"Batman Arkham Origins" lets players once again assume the mantle of the bat, swinging into the night to save Gotham from the brink of destruction……again. Since Arkham Origins is a prequel, you’ll get a fresher faced Batman, younger and less experienced, in a story that takes place long before the events of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. Origins offers a larger version of the well known city of Gotham and many of the same things to do; players glide through the skies from one grapple point to the next, striking down enemies from above, sneaking through the shadows and utilizing Batman’s famed utility belt as he uncovers a plot not only against Gotham, but specifically against the caped crusader himself. Why Batman seems to have countless enemies this early in his career is a little hazy, and one of the things that the game’s story fails to really flesh out. But to be honest, who cares!? If this game can give me that "I am Batman" feeling the previous two games did so well, then I can overlook almost anything. We suited up and dove in, excited to find out.
It was the night before Christmas, and a vicious gang of assassins were stirring ...Black Mask, evil genius, drug dealer and shoe-in for winner of the most stylish mobster award, has assembled a crew of the best assassins money can buy. Their only goal is to hunt down the mysterious “Bat”, the vigilante whose existence at this early stage in his career is still more scary story than fact. The hunting party ranges from well-known names like Deadshot and Bane, to Batman’s more C-list enemies like Firefly and Copperhead. The rogues’ gallery of both new and old villains have been laying their traps and hatching their plans, and Gotham’s new dusk till dawn curfew fits their needs perfectly. Why a young and mostly unknown Batman is already in the crosshairs of such notorious killers is the first but unfortunately not the last weak point in Arkham Origins’ story. If no one is completely sure he exists, why is he being hunted so fiercely? Where did all these villains even come from?
Besides saving his own bat-neck, there are the usual host of dangers threatening Gotham city to deal with. Penguin is selling everyone firearms, Anarchy is trying to bomb the town to pieces, and there are myriad criminal events and crime scenes that need solving by using Batman’s new gadgets and technology, in addition to stopping random crimes happening throughout the city. Although the first two games didn’t really hold many blockbuster surprises in the missions, this time around the missions and activities just seem a bit stale, and there is a definite “Didn’t I already do this?” deja vu feeling to the whole thing. The setting and environment seem like they would fit a sequel rather than a prequel, since nothing has really changed in Gotham since the last game. Thugs know Batman is out there lurking somewhere in the dark, hordes of enemies roam the streets, and overall, pre-Arkam City Gotham seems a lot like….well, Arkham City Gotham.
Regardless, numerous missions await and Batman will meet many new enemies….or wait, are they old enemies? For example, Batman finds a “new” villain in the mysterious Edward E. Nigma (better known as “Engima”, better known as the Riddler). Enigma has littered the city with data packages, which he intends to use to blackmail Gotham’s elite, and it’s up to Batman to hunt down and destroy them. The Riddler quests are slightly better than in the previous games, but that’s mainly because they make more sense; destroying data packages actually has a story driven purpose (regardless of how thin), whereas finding golden question marks always seemed a little silly, and mostly felt like busy work. Also, unlocking the radio control towers that are blocked by Enigma opens up Batwing fast travel points in each area, which makes traversing the huge city a lot easier. However, this convenience seems a bit silly when Batman can’t use the Batwing on time-trial type missions, which is especially annoying when the game drags you across the entire city for a time sensitive mission. Why the hell do you have a super powered plane if you don't use it when you really need it?
As far as our hero goes, Batman’s struggle to keep his inner demons at bay has always been a key part of his make-up. A barely controlled brutality has always been at Batman’s core, as well as the knowledge that he could easily kill his foes in a hundred different ways but chooses not to. Instead he spends millions of dollars on high tech gadgets in addition to training endlessly to make sure he never takes a life by accident or on purpose. This duality isn’t shown well in the story however, and feels like a big missed opportunity. Many enemies even taunt the Bat, mocking him for his unwillingness to kill, which could have been a great chance to show how difficult it is for Batman to not just kill the scum choking Gotham’s streets, especially since he’s young and still trying to control his rage. In the end, you just smash your hecklers in the face, instead of having the game’s narrative show how difficult it is for Batman to walk that razor’s edge.
