Batman: Arkham Origins review

Origins, the Batman: Arkham series prequel is here, but can WB Montreal successfully duplicate Rocksteady's runaway success?

Rocksteady’s Arkham series is considered to be one of the best comic book tie-ins in gaming. The Dark Knight outings that have scooped awards left, right an centre actually make you feel like Batman, and combine a genuine love of the source material, with some corking action adventure gameplay. For this latest instalment, though, things have changed, and not only has Rocksteady’s project been handed to new development team, WB Montreal, but the story has been rewound, showing us Batman’s early days prior to the previous releases. It also charts his first meetings with some of his greatest foes.

Origin story

Arkham Origins is the heroic gestation tale of the Arkham series’ incarnation of Batman, and shows us a period of his early crime fighting days. This Batman isn’t quite the finely tuned machine we saw in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but he’s still every bit the elite vigilante he needs to be to deal with the growing criminal element that stalks Gotham City’s oppressive streets. This is fortunate as crime boss, Black Mask, has put a bounty on the Bats’ head, with eight of the worlds most dangerous assassin’s and criminals taking up the challenge, including Deathstroke, Bane, Deadshot and Firefly. Batman’s troubles don’t end there though, as the game is a veritable rogue’s gallery, featuring many of Batman’s most famous villains, including Penguin, Mad Hatter, Anarky, Enigma (pre-Ridder) and, of course, the Joker, with Troy Baker dong a sterling job, replacing Mark Hamill as the clown prince of crime. This all melts into a large, open world that attempts to better its predecessors, whilst adding some new tricks.

Initially, Origins‘ story revolves around the imminent threat of Batman’s Christmas Eve bounty, but quickly things become a whole lot more complicated, with more missions, side quests and hints that Black Mask may not be the major mover he appears to be. Underneath all of this is the underlying story of Batman’s growth. Here he’s still public enemy number one, wanted by the police as a vigilante, he’s not come face to face with many of his arch foes, and Gotham is a place filled with small time crimes, as knowledge of Batman is limited to mere rumour, rather than actual fear. That will soon change, however.

Dark night

Batman: Arkham Origins stiffly adheres to the template already laid out by Rocksteady, and much of the game doesn’t stray from the series’ established path. This is only the third game, with the two prior releases being of such quality, so this isn’t a bad thing in part, but it’s clear that WB Montreal isn’t quite as adept as the guys over at Rocksteady. Origins is impressive in many ways, and successfully emulates the previous games, but it has a slightly lesser lever of polish and quality feel. Rather than innovate and push the series, you can’t help but feel that the overriding design decisions here were to play it safe, and not upset the status quo, and the game does suffer for it.

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Visually, not a great deal has changed. Gotham still looks like the same run-down, yet strangely beautiful metropolis as it did in Arkham City, only this time it’s larger in scale, with two major sections split by a long bridge. The area from Arkham City is found to the north, not quite as run down and left to rot as it will eventually become when turned into a super prison, and the south section is an entirely new area of Gotham to explore, with some new landmark locations. Does the game feel bigger than previously, though? To be honest, no, not really.

One of the things you quickly notice that sets the game apart from Rocksteady’s titles, is a lesser ability to conceal boundaries. Rocksteady managed to, for the most part, create a world that made you feel free, and not inhibited by false walls. WB’s Origins doesn’t do that, and there are clichéd water traps, invisible walls and even tall buildings that, for some reason, Batman can’t scale (that’s not including ones with spiked roof tops). It’s odd, and serves to make this new, larger Gotham feel a little restricted.

The physical layout of Gotham and the various locations is also left wanting, with less complexity and secret hidey holes than Arkahm City. The world simply feels far less densely populated than before. That doesn’t mean there’s not much to do, however.

Missions are still plentiful, and the same general structure as before is used for the most part. As you progress you’ll encounter new foes who will pop up, generating side missions and quest branches, and there are also random street crimes, which can pop-up at any time. These are usually simple brawls, but they’re a good diversion. You can wander the city looking for collection items, like Enigma’s network devices and data packages, and you can indulge in one of the game’s biggest new features, the crime scenes.

Super sleuth

As the world’s greatest detective, one of Batman’s greatest skills is his keen mind and investigative abilities. This was only really hinted at in the two previous games, but Origins attempts to really indulge us in this side of Bruce Wayne’s skillset. Crime scene investigation is far more elaborate here, featuring explorable first person crime scenes where you need to scan and analyse various evidence items and residual forensic traces. Once you have some data, you can then play back and scrub through the reconstructed events in order to find more info, even to the point of tracking where missing items may have gotten to (such as a dropped briefcase). It’s all very clever, and undeniably cool, and it does further emphasise that Batman isn’t simply all brawn and no brains, but I feel WB Montreal really missed a trick here.

The investigation sections simply feature far too much direction and hand-holding. They’re impossible to fail, and no real user-input is needed to clear them. Bruce’s internal monologue directs you every step of the way, and it simply boils down to a follow the breadcrumbs formula. There’s no need to actually think or solve puzzles, you simply find the bright red arrow and scan. It’s a shame, and a wasted opportunity for what could have been a great puzzle diversion from the never-ending combat. As it stands, it’s merely a stylish diversion and story-telling mechanic, and little more.

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Punch drunk

One of the major challenges, aside from 100% completion, in the Arkham games has always been the combat, and here that’s no different. In fact, there’s even more combat to be found here than before, with new enemy types and some great boss fights. Luckily, WB has managed to keep the fast, fluid and buttery combat, and if you liked the fighting system before, you won’t be disappointed here.

