Two years after Batman: Arkham City reminded gamers that it isn't impossible to make a truly amazing video game about the Caped Crusader, Batman: Arkham Origins is reminding those same fans why so many of us are hesitant to get excited about new games starring the Dark Knight in the first place.
To be clear, I'm one of those people who's been keeping an eye on anything related to the Arkham series since the moment I finished my first play through of Batman: Arkham City back in 2011. I've finished both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City twice, and began another run of Arkham City earlier this year before realizing I should probably just wait for last week's debut of Batman: Arkham Origins. If only I'd stuck with Arkham City instead.
Unfortunately, Batman: Arkham Origins steps on its own cape nearly as often as it fails to innovate, leaving me wondering why Batman: Arkham Origins wasn't given the Watch Dogs treatment while WB Games Montreal and Splash Damage came up with something that actually felt worth revisiting. The game may still be more entertaining than many projects released earlier this year, but the only feeling I find myself left with in the wake of my time with Batman: Arkham Origins is one of disappointment.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - The Story
A quick refresher for anyone who hasn't paid much attention to Batman: Arkham Origins prior to the game's debut. Batman: Arkham Origins is a prequel title, set in the same universe established by Rocksteady in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. As usual, players assume control of the Dark Knight, and spend much of their time in Batman: Arkham Origins looking to capture Black Mask and the eight assassins aiming to collect a $50 million bounty on Batman's head. The events of the game take place on Christmas Eve, in the midst of a winter storm that's left most of Gotham City's residents stuck in their homes, and blankets of snow cover most of the map.
A number of other notable Batman villains also turn up in Batman: Arkham Origins, like The Penguin and Mad Hatter, though surprisingly few of the villains actually play any significant role in the central plot of Batman: Arkham Origins. There are a few other surprises along the way as well, though not nearly as many Easter Eggs as Arkham Asylum or Arkham City, but I don't want to get into spoiler territory too much. Suffice it to say, Batman: Arkham Origins presents an interesting narrative for the game's story mode, but many players are still likely to be left feeling as if the dev team could/should have done a better job exploring both the Batman: Arkham Origins' plot and the overall Batman mythos.
I don't like getting into spoiler territory in game reviews, so I'll stop before delving too deep into the plot of Batman: Arkham Origins, but it has to be said that WB Games Montreal did a pretty poor job of following any one narrative thread in Batman's latest video game outing. Despite spending much of the year promoting the involvement of personalities like Deathstroke and Black Mask, the vast majority of the villains included in Batman: Arkham Origins are relegated to side roles and brief cameos that don't mesh with the effort that WB Interactive is going through to promote certain members of the Batman: Arkham Origins roster. It's far from the worst writing I've ever seen in a video game, but Batman: Arkham Origins' story is unlikely to prove as effective at hooking players as previous entries in the series.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - Graphics
In terms of visual appeal, Batman: Arkham Origins differs very little from its predecessors when comparing the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 versions of Batman: Arkham Origins to previous entries in the series. Strangely, despite a lack of such issues in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, both current-gen builds seem to have some trouble keeping pace with the action in Batman: Arkham Origins, leading to semi-regular drops in frame rate during common activities like gliding or fighting.
Thankfully, the PC release of Batman: Arkham Origins is an entirely different story.
Let me start by saying, in no uncertain terms, that Batman: Arkham Origins looks absolutely stellar on both middle-of-the-road and high-end gaming rigs. While Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners might be struggling with framerate issues in Batman: Arkham Origins, I've yet to run into any such issues, and my own machine isn't exactly a gaming powerhouse. Thanks to a new set of AMD drivers, even a lack of Nvidia components shouldn't prevent most PC gamers from enjoying Batman: Arkham Origins at or near the game's maximum graphical settings.
That last bit (about performance) is particularly good news because, as I said before, Batman: Arkham Origins really does look great. Sparks fly as Batman throttles hired thugs with his Shock Gloves, and the distortion effects present during some of the game's fight sequences really add to the seeming weight of Batman's blows.
Snow compacts under the feet (and bodies) of Batman and the hundreds of GCPD officers, hired goons, and assassins gunning for the $50 million bounty on the Dark Knight's head, leaving foot prints and trails in the snow that linger well after a fight ends. The Batman: Arkham Origins team also clearly spent a bit of time on collision detection, eliminating what used to be semi-common instances of punching through character models, gliding through corners, etc.
