After Rocksteady shocked the world with back to back, critically-acclaimed Batman games in 2009 and 2011, they stepped back from the franchise, leaving it open for another developer to swoop in and see if they could improve upon the formula. Warner Bros. Montreal stepped in to take the reigns with their own take on the Batman universe, Batman Arkham Origins. Comic book fans are notoriously difficult to please – Batman fans amongst the worst (believe me, I’m one of them). In order to be successful and well received, Origins would have to be fresh and new – whilst simultaneously making sure the old addage was applied: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Not the easiest position for Warner Bros. Montreal to find themselves in.
It’s easy to judge this game against the technical predecessors: Batman Arkham Asylum and Batman Arkham City. It’s clear Warner Bros. Montreal welcomes the comparison to Rocksteady’s masterpieces. Batman Arkham Asylum set an amazing new bench mark for comic book superhero games when it was released in 2009. This was a bench mark many games failed to live up to – until Rocksteady’s own sequel (Arkham City) launched two years later. Arkham City is one of my all time favourite games. They captured Batman, the villains and a closed down, criminal-run section of Gotham City in a way that no-game had ever done before. It was dripping with atmosphere and told a gripping new story. It got hold of you with a stunningly cinematic introduction and took you on a whirlwind tour of Gotham’s seedy underbelly, through countless top tier criminals and didn’t let go, right up to the final climactic conclusion!
Warner Bros. Montreal’s Batman Arkham Origins is very brave to even step into the same room as Arkham City, let alone actively pursue the comparison. Yet, it does so, bold as the Dark Knight.
The game opens with a very brief intro – that does a poor job of setting the scene. I am aware that this is supposed to be an ‘origins’ tale and thus ‘Batman’ is in his infancy as a character in Gotham City. However, I only really know this because I’ve been following news stories, press releases and every snippet of information I could get on the game up until launch. As for the game presenting this scenario, I feel as though I have been unceremoniously dropped into Gotham where everything is new and modern, technologically advanced to a futuristic degree, all the major baddies know Batman and want him dead – yet Gotham City PD and the average street thug still think he’s a myth and are surprised when he shows up. Very little context is offered up. The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that Bruce Wayne seems to suffering from some kind of Bat-amnesia, as he knows a few major players, but others seem to have fallen from his memory. The premise is simple enough – at first. Super-villain, ‘Black Mask’ has hired 8 of the world’s top assassins and offered a hefty sum of money to the one that kills Batman before the night (Christmas Eve) is through.
The problem is, this isn’t really an origins story. It is certainly set earlier in the timeline than the previous Arkham games, but it is roughly six years beyond the date millionaire, Bruce Wayne decided to don the cape and cowl – the ‘origin’ of Batman isn’t really explored at all. I would have loved to spend the first portion of the game as an unmasked, unprepared vigilante, getting my ass handed to me by street thugs – forcing me to re-think my training and strategy – cue montage!
Origins, however, reminds me of a by-gone era in video games where the game’s manual or instruction booklet set the scene for you – and you picked up the story from where that left off – the introduction just feels incomplete.
Unfortunately, there is a higher expectation on today’s game’s presentation. Even a quick, comic book montage of Bruce Wayne’s journey from angry millionaire vigilante, through intense training, elaborate inventing and delicate sewing – towards becoming “Batman” would have helped place it on the timeline and allowed us to clearly see this as an origins tale. Alas, this is not the case.
Thankfully, I HAVE been following the game, so I DO know what’s supposed to be going on, despite the lack of introductory, scene-setting cinematics. So, putting a lack of jaw dropping, super stylish intro aside, what does the game have to offer me? Well, the game looks like a sharper Arkham City, maybe not significantly, but definitely a tighter look. Character models seem chunkier than ever, but move fairly well around the screen. Batman feels fairly well earthed, light on his feet, but connected to the world around him. As I said, eerily familiar, but not quite the same.
Before long, you hit upon combat. This is initially quite jarring. As anyone that has played either of the previous Batman titles of this console generation will know, combat in Batman is all about timing. And the timing is off. That is to say, ever so slightly different. I could hit the same buttons and rack up some combos, but always seemed to miss a beat somewhere in the middle – halting my combos at the 10-12 hit mark. It takes a while getting used to – but mainly because it plays in such a familiar way that muscle memory takes over. After a while though, my combos became comfortably huge and if anything, the combat is a little more forgiving than previous titles (on normal mode anyway).
