It’s hard to believe that it has only been four years since Batman: Arkham Asylum. The title that seemingly broke the curse of non-Spider related super-heroics in gaming has cast a shadow over so many games that have come since. Its masterful combination of Nolan’s dark vision of Gotham with the expanded rogues gallery afforded by decades of comics history brought even the most mainstream of Batman’s fans up to speed on everyone from Calendar Man to Victor Zsasz. Its narrow corridors and expansive tool-set created a tight, linear narrative where players nonetheless felt completely in control. Arkham City introduced open world mechanics to the formula that arguably opened up the world too much, taking away from that tightness that made Asylum such a breath of fresh air. Now, with Arkham Origins, new developer WB Montreal has struck a great balance between the levels of Asylum and the open world of City. It doesn’t quite eclipse the original, but Origins is a much more refined sequel than City was, and it’s one that is well worth your time.
Despite the name, Arkham Origins is not a retelling of that fabled Crime Alley shooting and its aftermath. Instead, it finds Batman just becoming an established figure in Gotham, having to prove himself to the populace and the cops alike. On Christmas Eve, Black Mask has summoned eight assassins from across the DC universe to hunt down the Batman. They range from heavy hitters like Bane and Deathstroke to more volatile foes like Electrocutioner and Firefly. There are origins to be had however, mostly concerning The Joker and his immortal feud with the Dark Knight. These sections are the best part of the game, picking and choosing from several different Joker origins to craft the best possible story beats. Watching him go from a more focused criminal to an overly obsessed anarchist was a delight. It was disappointing to not hear Mark Hamil’s Joker performance once again, but Troy Baker does a serviceable impression that doesn’t ruin the experience.
Batman: Arkham Origins (PC [Reviewed], Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U)
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montréal, Splash Damage
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 25th, 2013
As for gameplay, Origins is definitely not breaking any new ground, but the refinements it offers are improvements for players who aren’t already experts at its unique blend of flowing combat and stealth arenas. On the beat-em-up side, Batman gains a pair of shock gloves that can be activated after a charging period that allows him to punch his way through armored or shielded enemies without having to evade/stun them. This serves to make the larger fights later in the game less of a grind, and allows another layer of strategy on top of the quick gadgets that were already present. In the stealth games, you now have a Just Cause 2-esque grapple gun that allows you to take out enemies from far away, even going so far as to perform remote inverse takedowns. Some have said that this makes the stealth sections too easy, but this reviewer finds it highly satisfying to watch random thugs fly through the air unexpectedly. Simply put, this is still an Arkham game, and the few small additions by WB Montreal don’t destroy the formula that Rocksteady laid out.
When you’re not punching or roping up faceless goons, you’ll be flying around an open world map that is very similar to the one you traversed in Arkham City, but here there have been much more significant improvements made. A fast travel system via that Batwing has been added, and the fast grapple is unlocked from the get-go, which means there will be much less down time gliding from point A to point B. In addition, the Enigma/Riddler puzzles are much less prominent this time around, so anyone who felt overwhelmed by the insane number of trophies to grab in City should be pleased to see it whittled down to an attainable goal. The game just feels like it flows better from level to level, and even the handful of side missions usually end with a decent boss fight or a story beat that ties back into the main narrative. Whereas City‘s story felt scattered and unwieldy, Origins‘s has taken back the deliberate pacing of Asylum and included it with the open world, making for a more impactful tale overall.
It’s worth noting that the various boss fights throughout the game are spectacular and well varied. Fighting through Mad Hatter’s dream world, experiencing the effects of Copperhead’s poison, dodging the blades of Deathstroke and Shiva, they all feel well designed and suited to their characters. Even side characters like Anarky have interesting encounters built out around them, and no one ever feels out of place or overstays their welcome. It is somewhat disappointing that there aren’t multiple playable characters in the main storyline, and you still have to play through the game once to change your costume, but thinking back to the awful way the Catwoman levels were shoved into Arkham City, that might be for the best.
Origins also contains a multiplayer component designed by Splash Damage, the team behind BRINK and Quake Wars. The mode plays like a total conversion Batman mod of BRINK. It is 3v3v2, with two teams of criminal thugs (Joker gang and Bane’s gang) fighting each other for three territories while keeping an eye out for Batman and Robin in the rafters. The thugs control like standard 3rd person shooter guys, and there are enough weird gadgets and unique weapons to keep you going for a while. Controlling Batman and Robin with their more limited multiplayer toolset is fun as a diversion, but it’s hard for the heroes to win before one of the teams eliminates the opposition. It has enough of a population that you can jump into a game most anytime (quick match only, even on PC), and its a unique diversion in a landscape already flooded with this type of experience. Think of it as a bonus, as its four maps and single game mode will have more dedicated multiplayer enthusiasts running back to the fields of modern warfare soon enough.
As someone who was disappointed in Arkham City when it first came out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Origins sucked me back in. I once again felt that rush to pick up every collectable, experience every side mission, and run through the challenge rooms to improve my skills. Many were worried before release that Origins would be a cash-in title because of its change in developer, but this is certainly not the case. Origins stands proudly amongst the other Arkham games, and is a vital addition to the collection of any fan of Batman, The Joker, or superhero games in general. One only hopes that Rocksteady can learn from the improvements made to the open world gameplay here and apply them to their next project. If that happens, I’m sure we’ll all be wowed once again.