If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At least, that’s the mantra WB Montreal must have been chanting throughout the development process on this latest installment of the Arkham franchise. And that’s good news for those of us who’ve been long-time fans of the series. There’s been a lot to enjoy with the previous games, and a lot to worry about in the two years of development Arkham Origins has seen, especially with Rocksteady, the original developer, stepping out. But now that the game’s finally here, does it manage to hold to its namesake?
Let’s dive in.
The Arkham games have thus far represented an unsurpassed milestone in the action genre. The first installment, Arkham Asylum, introduced a formula for stealth action that was fresh and innovative. After four Metal Gears, over a half dozen Splinter Cells, and who knows how many derivatives and shoddy attempts at the genre, it had been some time since there was a fresh take on it. Then, Arkham Asylum launched in 2009. And not only did you have a new style of sneaking and hiding in the shadows, you got to do it as Batman. Batman! And this is a big deal because, also up until this point, since the emergence of 3D platforming, there has arguably never been a very good superhero game. Developers, for whatever reason, seem to have trouble putting gamers in the boots and tights of their favorite super-powered icons and making the experience feel believable and enjoyable. But with this game, Rocksteady Studios did just that. That’s what made Arkham Asylum so memorable.
Two years later, Rocksteady did it again. With Arkham City, they produced a sequel that expanded on the original in just about every way. The environment was expanded from a single facility into a large chunk of city. Batman was given more gadgets and abilities to play with, and Catwoman was added as a playable character. Side quests and bonus objectives were added in droves. And of course, the story and acting were honed to perfection, true to the characters, and all-immersive, delivering everything we could have wanted out of a Batman game and more. Arkham City stands as one of the greatest action games of all time.
And now, two years later, we get Arkham Origins.
Arkham Origins, as implied by its title, is a prequel to the previous games. This is a decision I expect was made to avoid having to work with the severe plot twist at the end of City, and it works out well. The game portrays a younger, less refined Dark Knight who is just learning what it will mean for the city if he is to be the vigilante he wants to be. WB Montreal has out and said that they wanted to tell a “year two story.” It’s not the Batman as he’s just starting out. Here he’s already been active for two years, kicking around street criminals and generally spreading fear. But this is the first time he’s forced to cope with something bigger than him, the first time he has to deal with other major players in the DC Universe, and, of course, the first time he encounters that psychopath known only as “the Joker.” Origins does a very nice job of building up that particular relationship, and very clearly shows how both characters’ obsessions with one another evolve into the sort of relationship we see in the earlier games. We also get some insight into the development of several other Arkham supporting characters, including Harley Quinn, the Riddler, and Killer Croc.
One notable point is that the game takes place across the entirety of Gotham City. There are two regions, Old Gotham and New Gotham, connected to each other by a massive bridge. Interestingly, Old Gotham is made up predominantly of the areas that comprised Arkham City in the previous game. While you might expect this rehash of territory might be tiresome, WB Montreal obviously went to painstaking measures to ensure that it is not. Old Gotham has not yet fallen into the state of degradation we see in Arkham City, and it’s actually fun to revisit the renovated areas to see what changes had occurred between the two time periods. Though I will admit, I feel some of the indoor areas feel too consistently industrial and grimy. When you’re dealing with a whole city, there are definitely some locations that can be painted as a little more clean and sleek, even if it is Gotham.
It’s also not precisely believable that half of the city had been eventually condemned and turned into a prison. But hey, it’s a video game, and realistically, adding any more surface area to Gotham would have been tiring for the player. There’s a good amount of space here, and plenty of new places to explore as well.
Batman’s controls are very similar to those in the previous games, so it’s an easy transition. For some reason though, the developers decided to swap functionality on the triggers this time around, a decision that I found inexplicably distracting after two games, and one that did not really contribute much to the experience. Unfortunately, as controls are not at all customizable, this is something I just had to get used to, though by the end of the game I was still making annoying mistakes as a result of it.
