The third entry in the Batman: Arkham series is here, with development duties shifting from Arkham Asylum and Arkham City developer Rocksteady to the team at WB Montreal, who handled the Wii U port of Arkham City. So how does this look into the Dark Knight's past and early years of crime-fighting stand up to the first two games? Read on to find out!
Developer: WB Montreal
Publisher: WB Games
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
Release Date: October 25, 2013
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the Wii U version. As the Wii U version lacks the multiplayer mode, it will not be factored into the review.
Batman: Arkham Origins, as mentioned, is the third entry in the Batman: Arkham series that exploded onto the gaming scene in 2009 and was met with critical and commercial success for pretty much being the first game to get Batman right. Arkham City took that and made the combat better and environments bigger, and Arkham Origins decides to go even bigger, with a previously inaccessible portion of Gotham opening up for play, as well as the play area from Arkham City before it became Arkham City.
Though you wouldn't know the difference with all the thugs standing around.
That's because, as you might have guessed from the name, Arkham Origins takes place well before the events of the previous games. It makes sense given Arkham City's ending, which I'm not going to spoil if you haven't played it, but seriously, go play the first two games. Done? Okay, welcome back. Arkham Origins takes us back before City, before the Asylum, a mere two years after Batman has started doing Batman things, and most of the city still thinks he's a myth. Of course, Black Mask knows better, and so he puts a bounty on Batman's head, attracting eight assassins who try to claim the bounty and just generally make Batman's Christmas Eve miserable. Everyone in this game is just a younger version of themselves - Batman is far from the cool, collected hero of Asylum and City and instead prefers brute force to fear tactics. James Gordon is still a lowly captain trying to clear the streets of Gotham of corruption while dealing with the same corruption within his own police force, and Alfred...Alfred is still an old man, because he's never been anything else.
Batman may be younger, but that doesn't mean he's not good at Batmanning yet. The core gameplay remains exactly the same as it has been, with Batman doling out beatings via the ever-popular Freeflow combat system, and using his various gadgets, most of which are from the previous games, to great effect to defuse traps and find his way out of a jam in a pinch. There's only a few ways Origins really tries to mix up combat, like the introduction of the Shock Gloves, which are used outside of combat but can be used in combat to deal more damage to enemies, which is nice in large encounters. It also tosses in a single new enemy type, martial artists that can counter Batman's strikes. Otherwise, it's still the same variety of thugs (and sometimes cops) armed with the same weapons they used in the other games, as well as the occasional massive brute enemy to make things harder on ol' Bats. Of course, the game still has some boss fights tossed in as well, but unfortunately, this has never been the series' strong point and so many encounters are more an exercise in patience than skill.
"If I can't kill you, then I'm at least going to frustrate you a little bit!!!"
Much like Arkham City, players can simply blow through the story missions and call it a day, or they can stop and explore to find various side quests, stop crimes in progress picked up from GCPD's dispatch radio, or just stomp some random thugs hanging about on a rooftop for no particular reason. And, of course, it wouldn't be a Batman game without Enigma (The Riddler, as he's later known) tossing collectibles about the city. He also has hijacked Gotham's radio towers, which Batman can take back in order to open up fast-travel points, a new feature in the game. These points will appear on the map, once again relegated to the Gamepad, allowing you to get around the city more quickly. And you'll be doing a lot of running around if you hope to complete all the sidequests - there's a substantial amount of stuff to do in Arkham Origins, as evidenced by the fact that I'd done a number of side missions and the entire story and was still only around 30% completion.
It's safe to say that with so much to do, Gotham must be pretty big, and it is. It's a fair bit larger than Arkham City, and being set before any of the events of the first two games, it looks like the dank, dark crime haven we saw in Batman Begins. There's the requisite run-down buildings against brightly lit signs for Ace Chemicals, Christmas decorations, and the like to add a touch of color to the mostly gray and brown palette. The game doesn't really look any better than the first two from a graphical standpoint, but no one was playing these games for their looks in the first place anyhow. The sounds in the game are also pretty standard for the series, with orchestral, movie soundtrack-style music hitting in the background of the bigger set pieces, and, since the game is set on Christmas Eve, there's also a lot of Christmas music playing here and there. Most sound effects are plucked from the previous entries, and much of the voice cast also returns from the previous games, with the exceptions of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Batman is instead voiced by Roger Craig Smith, who mostly tries to imitate Conroy anyway, so it's hard to tell the difference. The Joker, as many know, is voiced by Troy Baker, who does a serviceable job as the Clown Prince of Crime.
a.k.a. The Clown Prince of Expensive Heating Bills From Leaving the Windows Open.
As you've probably guessed by this point, aside from some small changes the game is pretty much like its predecessors. That holds true up to a point...and that point is when the various bugs and glitches begin to rear their head. Yes, unfortunately, this game is plagued with some issues ranging from minor annoyances to nearly game-breaking. Some of the smaller problems include textures popping in and out of view, which would be fine if it happened when objects were coming into the field of view, but it often happens when you're standing right next to them. There's also some clipping issues here and there, where I found enemies sunk partway through the floor or stuck inside of objects or walls, all the while shouting threats as if the poor souls didn't realize that no matter how fast they moved their feet, they were never getting any closer to Batman.
Some of the more major issues come in the form of Batman not free-flowing to enemies when he clearly should, which ruins combos and just combat in general. There were also times I had trouble getting Batman to perform specific moves, such as the aerial attack against shielded enemies. By far, the worst problem is the stuttering and freezing the game experiences. Occasionally the game would stutter when bringing things into view when free-roaming around the city, and sometimes it would lock up completely for a few seconds at a time before resuming. It even completely froze on me twice, forcing me to shut down the console. There's also a particular fight near the end of the game where there is just so much going on that the game struggles to render it all and appears like it could collapse under its own weight at any second, though fortunately it pulled through. There's some other random quirks here and there, such as a point in the final boss fight where I was performing a takedown, and the camera zoomed way in and just stuck there, causing me to have to reload the last checkpoint.
"Why don't I come over there and...I mean, you come over here and I'll hurt ya good!"
Still, despite the lack of polish and bugs, Arkham Origins is, through and through, worthy of the Batman: Arkham name, for better or for worse. The characters, the mechanics, the setting, everything feels right at home with the series and at the end of the day, the flaws can be overlooked, at least to a point, to find an enjoyable game with a decent story about Batman's early years. If you're a huge fan of the series and want a new Arkham game to play, Origins is just the ticket, since the game will easily keep you busy for a long time if you decide to pursue the numerous sidequests, and even if you don't it'll still provide a good 6-7 hour romp. However, if you're just coming off Arkham City, you might want to wait to play this one because you may feel like you're just playing a more glitchy version of the same game over again.
TL;DR version - Arkham Origins takes the mechanics of its predecessors and lets them loose in Gotham, giving players a bigger area than the previous game, Arkham City. Batman's early years make for a fairly interesting story, no more or less engaging than the "Batman fights the Joker again" fare of the other games. However, the game has several bugs and glitches which can really bring down the experience, or in the case of some, stop it entirely. But if you're a fan of the series it's worth soldiering through to see everything the game has to offer, which is quite a lot. Just don't soldier through right after your last trip to Arkham City because you might get an overwhelming sense of deja vu.