If graphics were the only measure of a game's quality, I suspect Batman: Arkham Origins would be pulling top marks from many of the outlets who've reviewed the game already. Unfortunately, for WB Games Montreal, that isn't the case. Batman: Arkham Origins looks great, but not so great that you're going to forget about the game's other problems.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - Gameplay
I cannot overstate how much more fun/rewarding the combat feels in Batman: Arkham Origins, compared to previous games in the series, now that enemies show a bit more intelligence/initiative during combat. Whereas the goons in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City tended to surround the Batman, before proceeding to then politely attack him one at a time, the hired help in Batman: Arkham Origins will regularly attempt to swarm and overwhelm Batman when engaged in open combat.
In addition, WB Games Montreal has tweaked the game's combat systems, allowing players to counter more than one attack (even more than one direction, in some cases), drastically expanding the number of moves and animations that players will see while playing Batman: Arkham Origins in the process. A few new enemy types make their debut in Batman: Arkham Origins too; though neither the martial artist or enforcer types will prove much more difficult than existing enemy types once players get their hands on some of the game's new gadgets as well.
Unfortunately, that level of polish wasn't delivered to all of the various game mechanics present in Batman: Arkham Origins, and nowhere is this more noticeable than the borderline-terrible gliding mechanics present in this Arkhamverse prequel. Without any real explanation, players will find that the vast majority of Gotham's tallest buildings are unscalable in Batman: Arkham Origins. Worse, WB Games Montreal fails to find any useful way to distinguish the rooftops that you can/can't grapple to, leaving players high and dry during combat scenarios or huffing it on street level during travel sequences.
That lack of perfection extends to the game's boss fights, of which there are quite a few in Batman: Arkham Origins. Over the course of the game, the Dark Knight will encounter more than a dozen of his most famous adversaries, and will be forced to engage most of them in direct hand-to-hand combat. Prior to the game's debut, the Batman: Arkham Origins team compared the upcoming slew of boss fights to those found in the popular Mega Man series, saying that players would emerge from Batman: Arkham Origins with a "black belt" in the series' combat mechanics.
In a sense, the team at WB Games Montreal has succeeded in their goal creating a number of bosses that challenge Batman: Arkham Origins players in the same way that classic Mega Man baddies could be taxing on both your time and mental stability. Unfortunately, that drastic increase in difficulty isn't consistent throughout each of the game's assassin encounters, and remains starkly at odds with the relative ease of most of Batman: Arkham Origins' other content. Though vastly entertaining while you are succeeding, I suspect many will find a few of the boss fights in Batman: Arkham Origins more off-putting than interesting as a result of the stark uptick in difficulty.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - Sound
Many worried that the departure of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy would be too noticeable a change for such a story-driven came to overcome, but longtime Batman fans will be happy to know that both Troy Baker (Joker) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman) prove more than capable of filing their shoes. In fact, most of the voice acting present in Batman: Arkham Origins is quite good, and there weren't any instances when I felt as if a particular voice or line of dialogue didn't fit the character it was tied to. I was also thrilled to see Bane maintain his Spanish roots. particularly after there had been rumors that Bane would resemble actor Tom Hardy in Batman: Arkham Origins.
Unfortunately, many of the game's best vocal performances are wasted on a story that seems to explore all of the Batman: Arkham Origins' least-interesting plot points, while skipping out on opportunities to flesh out far more interesting relationships. As an example, I'd have happily traded ALL of the Electrocutioner's appearances for more on-screen time from characters like Bane or Joker, and the same could be said for a myriad other interactions/appearances in Batman: Arkham Origins. Of course, those are really more gripes about the story, but I've listed them here because I didn't really notice until after the Joker makes his first appearance.
If I have any complaints about Batman: Arkham Origins, from an audio standpoint, it would be how empty the city feels during most of your time in the game, save for the occasional bit of regularly-repeating dialogue between gangsters currently on the hunt for the Caped Crusader. Of course, given the emergency weather conditions present in the game, the lack of city life certainly makes sense from a narrative perspective. That said, in the wake of Grand Theft Auto V, I suspect many open-world games will begin to feel a tad bit empty if they don't find ways to make urban environments feel a bit more alive going forward. A few more lines of dialogue between Bruce and Alfred would be nice too. I'm pretty tired of hearing about how corrupt GCPD is.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - Multiplayer
I imagine this will be the most divisive portion of just about any Batman: Arkham Origins review that you can find online, given the fact that so many people look for so many different things when playing an online game. I have no doubt that some portion of those who purchase Batman: Arkham Origins will also enjoy the game's multiplayer offering...but I am definitely not one of them.
