Batman: Arkham Origins shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t be. How did a brand new developer working from the abandoned toolbox of one of this generation’s finest teams, self-exiled with cast and writer in tow, and on an origin story of all things, pull off one of this generation’s last great upsets? Arkham Origins may have everything going against it, but it’ll take the most cynical among you to fault it, try though I’m sure you will.
It’s often a sure sign that a creator has run out of ideas when they turn to a character’s unexplored past for their latest endeavour: it’s like writing a story backwards, and it seems as though it’s always a lot easier to create a beginning once you have an ending. Worse yet, there’s always the sense that you can’t be surprised because you know where everything’s going to end up. A new character you don’t recognize? Doomed. Married couple unmarried and dating? Ah, you get the drift…
Indulge me as we head back a while to that shattering announcement – Rocksteady is off Batman. Surely no worse revelation could have come the gaming public’s way. These guys, with the superb Arkham double bill of Asylum and City, saw to it that superhero videogames could soar above their established standing as licensed exercises in mass commercial sadism, giving the world not just the first indisputably great Batman game, but quite possibly the greatest sequel in gaming history (it depends who you ask). Yes, ably aided by folks from the good old days of Batman: The Animated Series, Rocksteady made everyone love Batman again, won a ton of awards, and set a bar that four years down the line still remains untouched. With the whole lot of ‘em gone, what was left to look forward to?
Well, the plot, for one thing. Arkham Origins works around a simple High Concept, the sort to make Jerry Bruckheimer proud. Mob boss Black Mask has, for reasons rooted entirely in criminality, hired eight assassins to whack the Bat on that most magical of nights, Christmas Eve. Who couldn’t warm to that? It’s a great concept that works perfectly for a videogame as Batman, in his second year of crime-fighting and aided over radio by Alfred (yay Alfred!), makes his way from A to B only to have his head smashed in when he gets there by one of a number of B and C list villains.
I felt this was worth mentioning because Arkham Origins’ cast list is considerably lower in profile than that of the previous games. I doubt those raised on the exploits of Adam West are going to get much of a thrill that Bane’s cohort Bird is a target in this game, or that Shiva and Deathstroke are waiting to put you through your paces. But there’s an old saying that there are no bad characters, and Arkham Origins is testament to that.
Each of the game’s assassins (not to mention a few other very familiar faces who pop up in between) are something to be feared for one reason or another, with a notable exception that pays homage to a classic moment that you’ve seen everywhere from Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Tim Burton’s own Batman. The confrontations with Killer Croc and Firefly, the latter on a flaming bridge, are particular highlights.
Having paid that compliment, some of you may experience as I did the sensation that things are moving along a little too much by the numbers. Luckily, the story takes a change in an unadvertised direction about halfway through (I hope I’m not spoiling much by saying it’s sort of this generation’s Sons Of Liberty), but it’s at the three-quarter mark that the game really starts to shine, taking its title and delivering on a few key points that drive and define its characters.
Something that’s been interesting about the Arkham series so far is that there’s this constant sense that it’s in a universe just to the left of established DC continuity. Arkham City’s controversial ending is one such indicator, as is its depiction of the Penguin who hails from the East End of London. What I’m getting at here is that despite my earlier comment, there is at least some sense that even a hardened Batlore nut like myself might catch a surprise or two along the way, and Arkham Origins delivers. For that greater portion of you for whom Batman is a casual cultural interest, you’re going to love each and every turn the story throws at you.
One last point I’d make on that is that the game offers at least one pivotal moment in the relationship between Batman and, well, guess who, and the way in which it’s handled is maybe the best way it’s ever been. I do apologize for the lack of anything approaching detail, but I’d rather not spoil the journey.
On a purely technical level, the game is damn near flawless, though it should come as no surprise that Rocksteady’s earlier work has withstood the test of time and more importantly, re-appropriation. Travelling across Gotham City is as satisfying as ever, and made all the more pleasant by the possession of Batman’s arsenal of gadgetry being largely accessible from the very beginning. Sure, there are things to pick up along the way, but many of the previous games’ upgrades (such as the profoundly exciting Grapnel Gun boost that makes the leap from building to building seamless) are ready and waiting.
The Free Flow Combat system makes its return, too, with a noticeable increase in difficulty that really forces you to think about the way you make use of those wonderful, wonderful toys. The true beauty of Free Flow is that it’s not necessary. I remember not really discovering it until the second time I finished Arkham Asylum, having frustratedly made my way through the game by bashing buttons like tomorrow was cancelled. As ever, you can choose not to learn how to play the way you’re wanted to play, but man, what in gaming is more satisfying than that moment when it clicks for you and you’re bounding between thugs, effortlessly juggling the complexity of it all with the simplest of control schemes? I’ll go on record, right here and right now: the combat in Arkham Origins is the most satisfying in gaming history outside of a dedicated beat ‘em up. Take that to the bank, my friend.
Worth mentioning too is the Christmas setting, which ties very nicely in with previous associations in Burton’s Batman Returns and Lee Bermejo’s superb graphic novel Noel (the Batsuit from which makes an appearance as a completion bonus in Origins). There’s something about the juxtaposition of the warmth and grandeur of big-city Christmas that compliments Gotham’s Gothique in a way that’s really hard to quantify or even convey in words, but you’ll feel it, and that’s a guarantee. Wandering past snowed-over cars as a jaunty Jingle Bells is carried by the wind as a gang of thugs descends upon you in vain is hopefully an experience you’ll not soon forget as it’s truly immersive. You can play Arkham Origins, but you can live it, too. Listen to its citizens, catch a radio broadcast, read about its history and marvel at the terrible beauty of a city under siege in the snow.