Another missed opportunity is in the city itself. Sure, it makes sense that Gotham’s citizens would want to stay at home on this particularly bloody Christmas Eve (and there is the convenient curfew), but there is no one on the streets? Not one person? The game settles for portraying Gotham as an empty stage for Batman and his enemies, which is too bad. The city is completely bereft of life (besides enemies of course), and comes off as a soulless grid of empty buildings and streets instead of a living breathing place.
Speaking of livening things up, a big point on the plus side is Alfred, Mr. Wayne’s dryly comical butler. Alfred never hides his thoughts or feelings from his boss, and often gives advice and inside views that lend a few smiles to Batman’s otherwise dreary world. This helps to spice things up a bit, but even though it never really gets boring in Gotham, the game just feels a little unfinished, as if the release date came a bit too soon.
Flying, punching, beating, throwing ...Batman’s fighting system and movements function almost identically to the previous games. Batman kicks ass with the help of the previously established free flowing fighting system, using a combination of blocks, counters, kicks and punches, in addition to the gadgets tucked away in his utility belt. As expected, there are a few new enemy types in Origins, forcing you to branch out from your favourite combos. The new enemies range from martial arts specialists to more gun savvy gangsters wielding new types of firearms, which brings a small amount of tactical depth to the gameplay. This is great, but it would have been nice to see more new types of baddies. Unfortunately, something is a little off with the system this time around, and the fights don't flow like they did in previous games. Every now and then you’ll catch Batman throwing a punch in mid-air, right next to the guy you’re trying to hit. Not only does this make Batman look like a novice, it also breaks your combo chain through no fault of your own.
Boss battles in previous games were usually pretty big highlights, but sadly the boss fights here don’t introduce any new elements, and sometimes are unnecessarily long. Fighting Deadshot over and over could have been really cool, if the game would have gradually ramped up the difficulty (which it kind of does) and introduced a new mechanic or forced players to use new tactics each time. Instead, it’s just basically the same button smashing over and over, placing you in a variety of arenas and letting the player wail on Deadshot until you can proceed.
Hiding in ventilation shafts, creeping along the ceiling and springing out of the floor to bash enemies silly is still fun, and some of these sequences represent the best moments of the game. You’ll be pleased to know that overall, beating up criminals and police officers is still a great time. Wait… police officers? Yup, besides smashing in the teeth of the dredges of society, the blue-suited guardians of Gotham get a Kevlar lined fist in the face from Batman as well. The reasons for Batman fighting the police are another weak point in the story, and although a massive criminal vs. Batman vs. police fight later in the game is epic, it still feels a little strained from a narrative standpoint.
Soaring through the skies with your cape and grapple combo was crazy fun, and made up a huge part of Arkham City. In Origins, they have missed the mark again, mainly due to bad level design and inconsistent mechanics. Why can I grapple to generic sign A in one part of the city, but I can’t grapple generic sign B in another? Why place giant buildings in the middle of my path if I have to go mess up my glide to go around them? This doesn’t make the game more challenging, or force me to hone my skills, it’s just bad design. Combined with the poor fighting in some sections, Arkham Origins loses a lot of the core fun that make the first two games so great.
Despite the mistakes and miscues, Batman Arkham Origins is still fun to play. The few new features are fun, and it’s enjoyable to tinker with the new detective mode, although it isn’t implemented quite as thoroughly as I would have hoped. The fast travel option is a plus as well, but I wish there were more new features than these few.
In the review version on the Xbox 360, the game crashed several times, and could only be fixed by restarting the console. Hopefully there will be a patch released quickly to address these problems. A few other graphical glitches popped up as well, but the crashing was by far the worst.