Batman: Arkham Origins Review
Originally Published for MCM Buzz on the 31st of October 2013
The Batman: Arkham series has set the precedent for stylish, engaging comic book games for almost five years. Warner Bros. Games Montréal’s first original crack at the series (after porting Batman: Arkham City to the Wii U) is a strong addition in the same vein as the others, whilst also exploring the rich and often unexplored tale of Batman’s development past the origin story and before the height of the Dark Knight’s powers. The game sees Gotham’s caped crusader around two years into his career, a more inexperienced vigilante getting to grips with one of the world’s most dangerous cities as he encounters lifelong friends and mortal enemies. On Christmas Eve, Black Mask puts a bounty on the head of the Batman that attracts eight of DC Comics’ most dangerous assassins. This night has a huge part in shaping our hero Bruce Wayne as a crime-fighter, and what a tale it has to tell.
It is crystal clear from the very beginning that Batman: Arkham Origins is ruthlessly faithful to the previous games. It is the first game to be set in Gotham city in its entirety, and yet it just feels like an expansion of Arkham City. This reveals two things about our masked hero’s latest outing; either it is playing it safe and lacking in any groundbreaking creative input, or the game is seeing a new studio successfully coming to terms with Arkham lore. Warned Bros. Games Montreal have successfully recreated the look and feel of an already expansive game world, but when a new studio makes a prequel for an existing series, some may be focusing more on how the game has moved on from its predecessors.
The gameplay itself is almost identical to that of Batman: Arkham City, with a few additional gadgets taken from your defeated assassins. The strange part about this is that the player is provided with stronger weapons, particularly electric shock gloves, that make the most difficult crowd control situation a walk in Gotham city park. One thing that could have been really incredible to see was Batman learning to use his gadgets, and how he coped without them, or at least how he coped if the prototypes didn’t work. The combat system is the same albeit for some new enemies, as is the detective vision system, although entering a crime scene mode has made some significant changes. Here the world’s greatest detective can flex his thinking muscles as the player uses evidence around the area to reconstruct the crime scene and produce a video interpretation of what happened. It is not used much in the game, but it adds to the cinematic feel of Arkham Origins and really absorbs the gamer into the investigations.
One way in which Arkham Origins builds on its predecessor brilliantly is the storyline, everything from the cutscenes, characters and core gameplay feels like being thrust back in to the wonderfully dark world created by Rocksteady Studios. In fact the game does develop the universe immensely when it comes to the addition of this engaging, rich and fulfilling plot as you refine Gotham’s protector. Where Batman is more inexperienced, when he faces up against his lifelong adversaries it is all the more nail-biting as he struggles to fight heavyweights like Bane or understand the Joker.
The game follows the footsteps of the previous entries to create a wholly immersive experience. The supporting characters themselves are grandly fleshed out, adding even more depth to the lore of the Arkham series. There is something deeply interesting about the way the game explores Batman’s relationships with his future allies, including a young Captain James Gordon. The best example of this, however, is found in Alfred Pennyworth. In seeing an Alfred who doesn’t understand Bruce’s cape and cowl, their dynamic in this game feels much less stable than in his later career. His questioning of Bruce’s methods placed at odds against their bond that came out of so much grief is beautifully handled, and makes for some of the best moments in the game.
The Joker has always been central to the Arkham series, and in this prequel it is no different. Whilst all Joker origin tales should be taken with a pinch of salt, as you never can trust the blighter, the beginnings of Arkham lore’s Joker are told from the psychiatrists chair, which give a brilliant and interactive beginning to Batman’s anarchic arch-nemesis. The Joker’s origin brings in elements of the tale told in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but the plot itself (even when drawing from other incarnations) creates a specific lore for the Arkhamverse, one that goes deep into each character’s backstory and shows the layer that defines them.
Batman’s world is filled with iconic characters, and with the departure of both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s voice talents many were left unnerved. Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite) does a sterling job of bringing back the devilishly delightful villain to Arkham Origins, keeping the same vibrant energy and (literally) razor sharp humour. On the other side of the field, Roger Craig-Smith (Resident Evil, Assassins Creed II) brings the required raw emotionality that is absent in the later, more experienced Dark Knight. Both actors manage to keep in sync with their previous incarnation, and yet still bring something new to Arkham Origins, which is no easy task.
Another significant gameplay difference is the boss battles. Early in his career, the enemies Batman faces are a mix of classic villains and new faces from the comics, including Deathstroke and a now female Copperhead. For each boss the player has to implement new tactics in order to overcome their adversary depending on their own abilities. The game combines these brief flashes of new gameplay modes with quick, beautiful cutscenes, again adding to the cinematic feel of the game, but taking you out of the fight and slowing down the pace for the player. In many cases the last moments of the fight are not actually played by the gamer. Whilst the effects are stunning, it is slightly dissatisfying to work through the boss only to have your moment of triumph snatched away by some dazzling footage. This, however, is only a bad point because it takes away from some of the best gameplay moments that are present.
The largest new feature in Arkham Origins is the online mode (which for Xbox 360 is inconveniently on another non-downloadable disc), and sees Bane and the Joker’s gangs face off against the other, all whilst being picked off by Batman and Robin. The idea itself is promising, and whilst it is gleefully amusing and surprisingly challenging to take down your friends as a hero, when playing as a thug the combat system seems less polished and the gameplay clunky. There are rank systems in place that allow for players to become more advanced, which gives you a better chance against the dynamic duo, but with few players online at the moment the teams are often unbalanced. With only four maps available at launch, the multiplayer could do with some more variety in an update soon, otherwise this game mode with some serious potential will grow stale quickly.
Taking the game as a whole, there are some real gems in Arkham Origins, with a whirlwind story that shapes Gotham’s finest and perfectly portrayed characters, as well as a wealth of side quests and little secrets, especially features like the Joker’s Christmas song and a Dark Knight Returns-esque news commentary played during the credits. The game gives fans of the series a solid foundation for the Arkham universe. Batman: Arkam Originsmay not push the envelope when it comes to innovation, or change much when it comes to gameplay features from the previous games, but it has to be said that it has not lost any of the exceptional features either. With a stunning plot to follow for hardcore batfans or casual admirers the game succeeds in giving what is one of the best comic book game franchises a different origin story that is not often told and hours of action, detective work and stealthy skirmishes that will have any Gothamite left breathless.
Batman: Arkham Origins is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.