For the unfamiliar, Invisible Predator Online mode sees Batman & Robin trying to rack up Intimidation points faster than Bane and Joker's respective henchmen can deplete the opposing gang's ticket count. Like most modern shooters, teams lose tickets any time a gang member dies, or whenever one team controls the majority of a given map's Control Points. This is pretty much where things stop making sense.
For whatever reason, Splash Damage clearly thought that the 3-vs-2-vs-3 format wasn't quite hard enough on whatever players were assigned the roles of Batman and Robin, and has inexplicably granted the game's Detective Mode vision to everyone taking part in a multiplayer game.
To make matters worse, many of the quick-fire gadgets from the single-player game are far less effective in Batman: Arkham Origins' multiplayer offering, leaving gang members with both close and long-range means of dealing with heroes, while Batman and Robin act as little more than moving bonus pools for the two gangs who are virtually guaranteed to take first and second place.
Being thrown into the Bane or Joker gangs isn't much more enjoyable experience either, thanks to sluggish and uninspired gun play that will leave you begging for the opportunity to assume control of either Bane or Joker.
Truth be told, I would be impressed by how terrible of an online offering Splash Damage managed to cobble together, if it didn't cost me sixty dollars to bear witness to this tragedy firsthand. If nothing else, it left me with a very clear understanding of why WB Interactive fought so hard to keep Batman: Arkham Origins multiplayer footage off of YouTube after the beta earlier this year. It's not hard to imagine at least one or two members of the Batman: Arkham Origins team knowing this would hurt sales, had WB Interactive given the Batman: Arkham Origins multiplayer mode any sigifnicant exposure prior to launch.
Thankfully, there's an entire story mode to help wash away the bad taste of Batman: Arkham Origins' multiplayer offering. Let's just hope it's enough for anyone who already picked up a copy of the game.
Batman: Arkham Origins Review - Final Verdict
If you're the type of player who searched every nook and cranny of the map in Batman: Arkham City, looking for hints as to what/when you could expect the next Arkhamverse title, I don't think you're going to be disappointed with what WB Games Montreal and Splash Damage have created. The same can be said for most anyone who took the time to seek out each of the numerous Batman: Arkham Origins trailers and gameplay videos released ahead of the Batman: Arkham Origins release date.
While Batman: Arkham Origins certainly isn't any sort of significant departure from its predecessors, some aspects of the game do feel like a near-perfecting of the vision that Rocksteady may have had in mind when creating Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Given the game's travel woes, and the fact that Batman: Arkham Origins is at least partially-open-world in nature, it's hard to give perfect marks to a game that seems to have broken its own travel system. Still, the headaches of gliding around Gotham are unlikely to spoil the a mostly enjoyable gameplay experience in Batman: Arkham Origins.
If you're new to the Arkham franchise, I think you're still likely to enjoy what Batman: Arkham Origins has to offer, but it's a bit harder to recommend a purchase...for now. While Batman: Arkham Origins is fun at times, anyone unfamiliar with the franchise could get the same experience for quite a bit less by picking up copies of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City instead. That isn't to say that either of the game's predecessors/sequels are necessarily better than Batman: Arkham Origins, but rather a statement on how little the game does to differentiate itself from previous entries in the series.
Yes, Batman: Arkham Origins is fun. But, with two next-gen consoles just around the corner and dozens of holiday releases on their way to store shelves around the country, it's going to take a bit more than minor combat improvements to make Batman: Arkham Origins a must-have title during the 2013 holiday season.
Score - 3.5 / 5
Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more on Batman: Arkham Origins as we keep our eyes on all of the Batman: Arkham Origins DLC that will begin to trickle out in the coming months.
Have you already had a chance to spend a few years with your copy of Batman: Arkham Origins? Think Scott is completely wrong about Invisible Predator Online mode? Think this proves that Rocksteady should be the only studio that's ever given a license for future Batman titles?
Let us know in the comments section!