Another strange, but ultimately positive, thing is how well armed Batman is, right from the get go. It’s great that he has the Batarangs and Crypto sequencer straight away, the odd thing is the presence of the bat-claw launcher. In Arkham City (the latest game on the Arkham timeline), the ability to propel yourself into the air and continue gliding around Gotham was described as a ‘prototype’ tool and was unlocked through completing challenges a fair way into the game, yet here we are – supposedly many years earlier – and Bats has this function open to him immediately!? Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly useful and had it not been available to me in the game, I would have undoubtedly been frustrated. However, it just makes it feel like Arkham Origins is part of a different place; a different time. Like it was never supposed to sit within the universe of Asylum and City. This is compounded later in the game when Batman acquires the power gauntlets. These are a game changer (arguably making regular combat too easy on Normal difficulty), but the real puzzling thing is, narratively speaking, we are to assume that Batman decided to put these unstoppable gauntlets in the Bat-bin prior to the events of Batman Arkham Asylum!?
Of course, that would be absolutely fine, if that was supposed to be the case. A reboot. A separate Story. Unfortunately, WB Montreal have built so much of the rest of the game upon the foundations of the previous games, it is unmistakably part of the same universe! It feels a little indecisive, like it wants to be considered and compared directly to one of the big boys, it wants you to accept it alongside the Rocksteady entries to the Arkham universe, but also wants to be its own game with its own timeline and borrow extensively from ideas introduced further down that timeline. You can’t have it both ways. Or maybe you can, but people WILL complain about it?
That said, some of the tweaks and changes do work brilliantly, if a little hard to notice at first. One thing that can be said for the previous two Batman games is that they are a little formulaic. You fly around the city (or asylum) beating up bad guys. You then enter a building or complex where you will be greeted with a few rooms of general fisticuffs and a couple of areas where you are required to use stealth. Ad infinitum (that would be a criticism, but the formula was just so damn enjoyable)! What Arkham Origins does differently is offer stealth options in the open world too. However, these are fairly implicit in some areas.
In one example (early in the game) you have to track down the Penguin. Once you are making the approach to his hideout, Batman’s internal monologue suggests you take down the nearby snipers covering either side of two groups of baddies separated by a walkway. That done, you are free to proceed clearing the area. Now, in Arkham City, that usually meant pummeling everything that moved into the ground, then striding through the front door. However, I noticed there seemed to be an alternative option. I was in no way guided to do this, but thought I’d check out the open world stealth mechanics. I silently glided down, from my rooftop perch, to a static tank, hid under the nearby grating then stealthily took out two thugs. As I noticed a third thug come across the bridge, I Bat-clawed my way up onto a hanging crate. He freaked out at the site of unconscious bodies and I hopped around finishing off his buddies before finally taking him out by dangling him from the walkway that separated the groups. Not a shot fired, not a glimpse of Batman seen.
It was only upon completing this challenge that I realised what a sheer delight it was to take out baddies in a stealthy manner that didn’t once have me hiding on a gargoyle! There are the formulaic, stealth interiors too – but this new look at the outside world was a real breath of fresh air I hadn’t realised it needed.
The other side of this, is that once you ARE inside, stealth seems to take a bit of a back seat. There are clearly defined stealth rooms, as with previous iterations, but they crop up less frequently than the straight forward group brawls. Occasionally, this feels at odds with what you would expect from the Caped Crusader. You’ll sometimes stumble upon a room with only 3 or 4 guys in, but the way you are forced to approach means you can’t attack from the shadows and a close-quarters-combat scenario in a confined space is your only option. At one point, I succumbed to a beat down from 4 of Gotham’s finest, simply because there was not enough room to fight. When taking on a crowd of 12 in a more spacious environment, things seemed much simpler (I won’t get into Fezzig theory right now, but yes – it could be argued the game is set up to battle larger crowds).
