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Batman: Arkham Origins Review

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If you’re like me, the recent influx of content from the Batman franchise has rekindled that ever-present childhood desire to put on a cape and cowl to fight the growing criminal element in my current city of residence (the lack of skyscrapers to perch from be damned!). Of course, actually acting on said desires is the kind of thing that gets you locked up and forgotten about, and I have things to do -- not important things mind you, but things! Therefore, I’ve opted for the next best option: sitting down and devoting the time to finish the latest entry into the Arkham series, Arkham Origins. I personally consider its predecessor, Arkham City, to be the best superhero game I have ever played and was naturally weary about returning to experience the franchise without Rocksteady Studios’ involvement. The most palpable question Warner Bros Studios: Montreal faced, whether they could replicate the success of the previous two games in the series.

Arkham Origins is a prequel to the previous games, occurring two years into Bruce Wayne’s tenure as a masked vigilante. Batman has established his presence in Gotham but has not transitioned from a simple vigilante in a costume operating outside the law to an enduring symbol of justice. However, his growing impact on the city has not gone unnoticed by the major criminal elements that have singled him out as an obstacle that must be eliminated. Black Mask has brought an army of assassins to Gotham to hunt down Batman on Christmas Eve. Honestly, this works as a fairly reasonable explanation for why Batman must face so many enemies in the course of a single night. The game also introduces Batman to a number of his enduring adversaries for the first time. While players know that the Riddler is going to rely on puzzles and scatter hidden clues, that Bane will rely on both strategy and brute force, and that Penguin will throw around money and men until backed into a corner, Batman is unfamiliar with most of these foes and must approach them without the knowledge of these defining characteristics. However, in addition to the various criminals that now inhabit Gotham, Batman must also contend with the Gotham City Police Department which still does not accept his vigilantism. At this point in his career, Batman believed he could do everything by himself, and the fact that the GCPD don’t view Batman as an ally, but actually see him as another threat, helps evoke the still unrefined element of Batman’s career that Warner Bros was trying to create. In fact, Batman’s interactions with a number of his future allies and with Alfred serve to highlight the difference between this early Batman and his later self. There are also a number of strange crimes and occurrences throughout the city that suggest that other elements may be taking advantage of the chaos currently enveloping the city.

While Arkham City restricted players to the limited stretch of Gotham that had been repurposed to contain the city’s criminals, Arkham Origins opens up almost the entire city for Batman to traverse (except the suburbs, because real villains don’t care about the ‘burbs -- save that one time Poison Ivy pretended to be a suburban house wife, but that’s really neither here nor now..). Gotham definitely feels more complete and players are able to explore a far more expansive city than the previous game. As Batman travels the city, he can come across crime scenes, cops in danger, gang fights, and other mysteries and puzzles that need to be solved. However, the freedom to explore Gotham also shines a light on a number of the game’s flaws. In Arkham City, the streets were solely inundated with criminals, which made sense given that it was taking place in essentially a giant prison. Arkham Origins doesn’t have such an excuse. Because the game repurposes Arkham City’s engine, players will be shocked by the complete lack of civilians and the saturation of criminals throughout the city. The story occurs while the city is under a curfew, but this requires believing two equally implausible premises: that there isn’t a single civilian outside and that the level of crime is so bad in Gotham that packs of criminals roam the streets unchecked. Additionally, as expansive as Gotham feels, the lack of buildings to explore make the city feel incredibly hollow. I believe every building that Batman can enter is either related to the story or a quest, and while I understand this decision from a programming perspective, it hurts the game’s ability to immerse players in the experience.