In addition to the main campaign, there’s also a direct story path off of which various optional missions spin. It’s worth knowing that in order to get the most out of the game, these are all worth pursuing, particularly as some of the title’s advertised assassins spend most of their time in said optional missions.
As ever, there’s a comprehensive hunt for collectibles to be had which should occupy a considerable portion of your time either before or after completing the main storyline, particularly if you want to level up for quicker access to better equipment which, naturally, will make the search for those same collectibles that much easier, like a big never-ending circle of effort and reward (that does eventually end). These missions are also home to the other DC characters that don’t form part of the main eight, another reason to keep an eye out. On TOP of all that, there’s an additional pair of game modes to tackle once you’re finished the main story. Masochists may want to check out the I Am The Night difficulty, in which a single death results in the game ending.
Challenge Maps also make for a welcome return for those with patience. As before, each room will contain a set of three specific challenges ranging from weapon-specific combat opportunities to high score collection. They range in difficulty from extreme to fugeddabouddit, and are a testament to the game’s robust combat system and how well it holds up under careful inspection. If anything, they’re worth taking a look at as they’ll not only reward rational and logical thinking, but they’ll make you realize how much stuff there is to do that you’re probably not doing. A word to the wise, though – keep a level head. These are not for those with anger issues.
One or two things spring to mind that, if forced to complain, would give me cause to do so. Firstly, the script is laughably poor, even if the plot isn’t. It’s so bad, in fact, that Batman’s guttural considerations and threats are often reminiscent of the very worst B Movies.
Secondly, if you played Fallout: New Vegas and didn’t like it simply because you’d had the misfortune to play Fallout 3 first, and Rocksteady’s previous efforts also count for scratches on your gaming tally, you may want to give this a miss, as far as freshness of approach is concerned. Batman: Arkham Origins feels very familiar and is extremely similar to its predecessors, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is something that I can see people not being happy with.
Lastly, there’s what may seem like the lamentable inclusion of The Joker, despite his headlining of two previous games. This is something that depends on your point of view, and obviously the events of the story will take you one way or the other, but know that whichever way you’re inclined to feel about it, you’ll be given plenty to talk about.
On the topic of complaints, we should talk about the online portion of the game. Not that I really need to complain about it, but it does have several issues that are worth pointing out.
Batman: Arkham Origins comes with a full-out multiplayer mode, complete with an XP system and character customization options. While it’s great to see the studio putting in the effort, unfortunately, it’s not perfect, and feels a bit unbalanced and rough at times. That being said, it will no doubt add some replay value onto the game and I can easily see people getting really into it.
Here’s how it works. For the most part, the online component of the game takes the form of a 3 vs. 3 third person shooter, where you fight against the other team to take over control points. You’ll be pitted on either Bane’s gang or Joker’s gang as the two clash for control of the map. Now, here’s where things get funky. There are two other players in the game as well, that are not a part of either Bane or Joker’s squads. The extra two bodies come in the form of Batman and Robin (who is, unfortunately, only available to play as in multiplayer).
Yes, that’s right, in every match two players will be selected at random to play as Batman and Robin. When playing as one of the heroes, your job is to sneak around the map in Predator mode and take out the gang members from both Bane and Joker’s side.
It’s a neat concept, having the games made up of gangs and heroes, but it needs a bit more balance. Playing as either Batman or Robin gives you a strong advantage, as you can use almost all of the gadgets/abilities from the campaign mode to hunt your prey, putting the people who are playing as gang members at a severe disadvantage. Admittedly, neither Batman nor Robin can withstand much gunfire, but still, playing as a hero does give you the feeling of being overpowered.
The other problem with the multiplayer is that if you’re not playing as one of the heroes, it feels pretty bland and recycled. Sure, you have to watch your back and be mindful that either hero could be stalking you, but aside from that, it’s just your everyday 3 vs. 3 third person shooter. Nothing new or exciting.
Before I close out this review, it’s worth mentioning that people have been complaining that the game has a tendency to glitch. To be fair, this is something I learned from friends and forums – I spent nearly thirty hours with it and I can recall a single game-ending freeze and an amusing incident where an invisible crim swung a pipe at me, but that’s it. I should say that I’ve been playing the digital version of the game and spoke to those with discs. I can’t say whether you’ll have the same experience as those afflicted or myself, but it’s certainly a hot topic at present. Rest assured though, one patch has been released already and more are sure to follow.
It is perhaps a condemnation of the critic’s mindset that we’re so keen to attack something that’s beautifully sculpted, memorably forged or spectacularly realized because we’ve seen it before, and I worry as a fan of truly special games that Arkham Origins is due such a fate. It feels, at times, very familiar. It owes a lot of its structure to Arkham City and of course, it all hinges on existing material. Its cast, which offers superb work, is doomed to constant comparison to its earlier incarnation, and its writers the same. Yet still, there is something special at work here. A last-shot effort for a gaming generation not, perhaps, worthy of construction from conception upwards but rather as an expression given an opportunity for expression. Warner Bros. Montreal were not expected to create something more than the functional, and not credited with motivation greater than the financial, but here I sit, three days after starting to play Batman: Arkham Origins, and I’ve learned not to second-guess professionals, having loved every minute of a game I had to tear myself away from to write about, and in the shortest possible terms, am glad was made.
This review was based on the PS3 version of the game.