For all it’s eerie emptiness, there are some cool details added to Arkham Origins‘ take on Gotham City, perhaps my favourite of which is the Bat Cave. The whole cave is fully realised. From the lift at the base of Wayne Manor, to the waterfall out of the cave, it’s all here! Batman’s super computer, work bench, training room (which allows you to access challenge maps from the main story rather than just the main menu – making them feel more tied to the game), various Bat vehicles, over-the-top bat-suit storage and a peculiarly Eastern looking Alfred can all be found here (as this is an origins tale, the “memorabilia” like giant coins and robot dinosaurs are understandably absent).
There are some fantastic additions to the Batman gameplay too. The inclusion of the crime scene investigations is excellent. Though piecing together the crime is never particularly difficult, those quiet moments after stumbling upon a ‘scene of carnage past‘ are always enjoyable. Rather than just scanning for evidence whilst the voice-over tells you what happened, you use Bat-vision to scan, then piece together a virtual reality playback of how the crime might have occurred (reminiscent of the supercomputer in the TV show ‘Bone’s or flashback sequences in ‘CSI’ etc.). You use each piece if evidence to build a clearer picture of what transpired – and that may lead you to another piece of evidence within the room.
For example, a murder scene investigated by Bats sees you piece all if the available clues together of a scene involving 2 victims. By the time you leave, you have a fairly clear, virtual hypothesis of what happened in the room, but still no idea of why it happened, who the criminal or criminals were OR a positive ID on one of the victims!? As Batman is not working closely with the GCPD, he has to access that key information through ‘other’ means…
The Boss battles are more of a mixed bag. There has been much in the press about the 8 assassins coming to take on the Batman throughout the Arkham Origins story. Some very well known faces (like Black Mask and Bane) others less so (like Copperhead or The Electrocutioner). Some of the fights are amazing, memorable battles – some of the best in the whole Arkham series (I particularly enjoyed the Deathstroke fight). Others, however, feel almost glossed over, underused – dare I say it – unnecessary. Each of the boss / super villain stories feels really underdeveloped, like their only motivation for coming to Gotham and hunting Batman is the money. Again, this would have felt more acceptable had it not been for the weird and wonderful tales we saw throughout Arkham City. The plots involving the Joker, Mr. Freeze and The Penguin alone were more convoluted, unusual and interesting than the whole Origins cast of 8 super villains combined.
Arkham City had its flaws when it came to story. Too many baddies encountered in the ‘one wild night’ scenario, but it had a well worked plot involving Hugo Strange’s strangle hold on Arkham. It gave the story pace, natural development and perfect justification for a Gotham populated only by thugs, criminals and super-villains.
Arkham Origins, on the other hand, brings justification for so many super-villain encounters (there’s a HUGE bounty on Batman’s head afterall) – but doesn’t present the encounters well. Rather than approaching epic showdowns, the boss battles feel more like random encounters. I rarely felt like I was approaching a particular villain’s lair, or corner of Gotham.
Also, unlike Arkham City, the empty streets of Gotham are never really justified. Yes, Gotham is crime filled and the game takes place on Christmas Eve, so we may not expect too many of Gotham’s residents to be out and about. But the city just feels too empty. Buildings look as though no-one lives there, there are few cars dotted about – and with the driving snow blanketing the streets and rooftops, it all looks a bit samey.
The city is bigger, but lifeless.
So have Warner Bros. Montreal succeeded in their almost impossible task? In short, yes and no.
Batman Arkham Origins is a tough game to judge. It does a lot of things very well, but partly because it borrows so heavily from its successful predecessor. What it adds is a greater scale, impressive tweaks to combat, cool gadgets, some awesome boss fights and crime scene analysis.
What we lose is a sense of story and place.
I think, had I only ever played this Batman game, I would have been really impressed and could easily have been awarding an 9 score or better. However, there are too many similarities here not to compare with what we’ve seen before. The bottom line is, though this game is unquestionably awesome, it’s not AS awesome as Arkham City.
NOTE**You may notice a distinct lack of multiplayer mentioned in this review. This will be followed up in its own multiplayer review in the near future.
Need help completing Batman Arkham Origins click on the links below for a users guide to some of those hard to find collectibles.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us and Olli Olli 2 are the finest games ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @TLOUFactionsMP or @VigilanteSanta and view his occasional twitch outbursts on twitch.tv/spooklebeans.