New foes, such as the beefy enforcers and martial artists mix up fights, adding the need to vary your tactics even more, eliminating more button mashing, and boss fights can be quite challenging, certainly more so than the pushover fights of previous games. Deathstroke in particular is very tricky, and you’ll need to master Batman’s abilities and counters to succeed.

The only downside I found with combat is that it plays it too safe. It’s great, it’s enjoyable, but WB didn’t add anything truly new. There’s very little here to make you go wow, and as with the previous games, once you master the counter system, you’re nigh-on invincible. More challenge and some new mechanics would have been welcome.

Swiss Army Bat

One of the reasons I’ve been such a fan of the Arkham series thus far is its Metroidvania-style play which encourages off the beaten track exploration and re-treading to access previously inaccessible areas. Origins embraces this once more, if not quite as well as Rocksteady’s outings. Batman starts out with a few useful gadgets, and as he progresses more are found which not only add to his combat prowess, but also his exploration abilities. Locked doors can be opened with the right tools, watery obstacles can be crossed with acrobatic enhancements, and consoles can be hacked with more powerful devices. It’s formulaic, yes, but works really well in the context of the game. Once again, though, WB hasn’t improved all that much on what’s come before it, which is a shame. The new gadgets are fun, though.

The Remote Claw not only lets you cross obstacles in the environment, but also lets you tether items and enemies to each other, with entertaining results, and concussion grenades can distract enemies, aiding in your stealthy hunting. These, and other new toys are complimented by series staples like Batarangs (normal, remote and sonic), Bat Claw and smoke grenades. It’s an impressive arsenal, and once more its strength is the flexibility of the items. Each has multiple uses, in and out of combat, making the game deliver another experience that successfully portrays Batman’s impressive level of skill, and puts it all at your fingertips. But there are more new features to the adventure than gadgets.

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Aside the aforementioned detective mode enhancements, travels around the game world are helped along by a fast travel system using the Batwing. In order to use this you first have to deactivate jamming towers, Far Cry-style. These are part of Enigma’s side missions, and each features a puzzle in order to be deactivated. They’re decent enough, as is the item hunting for Enigmas other side quests, all of which extend the game’s play time. However, these diversions are nowhere near as complex or entertaining as Arkham City‘s impressive Riddler quests. Remember the often brain-warping question mark puzzles dottedaround Arkham City? Not so here. Such chllenges are far less prevelant, replaced by simple destroyable communication devices and collectable data packs.

Indeed, there’s an overall feeling of simplicity here that Arkham City had started to get away from. Crime scene investigation easiness aside, some of the side missions are just dull. Anarky’s bomb defusing is a simple, clichéd race to a checkpoint, and Barbara Gordon’s weapon crate destruction is similarly moribund. There’s a lot of content, make no mistake, but I couldn’t help but feel a good portion was merely filler. This wasn’t so in previous games, and the larger city area is pretty much wasted, and filled with content that simply clones Arkahm City instead of treading new ground. Some activities are nothing more than simple replications of previous features, such as Enigma’s data handlers, who have to be singled out an interrogated to find out the locations of his collectables in a given area. This is exactly the same as the Riddler’s informants from Arkham City.

The new Dark Knight system adds to the sense of achievement somewhat, though, and you’re rewarded for performing certain tasks, such as hitting foes with certain moves or obtaining a high combo when fighting, or diving a certain distance. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s still a good addition.

I challenge thee

To complement the main story, Origins has a couple of major tricks up its sleeve, the returning challenge room modes and the new multiplayer component.

The challenge rooms once again consist of various tasks that you have to perform in order to get higher ratings, and there are challenges for Batman and Deathstroke, who’s playable in these modes. They’re as enjoyable as ever, giving us more of the excellent gameplay found in the main game, and as you progress through the story, more challenges are unlocked.

On paper, Splash Damage’s multiplayer sounds amazing. Players take on the role of Batman and Robin, Bane’s gang or Joker’s henchmen. The criminals are out to get each other, and the Dynamic Duo have to bag the villains. The criminals use heavy firepower, whilst Batman and Robin use stealth and gadgets to win the day. It’s similar in many ways to Splinter Cell’s multiplayer, only here it’s less enjoyable thanks to iffy accuracy, quirky game mechanics and overly weak weapons and abilities. There’s a general lack of polish that makes the mode feel unbalanced and unsatisfying, and even the rock solid stealthy, gadget play seen in solo doesn’t really work as well as hoped. The end result is a mode that’ll no doubt keep your attention for a short time, but interest will wane quickly. I’d have preferred WB Montreal concentrate on the main story more, ignoring this bolt-on offering, as the series is made for single-player, and really didn’t need multiplayer in the first place.

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Difficult third album

It was always going to be difficult for WB Montreal to follow two such high-end titles from Rocksteady, and I have to admit, Origins isn’t the game I was hoping it would be. It does very little to distinguish itself from the previous games, even taking steps back in my opinion. I was hoping that Origins would be to Arkham City as City it was to Asylum. Instead, this is more like Arkham City 1.5 rather than a new game, and the new, larger Gotham setting simply isn’t taken advantage of.

Don’t despair too much, as despite the let-downs (and some nasty bugs in the version reviewed, including one that prevented completion of a radio tower) this is still a great title, and if you’re a fan of the series you’ll still find a ton of enjoyable play here. WB Montreal has nailed most of the core features of the Arkham series, and the story to be told is very good, with some excellent performances, and some stand out moments. I’d have just liked a little more originality, which I expected to see from a fresh team of developers with their own take on the license. As it stands, this is a very good, if not great Batman outing, and still well worth your time.

[Review format: PC]

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Rating:

4 out of 5