From the fantastic voice work to the hard-hitting combat system, Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham series is at the zenith of modern superhero games. In fact, 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum held the Guinness World Record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever”. In 2011, Arkham City improved on its already fantastic predecessor, giving players the freedom to roam the dangerous streets of Gotham.
They say “third time’s a charm” and developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal has the unenviable task of ensuring that Batman: Arkham Origins lives up to the series’ pedigree. Will this outing to Gotham City be remembered as one of Batman’s most memorable moments or a dark blight on what has been a great series so far?
For the third outing, we’re taken back in time to some five years before the events of Arkham Asylum, at the time when Batman didn’t have the best bedside manner, before his friendship with James Gordon, and before the Joker was his arch nemesis. It’s a snowy Christmas Eve in moody Gotham City and the vigilante has had a $50 million bounty placed on his head by the Black Mask. Eight assassins zero-in on Batman’s location to collect the bounty, and it’s in this volatile situation that certain other players are hatching their own evil schemes. Without giving too much away, the story here is a competent one, setting up the beginnings of various story arcs that we have come to know about so well.
Batman: Arkham Origins fits like a favourite pair of sneakers, like sleeping in your own bed, or the smell of your pets, or that look you give when you’ve heard all this before. You know these things because you’re familiar with them. With Arkham Asylum and Arkham City already setting a standard for superhero games, is it so bad that a great deal of Arkham Origins feels similar? If familiarity breeds contempt, then we have a problem.
The immensely satisfying “freeflow” combat returns in Arkham Origins, rewarding players with experience points for dishing out a feast of knuckle sandwiches. After every enemy encounter you’re graded on the maximum number of combos used in the fight, the amount of damage inflicted, and the variety of your moves. At the least, you’re a “capable” vigilante through to an “apex” predator. It’s easy to imagine how a newcomer to the series may feel overwhelmed by freeflow especially in situations where Batman is outnumbered (all the time!) but for all the complexity in the combat system, it is also forgiving and that’s a boon for players like me who tend to bungle their way through the combat. Every time you level up, you earn an upgrade point to spend on improving Batman’s equipment and skills. There are broad categories — close combat, invisible predator, and auxiliary upgrades — and each upgrade category has its own tree.
To master the combat system, Arkham Origins provides an over-abundance of training challenges that will test your patience. There are 288 trophies to be won here, and these challenges and challenge maps are unlocked as you progress through the story. In addition to the challenges, the dark knight system provides four categories of 60 actions that you can perform, for example using the quickfire batarang three times in combat, stopping a crime in progress, or doing a vertical dive for a certain distance. Successfully performing these actions nets you valuable XP and in some cases, unlocks new Waynetech to use. There is also a “Most Wanted” set of tasks to do based on the characters you meet along the way, for example destroying a number of bombs located in the city or disabling weapons in arms caches before they can be used. The number of side missions really is bordering on the excessive.
When it comes to his arsenal of gadgets, you’ll recognize the classic dependable Batarang, Cryptographic Sequencer, Disruptor, and Explosive Gel from the previous games. There are a few new additions to the hero’s utility belt. The ice grenades have been replaced with glue ones, and the concussion grenades are able to stun large groups of enemies. The Remote Claw is handy for bringing two objects together, and especially fun if those objects are the skulls of your enemies. Batman’s detective skills get an upgrade too. The evidence scanner makes a return, but with an added functionality. Batman can search the room for clues and then rewind and fast-forward time to reveal yet more clues. It’s a mechanic similar to that in Remember Me, and after he has pieced the clues together, a snazzy cutscene shows the events as they unfolded. It’s fun, but short-lived as you only do it a handful of times.
A convenient introduction of the “fast travel” feature makes it easier to get around Gotham City, where Batman summons the Batwing as his taxi. Each area of the city has a broadcast tower preventing the Batwing from dopping you off, so you would need to have infiltrated the tower and destroyed the jamming equipment to make use of fast travel. It’s a bit of a grind but useful in the end. Fast travel was at the centre of a frustrating bug in the system. At one point after I had used the feature, the frame rate became extremely choppy and the soundtrack skipped, and what was worse, it stayed that way. I had to back out to the main menu and choose to continue the story again. The developer advised (PS3) players to avoid using fast travel until a patch was released. Thankfully I can confirm the latest patch fixes the problem.
It’s difficult to shed the “Been there, done that, got the batsuit” feeling but aside from fast travel, Arkham Origins is the first on the series to include an asymmetrical multiplayer mode called “Invisible Predator Online”. It’s a gang war that pits Bane’s members against Joker’s goons against the team of Batman and Robin. While the gangs are tasked with killing out rival reinforcements, the dynamic duo need to gain intimidation points by taking out the gang members. You can choose a loadout for each side, select weapons, and modify your appearance. Various consumables such as XP boost, headshot protection, and health regeneration will have been awarded to you for your actions in the single player campaign. You can choose one to use in the match, and should you run out, you can buy more consumables. I couldn’t put any of this to test however. After 15 minutes of waiting in the lobby, the only thing to keep me company was Celine Dion’s single “All by Myself”. The multiplayer might have been good but at the time of writing, no one seemed remotely interested in it.
For the most part, Arkham Origins was an enjoyable experience. The city is as moody as ever (although lacking in normal citizens), the main characters are well portrayed, and there’s never a shortage of things to do. After finishing the single player campaign and a few odd side missions, I was only 30% done. For the completitionist, there’s a great deal left to be done long after the story has ended including unlocking the new game+ mode, searching for all of Enigma’s datapacks (some of them are fiendishly difficult to obtain), and conquering the hundreds of combat challenges. The key to enjoying Arkham Origins is to managing one’s expectations. It’s not a giant leap forward from Arkham City, and anyone expecting it to be will most likely walk away disappointed. Even though Batman is instantly recognizable, it seems the developer was struggling to show off its character in this game. Batman: Arkham Origins seems like a very safe ship: one that’s on autopilot for the majority of its trip.
Final score: 7 BAT-terred prawns out of 10
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montréal
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
Age Rating: 16
Official Website: http://www.batmanarkhamorigins.com