After years of waiting for a worthwhile Batman videogame, many of us had begun to despair that such a thing could never happen, until Rocksteady came along and proved everyone wrong. Arkham Asylum not only brought us a kick arse game for the World’s Greatest Detective, but it also paid wonderful tribute to the dense history of Batman and its colourful characters. Arkham City took it one step further with a much larger playground and additional playable characters such as Catwoman and Robin. Both had respectable stories in place and were an enjoyable dive into Bruce Wayne’s alter ego (or is it the other way around?) and the talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker respectively were icing on the cake.
After the definitive ending of Arkham City, Warner Brothers executives must have screamed themselves awake at night, wondering why on earth they would want to stop a small money printing press like the Batman series. And so we come to Arkham Origins – handled this time by WB Games Montreal, not Rocksteady and no longer graced by Conroy or Hamill – so how does it stack up?
Last minute Christmas shopping must have been in fashion back in Batman’s early days in Gotham. Christmas Eve because almost every villain in the city has nearly choked on their nutmeg, realising they’ve still got some terrorising of the average citizen before Santa turns up, so Batman has got his hands full. Blackgate is rioting and Black Mask has put a $50 million dollar bounty on our winged vigilante (as far as the corrupt-up-to-the-armpits GCPD are concerned) so several assassins have turned up, hoping to take out the Bat and claim the money for themselves. As Batman fights his way through the night, he’ll encounter a hell of a lot more issues as well.
Detective mode is one area that has seen some improvement; as Batman comes upon crime scenes both in the main story and as separate investigations, he has to reconstruct the scene and evidence to progress. It’s some welcome detail, but it would have been great to see the facts presented and the player allowed to make some choices, rather than scanning some areas of the crime scene and then handed the information on a platter. It’s usually Batman talking out his thoughts to Alfred, who in many ways seems to exist purely for an angry young man with a lot of money and toys to psychoanalyse himself through an exterior source.
But the detective work is a welcome change of pace from the melee fighting. There is lots of fighting. A ridiculous amount of fighting. The FreeFlow combat system in the Arkham games has always had that satisfaction element to it – when you nail counter moves and get through a group of thugs flawlessly, it feels damn awesome. So Arkham Origins was frustrating in how tough it was, compared to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. Either my reflexes are shot to hell, my controller is worn out or the AI have quietly raised the bar, even on Normal difficulty, because there were times when my counter moves seemed ignored and after one hit it’s very easy to completely lose your rhythm and get overwhelmed. Having said that, I can safely say that button mashing won’t help you, patience and control will. In the later stages, some of the mobs you face get savage, with combinations of armour, shields, venom-addicted thugs, knives, stun batons, guns and enforcers. Batman will need to use every gadget available to stay on top of these encounters. One gadget that you acquire mid-way through the game is the Shock Gloves and I’m sitting on the fence on these – in one way they’re too easy a way out for finishing off a melee battle quickly, on the other, by the time I got them I was relieved to use anything to finish off these fights sooner rather than later.
You also get a rating after each fight based on how many times you were hit, variety of moves and gadgets used and even being unseen for the encounter has an influence on the score. This score is your XP and the better a rating you get, the better your XP is multiplied. It’s a great incentive, going for a better scorecard, and makes the fights less of a chore. For anyone who has played an Arkham game before, there is a familiar path of improved Batsuit, combat abilities and gadgets. This is a good time to point out that I’m not a fan of the menu presentation for Arkham Origins; even familiar with the previous games, I found it took quite a while to get my head around the upgrade paths and I found the visuals to be cold and sterile. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City both had unique presentation to their menus, but remained relatively intuitive and the design felt right. Origins, however, seems to have forgotten the homage that these titles injected into even the menu design and the information within.
Gotham is an expanded playground compared to Arkham City’s, as the original suburbs from City are once again here and a few more suburbs can be found at the end of a very long damn bridge. The main story will take you through all of these areas but there is much to do for the side quests; we see Edward Nigma growing into his role of The Riddler and will once again have you jumping around the city, this time searching out data from his extortion files and disabling his network throughout Gotham. Despite being a Gotham before an entire section of the city was walled off for all the criminals to run riot in, the playable part of the city is completely devoid of honest, hard-working citizens, due to a curfew. While it might suit Origins’ gameplay, it feels wrong and really does break the illusion of a living, breathing city. There is also an option to fast travel between these suburbs after you disable jamming signals in each, but utilising fast travel uncovers the ugliest aspect of Arkham Origins.
Each time I used fast travel the frame rate on my PS3 crawled almost to standstill and usually required me to reload from my last checkpoint. It got so bad that I only use the fast travel feature for the Batcave and nothing else. There have also been reports of other technical issues across multiple consoles including save games that suddenly won’t load and the player is left with no choice but to start the entire game from the beginning. The hard drive install on PS3 was considerable and auto-save seems to take a long time (sometimes half a minute) and it’s a real distraction. There was a patch update on day one and I expect more substantial patches in the days to come; some of these issues were quite evident and I wonder how much quality testing and debugging went into Origins before it was rushed out into a busy Christmas season. As I write, Warner Brothers are working frantically on patches for all formats.
It also took a while for the story to get interesting, but eventually there was a tantalising look into Batman and Joker’s first encounter and how each is affected by the other. I don’t think it reached its full potential, due to all the other events unfolding around them, and a lot more of the story could have been invested in this journey. Instead, there was more of a focus on linking Origins to the other Arkham games and if I’m guessing right that there are a few years between the years of Origins and Asylum, then it was an unnecessary approach. Cramming so many villains into an origins story became a detriment in this case, and it might have paid off to work with quality this time, rather than quantity. My nitpick moment has to be the inclusion of the grapnel accelerator in Origins – this was clearly a prototype during Arkham City, so its existence in Origins only reinforces my feeling that this game was a painting-by-numbers effort at times. Overall, you just don’t feel the love for Batman that Arkham Asylum especially had to offer and the voice talent replacing Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill is passable, but they don’t sit right for me.
This is still an entertaining game, despite a few flaws. Fighting Deathstroke was brilliant fun and encapsulated the sort of patience and control needed in the melee combat, I’m looking forward to downloading the Deathstroke DLC and learning more about this character. Training mode in the Batcave has, as always, a huge amount of combat challenges that contribute XP to the main story and are a great way to refine those melee skills. For those obsessive-compulsive wanting to get 100%, this will keep you going for a while.
However, many of the side-quests are recycled from the previous Arkham games, such as destroying large cylinders with your explosive gel or using your Batarang to destroy network relays and it’s frustratingly lazy on the part of WB Games Montreal. Batman’s early days as a crime fighter touch briefly on mistakes that he makes, but it would have been interesting to see him still learning his way with his famous utility belt, rather than have his entire arsenal at hand. There is a lot to do around the city, but some tasks become a repetitive grind and accomplishing it all in one night becomes increasingly far-fetched. Arkham City kept a better balance overall, not only in gameplay but also in side-quests, story and presentation. This is another case of Trilogyitis, where the third title in the series becomes a statement for just how good the second title really is.