Batman: Arkham Origins (Review)

When I played Batman: Arkham Asylum, I knew nothing of consequence about the Dark Knight. As with most comic franchises, my awareness of the character and mythos was entirely derived from what I had seen in movies. I had enjoyed the first two Christopher Nolan films, and had seen part of at least one of the older ones, and somewhere between Michael Keaton and Adam West I had a vague sense of who Bruce Wayne was and what he did. I'd never been much for superhero stories and I didn't anticipate that that would change. When a friend bought me Asylum, I figured he meant well, but licensed games tended to be mediocre at best (the couple Spider-Man games on the PS1 notwithstanding) and besides, I didn't care much for Batman.

I adored Arkham Asylum. Raved about it, actually. But it didn't get me into comics. Nor did 2011's fantastic Arkham City, which was arguably a superior game in almost every way, except that its story and mood were a little less tightly-controlled and atmospheric. I bought one or two issues of a couple books when I heard about the New 52, but nothing hooked me, and I went back to not thinking about comics until the end of last year, when (as you know) something clicked and comics nearly replaced games as my entertainment medium of choice.

Arkham Origins, then, finds itself in a unique, and possibly unfair situation: it is the first Arkham game I have played since actually reading Gotham-based comics, and it is the third Arkham game I have played after having absolutely loved the first two. And while I can't guess which of those factors was more important in my evaluation of Origins, it stands to reason that both played a part. The result? A competent, enjoyable game that frustrated me almost as much as it pleased me.

It's Christmas Eve, and crime boss Roman "Black Mask" Sionis has apparently gotten tired of this relatively-new vigilante, so he issues a challenge to the best assassins in the world: whoever kills the Bat gets fifty million dollars. Needless to say, some brows are raised. Herein lies the excuse (which was ready-made for the last couple games) for a large rogues gallery to cross paths with Batman in a single night, and the crowd has a decent degree of diversity. Sadly, most of the game revolves around only a few tried-and-true villains (particularly Joker and Bane), and it's possible to miss three of the eight "main" assassins entirely if you're not thorough. This allows for a stronger story than in Arkham City (because your enemies have plots that cover the course of the campaign, rather than merely isolated chapters), but it comes at the cost of the excitement and diversity that the prior titles offered.

Supposing you don't get caught up in side questing (he may not be The Riddler yet, but E. Nigma's got plenty to keep you occupied throughout Gotham), the main story plays out like so many good ideas strung together but neither terribly lengthy nor overly connected. Various boss fights have unique mechanics which allow for a certain degree of freshness, and one sequence in particular which follows Bruce racing to the top of a hotel while facing dynamic new horrors is a standout moment in the franchise. Unfortunately, for every point like that there tends to be a counterpoint. For example, the confrontation with Deathstroke is textbook "good idea, bad execution," taking what should have been a challenging showdown with an arguably vastly more experienced enemy (this is two-year-old Batman, after all) into an exercise in frustration, asking players to repeat the same countering mechanic over and over again for a good ten or fifteen minutes (with only a couple quick time events between) or to die trying.

More frequent than the highlights or lowlights is the pervasive feeling that Warner Bros. Games Montreal (the studio which took over responsibilities after Rocksteady's deft handling of the last two games) was trying very hard to prove that it could make a game like Rocksteady had. This is so much the case that entire portions of the game feel like homage rather than true new creation, a sensation easier felt than articulated. And that goes for some of the voice work as well, particularly Troy Baker's Joker, which many have rightly said sounds more like an imitation of Mark Hamill than a unique take on the Clown Prince. Where I differ from many, however, is that I don't consider any of that familiarity to be detrimental to the experience. While it's unfortunate that Origins did not push Batman or the Arkham franchise into new territories the way its predecessor did, it's still an enjoyable game with a very good story, and plenty to keep you occupied if you share my kleptomaniac impulses.

