There’s a sense of inevitability about Batman: Arkham Origins. When Warner Bros announced that there would be a third in the hugely successful series, but that it wouldn’t be developed by Rocksteady – arguably the reason the series has done so well – and instead by new developer Warner Bros Montreal, very few were surprised. Disappointed, perhaps, but not surprised; a studio purpose built for such a job doesn’t necessary spell doom, but gamers are becoming increasingly savvy at utilising their innate cynicism these days.
And it’s true that the familiarity will creep in fairly quickly with Batman: Arkham Origins; it isn’t long before Batman is suited, booted and flapping his cape all about Gotham City once more. Mechanically very little has changed since Rocksteady’s last outing, and those who played through Arkham City will know exactly what to expect. Combat, stealth and even Bat-cape flying all remain unchanged, the very same since the last game.
To its credit Warner Bros Montreal is comfortable with that, providing very little in the way of tutorials or consistent drops in new strategies to overcome; it won’t be long until you’re up against recognisable armoured, shielded or even ‘giant’ foes – all of who are defeated in the very same manner as the last games. Beyond the odd tooltip here and there, Batman: Arkham Origins expects you to have played one of the games in the series before and that should be respected: few sequels are willing to demand such a level of previous gamer participation.
Sadly, that’s where the praise ends on this front: the open world you have to explore is around two thirds the same as Arkham City. Park Row, Amusement Mile, Industrial District et al return, albeit with a new lease of life. There’s less in the way of dilapidation – these are, for all intents and purposes, functioning homes and businesses – but the general geometry of the world looks the same, feels the same. A new neon sign here and there doesn’t do much to mask that. Beyond the central bridge there is a little more to explore, but it’s here where Gotham City loses some of its appeal the open world had in Arkham City, with tall buildings and less detail that highlighted Rocksteady’s attention to its source material. It’s disappointing since, for many, it was the reverence that the previous game held for the Caped Crusader that made it such a solid outing.
Sadly that attention to detail is lost on the story, too. Arkham Origins begins with Batman only two years since his first sighting, a determined attitude and sense of isolated justice. The story beats along at a predictable pace, with Black Mask calling out a hit on the Bat to have him assassinated; an extreme measure for so young a vigilante, perhaps. This is where a large crux of the criticism lies; where Warner Bros Montreal had free reign to play with the assumed mythical nature of Batman’s earlier days, the world itself seems ready to accept the Batman as a common sighting – in spite of Vicki Vale’s reporting on the ‘first’ confirmed sighting of the Dark Knight. Thugs are quick to accept Batman’s attacks, rather than give in to the fear, and why is Black Mask so keen to eliminate a presumed mythical enemy?
As the story unfolds it becomes clear it’s less about Batman, or even Arkham Asylum, and more about long-time counterpart The Joker once more. Though Batman fans will appreciate the world, its story and the lore, it feels a little lost – as though it was a tale looking for ways to tingle particular nostalgia glands as it ties into the story of how and why of Arkham Asylum – and, later, Arkham City – came to be, but not done with any real creativity. At times it can feel as rushed and cobbled together as the retextured Gotham CIty; as though it was one last effort to draw new appeal from Batman’s existing fundamentals before the next generation begins. It’s not that the story or world is bad, per se, just that it lacks some of the unidentifiable quality that Rocksteady has somehow imparted onto its Batman games.
But thankfully there is a heritage that redeems Batman: Arkham Origins, the core mechanics – while mostly unchanged, outside of new animations – remain as solidly entertaining as ever. Combat still has that now-iconic rhythm action flow to it, and a steady income of unlocks via challenges and XP gain mean you’re still improving Batman over the course of the game. Predator sections remain stellar too, encapsulating – if somewhat overlooking – the essence of what makes Batman’sskills in the art of stealth unmatched. Unchanged, but nonetheless as thoroughly enjoyable as ever. Still, ‘more of the same’ will likely be enough to tempt fans of the series into jumping into one final bout and these core mechanics have not dulled with repetition, if that’s what you were wondering. It’s fun, it’s just nothing we haven’t already seen and played hours of already.
With that said, more effort could have been made to rework Batman’s abilities to a far greater extent. Let’s not forget, this is the caped vigilante early on in his crusade and yet seemingly has access to a multitude of gadgets and doohickeys that perhaps he would not have had need of before. It’s another missed opportunity as a back-to-basics Batman that could have evoked a sense of necessity as this sudden surge of supervillains causes the inventor to call on Fox for added assistance.
More than anything, however, the ‘new’ gadgets the Bat does acquire are embarrassingly similar to Arkham City’s roster of tools. The ice grenade is replaced – mechanically, at least – with a glue grenade, while the line launcher is now the Remote Claw. It feels lazy, and once again relies too much on following Rocksteady’s example. A similar criticism can be cast towards the setpieces or dungeons, the former all inferior, reskinned versions of events that have been seen in Asylum or City and the latter sadly linear and uninspired. Many areas from Arkham City are reused and replastered so as to look different, but with less of the thought involved. Where both Asylum and City had dungeons that offered an objective to solve, often with Zelda-like puzzles to decode, Origins fails to offer anything on the same level: just one arena for combat or shadow stalking after another. Inevitable is the only word for it; that at some point down the line a new Batman game in this particular chain was going to be imperfect.
It’s not even that Batman: Arkham Origins fails in any regard – it is, as already mentioned, more of the same, and sometimes that’s just enough – but nor does it do anything to better, improve or even alter the proven template of Arkham City. There’s a sense that Warner Bros Montreal kept itself in check at the behest of fans, fearing the outcry the untested developer would fall victim to had it dared to change any element in this much-loved – yet still decidedly young – series. Undeniably there’s a solid game here, and a complete overhaul of the city – even if it is mostly a city we’ve already turned upside down – will give just enough reinvigoration for fans to lose themselves in Gotham all over again.
Rocksteady’s heritage lives on in Batman: Arkham Origins and for that alone it’s worth playing; it still empowers in all the same ways Asylum and City had done before it. But if you had hoped for more in a fashion similar to the evolution that Arkham City brought to Arkham Asylum’s core then you will be sadly disappointed. Still, a strong imitation, one that will tide us over until the Man Of Steel inevitably gets here.