How can a young Bat feel so… old?
Fun fact: most bats can’t fly from a grounded position, meaning that they have to find higher ground and drop into a glide. But even though Rocksteady put the Arkham franchise on pretty high ground, the team at Warner Bros. Games Montréal seems to have missed the “gliding” when developing Origins.
Before I rag on the game too harshly, here’s what it gets right. An overhaul of cinematic presentation and a healthy focus on story give the game a largely different vibe from the first two Arkham games—this is more The Long Halloween Bats than Serious House madness— putting us in the skin-tight suit of an obviously less-experienced Bruce Wayne. In fact, Batman’s usual steely resolve comes off as angst-y, childlike vigilantism in this iteration—and it totally fits.
I have to stress storytelling, as it’s one of the few ways in which Origins tops City: this is one of the best Batman stories told outside of the comics. The appearance of some lesser-known and earlier Batman characters is a treat, especially for those familiar with their canonical futures. The ethical existence of Bats himself is brought into question–is he Gotham’s defender or is he just flypaper for super-criminals? The story loses a little bit of focus at times and the opening story is unrecognizable from the ending, but its strong points outweigh its logistical shortcomings.
What’s more, the new voice cast fits in seamlessly with the previous entries. Seriously, if you hadn’t already known that Troy Baker (the Joker) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman) replaced Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy respectively, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Baker in particular has had a markedly good year for voice-acting, and even though it’s an imitation, his Joker stands as one of the best.
Boss battles provide a good amount of variety, if only for a little while, and were obviously a point of effort on the developer’s behalf. Some staples return for most battles – the format of “attack, beat up some lackeys, attack, lackeys, attack, finisher” appears in more than one – but each boss battle is distinct if not hefty. In addition to being some of the most fun parts of the game, they provide a great sense of character; facing off against Deathstroke feels different than pummelling Killer Croc, just as it should. Finally, boss battles break the flow again.
But here’s the yang to all that yin. Some of the items and abilities that required purchasing in City are available right off the bat (pun intended), which makes the learning curve a bit steeper for newcomers. But no notably good new gadgets come into play later in the game, making it apparent that Warner Bros. put them in there just to be able to call them “new”. Hand-to-hand combat, the series’ bread and butter, remains largely unchanged, for better or worse. Actually, sometimes worse. Wonky camera issues, combined with poorly-anticipated level design, made for some cheap combo breaks made even more frustrating when I had a really good flow going. It’s still as much fun to lay the smack down on petty thugs as it was in Asylum and City, but it lacks the certain joie de faire du mal that made me a giddy bully in both of those games. The best word for it is “uninspired,” and the worst is “stale”.
Graphically, visuals leave little to be desired – but level design and user interface are cluttered and mostly annoying. I get it: you want your menus to look more prototypical to reflect the lower-tech nature of Batman’s early career. But flooding my screen with blocky, chunky text and indecipherable numbers is an awful way to supplement the atmosphere and a great way to frustrate players. Crime scene investigation is given a new dimension with Batman’s ability to holographically recreate the crime and manipulate it at will in real-time. Looking back, it’s kind of superfluous and hokey, but it looks cool and it doesn’t detract from the overall experience (which is more than can be said of some other features of the game).
Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Arkham Origins is Gotham itself. While bigger than Arkham City, it just has no inherent appeal to draw you in. Even as an open-world game, its segmentation makes it feel cripplingly level-based. Disabling jammers at radio towers across the city, à la Far Cry 3, grants you several fast travel points around the city and to/fro the Batcave. Instead of just making it easier to get around, this ultimately de-emphasizes exploration and disconnects the city from your home base – I found myself getting lazy and skipping many side-missions because I could port to wherever I needed to be for a main mission. A police blotter notifies you of random crime while you’re floating around the city, Spider-Man 2-style, but each of those devolves into shameless thug beatdowns until they’re just no fun anymore. Even the side-missions involving Enigma and Anarky just feel like distractions rather than objectives. Origins’ Gotham isn’t just big: it’s big, cold and uninviting.
There isn’t much that Warner Bros. did to improve the formula, and what aspects they didn’t improve they actually tarnished. Batman: Arkham Origins is the weakest link in a strong franchise – which means that, for all intents and purposes, it’s still quite worth playing. I hoped for more out of the series’ new developers, but I should’ve leveled my expectations. Shame on me.
- Fantastic story
- Quality boss battles make for nice breaks
- Cluttered looking user interface
- Instead of advancing the series, it feels like not much has even been improved upon