Paying proper homage to superheroes that are ingrained into the public consciousness is a notoriously difficult task. This is mostly due to certain games not capturing the spirit of the hero they focus on, such as Superman for the Nintendo 64 – a game widely regarded as the worst game on the platform. Others simply just aren’t as refined. For the longest time, Batman followed this trend; but with Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009, developers Rocksteady did the impossible. They made gamers feel as if they were the world’s greatest detective. They then topped their own effort spectacularly with Batman: Arkham City by making it more open world and filled to the brim with tons of things to do and even hinting at making players feel like “the worlds greatest detective”.
Sadly, Rocksteady didn’t make Batman: Arkham Origins and it’s difficult to see what is new from Warner Bros Montreal’s effort.
As the title suggests, Arkham Origins features a younger Batman. One that is reckless enough to have grabbed the attention of Black Mask, who has decided to hire eight assassins ranging from familiar characters such as Bane and Deathstroke, to really obscure villains such as Shiva and The Electrocutioner. The narrative also takes place on Christmas Eve, two years into his crusade against crime. Batman meets some of his more deadly adversaries, including The Joker, and even The Penguin feels more like a mob boss than a dangerous villain. It’s not that the story is bad, with WB Montreal being quite brave to enter such treacherous territory, but the narrative doesn’t come across as strong as the likes of Arkham Asylum or Arkham City.
To be fair to the cast though, they do an admirable job of making the script believable. With Batman and The Joker staple voice actors not reprising their roles, it is amazing just how much their replacements try to emulate those classic voices. Troy Baker still doesn’t sound quite right as the Clown Prince of Crime, but he does an admirable impression of Mark Hamill’s classic voice. Alfred is as always a wonderful throwback to unimpressed butler, while other returning villains sound as awesome as ever. The game doesn’t look graphically different to its predecessor, though some really impressive particle effects are on show, but this is far from a grievance. Even the orchestral score manages to capture the essence of Danny Elfman’s score from the original films, but with added Christmas motifs. It certainly looks and sounds the part, but it is in the gameplay where things become unstuck.
Given how the transition between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City was so drastic, it is a big shame that Arkham Origins not only reuses assets from Rocksteady’s wonderful sequel, but it also doesn’t add a lot new to the mix. While Batman can now zip across the city with relative ease, the new fast travel system comes combined with an unskippable cutscene without sound. Despite it being set near Christmas, the city of Gotham features a lack of festive decoration, though a few isolated cases capture the holiday spirit quite nicely.
Fighting doesn’t feel quite as refined as it probably should, with some punches not connecting and takedowns not initiating despite pressing the button combinations. Enemies are relatively dumb, proving no real threat unless equipped with blades or guns. There is a little more enemy variety with the inclusion of martial art experts and ninjas, but these generally fall as easily as standard mobsters. Boss battles are generally a breeze, but one fateful encounter with Deathstroke is exception that proves the rule as it is surprisingly taxing.
One originally intriguing concept the game has to offer is an expansion of the Crime Scene found towards the beginning of Arkham City. Batman switches to a detective view that highlights points of interest. The twist in Arkham Origins is that you can simulate what happened to establish motive and hidden evidence. While this sounds fascinating on paper, the reality is that each case holds your hand throughout, eliminating all challenge that might arise.
The overarching theme is that there hasn’t been much in the way of additions, but what there is still fun. There’s nothing quite like the sections where stealth is the key to success, surprising enemies out of the blue. Messing with the psychological state of your foes by suddenly cutting the rope of an unconscious enemy is still immensely satisfying. Even when they get gadgets to help suss out where you are, or disrupt your detective mode view, working around those tricky obstacles is fantastic fun. Arkham Origins also doesn’t skimp out on side-quests, a robust upgrade system, and various challenge maps to tide you over.
Of course, the brand new Multiplayer mode that nobody needed but got anyway, is the biggest departure from series conventions. Only one game mode seems available at launch. The idea is that while two teams of three play a domination style game where they need to kill enemies and capture points, two other players take on the roles of Batman and Robin who must stalk all other players. It’s relatively easy to take down the dynamic duo, but more often than not they’re skulking in the shadows, making you wary of their movements while at the same time finding the enemy team you need to kill or securing objectives. The problem comes when you think about the power creep.
As you play the multiplayer game, your loadouts for both factions and the hero side will be upgraded, meaning that newer players might not be able to cope with the vastly superior weapons of multiplayer veterans. What’s more, even getting into games is its own challenge as games won’t start with the maximum number of players being present at any one time. Numerous games during the course of review were initiated, but never started due to a lack of players. When it works, it can be fun at times as the asymmetric nature of the game mode keeps you on your toes, but more often than not you’re waiting for that last slot to be filled.
Batman: Arkham Origins feels like a fall from grace for the franchise as it never really expands core concepts. Everything you know and love is still there, albeit in a slightly inferior form; but beyond an overall underwhelming multiplayer mode, nothing really leaps out to grab your attention. Arkham Origins is still competent with lots of things to do, but it feels like an expansion pack rather than a full game. Nothing is particularly dreadful, but nothing is particularly spectacular. With the changing of the guard to WB Montreal, it seems that the franchise has stalled in terms of creativity, which is a massive shame…