virtual reality re-creations of the crime being perpetrated. He can rewind and fast-forward through the re-creation do spot additional clues, which doesn’t make sense, but it’s cool so whatever. It’s fun, but painfully easy and underused. Also, the Riddler has hidden a bunch of stuff all over the city which you can collect, but I really, really, really don’t want to.

For the first time in franchise history, Arkham Origins has some multiplayer options. You get to play in a three-way battle between Joker’s goons, Bane’s thugs, and Batman and Robin. It’s fun, asymmetrical combat, but horrible bugs out of the gate and microtransactions hamstrung the launch and probably mean that the audience for it will dwindle away in the next few months.

As I pummeled the Joker while he went on about how futile it was since I’ll never kill him, yet again, I realized how tired I was of that trope. I’ve reviewed sequels that didn’t feel like they changed enough before, but this is the closest I’ve seen a game get to the bare minimum. At least this is only the third Arkham game, so it gets a bit of a pass. I just hope things get mixed up more next time around.