Arkham Origins continues to build upon (for the most part) the phenomenal combat system introduced in Arkham Asylum. Batman can fight groups of enemies, freely flying between foes, incorporating his various gadgets, and executing combo attacks. The number of foes faced, combos used, and damaged taken are used to calculate the experience rewarded from each fight. This is used to unlock additional moves and abilities as in the previous games. The inclusion to a few new types of enemies to those featured in the previous games continues to pressure players to employ more finesse and strategy in combat rather than attempting to simply wrestle through every battle with brute force. As in the previous games, a number of rooms force Batman to hide in the shadows and rely on stealth to eliminate hordes of hostile foes. Now, maybe three games in, I’ve gotten a lot better, but I personally felt that the stealth rooms were a lot easier this time around and didn’t evolve much. This coupled with some of the unlockables and weapons made many of the upgrades that Batman’s foes unlocked moot. Perhaps it’s just another consequence of the large scope of the city and the relative dearth of buildings to explore, but a lot of the game feels less about stealth, and more about swooping in, beating up a bunch of thugs, and then grappling off to the next crime. Boss fights however are one area where Origins shines above its predecessors. A number of the boss fights have been greatly improved beyond the dodge-stun-pummel formula of the previous games. The fights against Deathstroke and Firefly both do an exceptional job of showing two different routes boss fights in the franchise have evolved.

The game also reuses a number of Batman’s tools from the previous games while offering similar alternatives to others. Naturally, tools like the Batarangs, Batclaw, and Cryptographic Sequencer return. The Ice Bombs from Arkham City have been replaced by Glue Bombs that function essentially identically. Honestly, the Glue Bombs are so identical to the Ice Bombs, the game doesn’t actually explain some of their useful features, leaving players to draw the conclusions themselves. Batman also adds a number of new weapons to his ever expanding arsenal. Unfortunately, one of his later additions, the Shock Gloves (which I’ve been told were featured in the WiiU version of Arkham City), serves to eliminate the need for strategy in combat. Once charged (from pummeling foes), the gloves turn combat into a button-mashing affair. Armored thug? Button mash! Knife wielder? Button mash! Riot shield? Use your cape to stun, then flip over him… Just kidding; button mash! One peculiarity is the return of Batman’s Grapnel boost ability. Given the vast city the game covers, it is definitely a necessity, but that doesn’t alleviate the fact that it was introduced in Arkham City as a prototype. Another welcome addition, given the city’s size, is Batman’s ability to call the Batwing in to use for fast travel. That said, I’m a little surprised he built the Batwing before building the Batmobile, but maybe that’s just me.

Arkham Asylum introduced players to the Arkham franchise. Players got to control Batman as both a detective and a crime fighter. It was a game that tasked players with not only fighting through criminals and super villains, but forced players to rely on stealth and tools rather than just brute force. At the same time, its extraordinary battle system was praised for its flexibility, enjoyment, and simplicity. Arkham City took the confined experience of Arkham Asylum and expanded and polished it. Not only did the game manage to free the villains from the wall of Arkham while organically placing them within proximity of each other, but the story was also developed into its own rather than just another Batman story. Unfortunately, Arkham Origins is not worthy of the same praise. It feels like Warner Bros took the pieces of Arkham City and cobbled them together to create a finished product. And while the stories of the previous two games feel like their own entity, Arkham Origins feels like just another Batman story and not an addition to the Arkham franchise.

When this game was announced, many (myself included) had concerns that this game would amount to barely more than an attempt to milk the Arkham franchise. Were it a standalone game, I would whole-heartedly recommend Arkham Origins. If it was a standalone game, I’d be praising it as the best superhero game I’ve ever played. On its own, it’s a fun game, offers an enjoyable superhero experience, and tells an entertaining story. But it’s not a standalone game. Arkham Origins is a sequel (to a sequel) that, at best, feels like incremental upgrade; at worse, an uninspired facsimile. While it does have its moments, it lacks the originality of its predecessors and feels far too much like an attempt to shoehorn Arkham City’s engine into another game. At this point, I imagine you can find Arkham Origins for fairly cheap. That said, if you opted to skip out, you wouldn’t be missing much. While Arkham Origins has its moments, I believe that waiting for Arkham Knight and experiencing the progression from Arkham Asylum, to Arkham City, to Arkham Knight will not only be more enjoyable, but will better position players to appreciate what Rocksteady Studios has done with the franchise.

All images owned by Warner Bros Games.