As alluded to earlier, this game takes place very early in Batman's career, a fact which generates as many problems as it solves. Batman is still an urban legend among the criminal underworld, as evidenced by the fact that your appearance amongst a group of street thugs tends to elicit cries of "he's real!" and the like. This newness also helps justify the police's resilience against you (you're still considered a straight-up outlaw), and the generally higher difficulty of the game in comparison to prior entries to the series. Even playing on Normal, I died very frequently, which comes (mercifully) with little repercussion except the frustration of failure and non-insignificant load times. The difficulty is exacerbated by the introduction of combo-breaking enemy types whose body armor or riot shields inevitably break the swift rhythm and building intensity of fight motion, resulting not only in the loss of combo which must be sustained for your higher-power attacks, but also stopping Batman and often setting him up for some attack he is unprepared to properly counter (especially the knife and shield attacks, which must be dodged). As the game's method of scaling difficulty is merely to toss larger waves of enemies at you (and with more armor and riot shields), what should feel like a progressive empowerment and domination instead feels like you are getting worse as the game moves forward.

If Batman's inexperience provides a helpful in-game write-off for my poor performance, it's nevertheless problematic for other reasons. The very notion of an inexperienced Bruce (who, among proofs of his naivety, manages to get his identity discovered) surviving, let alone besting, the likes of Deathstroke, Bane, and Lady Shiva, nevermind all three within mere hours of one another, is admittedly preposterous. These are world-class enemies against a greenhorn who has spent the rest of his evening being beaten senseless by bank robbers with baseball bats. The narrative credulity is strained at best, and at times my deaths felt like the only realistic part of the story.

The game, to WBGM's credit, does make a point of keeping Bruce's humanity and humility in the spotlight, and that's where the Arkham Origins part comes in. We see the roots of Bruce's neurotic secrecy, contingency plans, and devotion to Gotham, just as we experience the reasons and hear the plans for the resurrection of the Asylum as supplementary to Blackgate. The Batman who makes it to the morning of December 25th is a decidedly different man than the one who woke up on December 24th.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that this game has a lot of bugs, some of which are more glaring than others. The fast travel system comes to mind as the readiest example of something outright broken, not the system itself so much as the animations which accompany it. Ostensibly, Batman fires his grappling hook in the air, ziplines into the night storm, and then flies to the new area, diving out and into the part of the city you've chosen. But not a single time in all the hours I've sunk into the game did the animation and sound synch up, and the lag between loading and resuming control of Bruce frequently resulted in me being dropped into an unwanted fight with random enemies because I was unable to glide elsewhere while free-falling. Similar lag accompanies transitions between areas, some fights, and any action you take which is likely to earn points and unlock things; one particularly productive series of events caused my game to lag so badly that I lost sound, froze, and ultimately had to restart my PS3.

Meanwhile, some quests or challenges will occasionally bug out. On more than one occasion I needed to interrogate someone whom the game had allowed me to knock out or else would not allow me to interrogate. One late quest asks you to handle a "crime in progress" -- the randomly-generated fights which serve as an opportunity for extra XP and for Batman to beat the GCPD at their own jobs -- in each of the 9 districts, including the bridge between Old and New Gotham. After twenty minutes of fruitless bridge perusal, I looked it up only to discover that many other players have also found themselves incapable of getting a CIP to trigger on the bridge ever, thus rendering the task impossible to complete (along with the achievements/trophies associated with it).

None of the technical issues ultimately ruin the game, but they are numerous and noticeable, and are honestly well below the standard of polish that gamers should expect from any game this late in a console generation, but particularly one building off two well-executed prequels and with the money of WB and DC behind it.

As with previous entries, Arkham Origins boasts a robust Challenge Room mode. It also incorporates an online multiplayer component, complete with factions, levels, gear, and all the bells and whistles one typically expects from multiplayer. I can't really speak to either of these things (the challenge rooms or the multiplayer), because I have not bothered to try them out. They are features I've never had a desire for, and they certainly wouldn't play a role in my recommendation of the game.

And I do indeed recommend it. It's not up to the standards of the past two games, but I didn't expect it to be. WBGM has delivered a solid experience in the vein of its predecessors, and if you like Batman you will definitely like Arkham Origins. Occasionally maddening difficulty and frequent bugginess occasionally detract from, but are ultimately compensated for by, a strong Gotham-centric narrative, a well-cast (voice-wise and character-wise) ensemble, and plenty of collectibles and side quests over a play space twice the size of Arkham City.

If all else fails, this is a game which justifiably features Joker singing "Jingle Bells, Batman smells." If that doesn't make it the perfect Christmas game, I don't know what will.

4/5 [Liked It]

Originally published at Novelly Graphic.