Many of the staple gadgets, including batarangs and the bat claw, have been returned to play. Some, like the line launcher, have been retired, or replaced with different gadgets. These new ones are kind of hit or miss. Among them are the remote claw, confiscated early on from the assassin, Deathstroke, which connects two points (one of which may or may not be an enemy) with a rope. Others include the glue grenades (reskins of the earlier game’s freeze grenades), concussion detonator (take a guess), and shock gloves (just wait and see).
One thing dearly lacking from the game’s story mode was the inclusion of a second playable character. This was introduced previously with Catwoman, and given the amount of build-up around the “Play as Deathstroke” promotion, I had expected this would be present in the game. Sadly, that’s not the case. Deathstroke is available on the game’s “Challenge Maps” only, for isolated combat or stealth encounters. I felt there was a really missed opportunity in not allowing players free reign of the city as the mercenary, and a surprising omission by the developers. However, there are still slews of challenge maps, bonus missions, and, of course, the new multiplayer mode to try out here, so I can’t legitimately claim that I’m feeling a lack of content.
There’s not too much to say here. The graphics have not changed much since the series’ first installment. All the games have been released on the current-gen systems, so no real surprises here. However, as this game takes place on Christmas Eve, Gotham City is decorated for Christmas. You can see this in billboards and stringed lights around the city, which the devs have said they hoped would lend an even creepier feel to the madness going on. In truth, the decorations were scarce enough that I rarely noticed them, and did not feel particularly impacted when I did.
The haunting music, on the other hand, is always a fun inclusion. As before, you can hear low, hymnal tones as you’re soaring about the city, which pick up into loud, staccato eruptions when you confront a group of thugs or get in a fight. The music is well done, and follows the standard for Batman in the previous games, and indeed in most other mediums.
So this mode is brand spankin’ new. For Arkham Origins, a multiplayer mode has been added in which there are two gangs, Bane’s and Joker’s, fighting a turf war, and players can join in on either side. I’ve had a chance to play a bit of this, and have to admit that the more unique Arkham controls do add a bit of spice to what is otherwise a straightforward online experience. There are gadgets and techniques added on both sides that add some quirks into the play, and before the end of each game, the gang ringmasters may be brought into play, allowing one player on each side to assume new abilities as either Bane or the Joker.
The really unique dynamic, though, is allowing two additional players to take on the roles of Batman and Robin during this turf war. These players are tasked with simply interfering and taking out as many gang members as possible. If they have the highest possible score when the gang members run out of lives, the heroes win. This also serves to add some variety to the multiplayer, giving the soldiers something else to look out for, and it’s not as easy as you’d expect to keep your eyes peeled for vigilantes in every shadow. When playing as Batman or Robin, it’s immensely gratifying to pick off actual players with the techniques you’ve honed in the story. And of course, there are strategies you’ll quickly learn don’t work against actual humans. Upon getting shot at as Batman, I at once dropped a smoke pellet, assuming myself safely invisible within the cloud. It didn’t occur to me that a panicky player would just continue emptying his gun into the smoke cloud and turn me into Swiss cheese regardless. These kinds of confrontations make you rethink your strategies, and force you into more careful, creative tactics than you’ve grown complacent with.
At this point, there is only the one multiplayer game mode, but the devs have left room to add more in as time goes on. It will be interesting to see what else they come up with.
8.5 / 10
This game is fun and Headset Buddy would totally suggest you buy it, whether you’re new to the series or a long-time fan. It delights in the same way as its predecessors. It offers a ton of content, an online mode, and a story that can’t be beat. However, WB Montreal failed to really push the envelope here and give us something beyond what we’ve already seen. And a game, no matter how good it is, is just not as impressive when it’s repackaged and released again and again. Arkham Origins loses a couple of points by being a bit too conservative in this regard. But enjoy it yourselves and take your time to see the sights. You’ll be glad you did.
Oh, and remember this one piece of advice, caped crusaders: always take on your problems with a smile.