People were worried. They were worried that with Rocksteady off development duties, the latest Arkham game wouldn’t be much cop. They were worried that WB Games Montreal wouldn’t be up to the task. It turns out they were justifiably worried, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect.
For the most part, Batman: Arkham Origins follows the template laid out by Arkham Asylum and Arkham City – and considering how good each of those games were, that’s no bad thing. The problem is that it doesn’t so much follow that template as place it on a piece of paper, trace around it, and then maybe embellish it slightly.
What does that mean? Well, Arkham Asylum was a brand-new game with some genuinely novel ideas. Arkham City ramped up those ideas massively and placed them in a much wider, open environment, and twirled the fanservice knob up to 11. Arkham Origins… is Arkham City 1.5, for want of an easier way to explain it. This isn’t even close to its biggest problem.
I feel like I should also point out that this isn’t a bad thing. It’s a little disappointing, sure, but Arkham City was good enough that I can happily stomach more of the same.
Let’s talk about the good: you’re Batman. You swoop around a big, open city, which is packed full of continual distractions. Over here there are some thugs beating up a homeless person! BIFF! Over there, there’s a Riddler trophy – er, sorry, an Enigma Datapack – behind a pressure-pad puzzle! SOLVE! On that rooftop over there is a sniper! POW! The police haven’t managed to solve that crime down there! DEDUCE! And you will doubtless encounter about seventeen more distractions on your way to whatever main mission or subplot you’ve decided to take on.
It all works as well as ever. Combat is still wonderfully visceral thanks to the shockwave-like impact effects, and it’s as intuitive and intense as ever by keeping the Freeflow combat pretty much identical. There are a few new additions, mind; Martial Artist enemies can counter your attacks, and some of their own attacks require you to hit counter more than once, while enemies in general are a lot more eager to attack you during your own animations which makes things a little bit trickier than before. While three or four thugs go down in seconds, a room full of opponents requires near-perfect timing if you want to get through without taking a hit.
Detective mode has been beefed up slightly, although this mostly only plays a part in the new crime scene locations. Every now and then, Bats will hear about a crime that the police haven’t managed to solve, and if he swoops on over there he can take a look at the scene for himself. You’re still using detective mode and analysing the environment but he’s now able to use the Batcomputer to reconstruct the crime – if he notices that the victim was probably holding a briefcase, you can skip through the reconstruction to find out where its trajectory would’ve taken it when the victim was murdered. It doesn’t really change the game up any, but it’s a cool little feature.
Also new are the voice actors for Batman and The Joker – Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker, respectively – both of whom do a decent enough job. It’s very clear that they’re not Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill but there are enough similarities that it’s hard to mind too much, even if Smith does tend to delve a little too hard into Christian Bale impersonations every now and then, and even if the dialogue does tend to tweak at fans so often it’s cringeworthy. If you’ve read The Killing Joke, at least one bit of fanservice in here is so over the top it’s impossible to take seriously.
So now we hit the disappointments. Other than the fact that there really isn’t much new here – that it pretty much is a rehash of Arkham City – Batman: Arkham Origins has a few wonderful opportunities that it squanders whole-heartedly. First and foremost is the city itself. This is our first experience within Gotham on the whole: Asylum had us locked in a tiny little area, and City was basically a prison city. But this is Gotham! … and there are absolutely no civilians, because there’s a storm, and everyone on the streets is either a corrupt cop gunning for you or a thug. City honestly had more innocent civilians than this. I’m not buying the fact that a winter storm is keeping everyone indoors, either; I honestly expected more than a Gotham that felt empty, deserted and dead.
The second big opportunity that’s completely missed is possibly just me: I expected something akin to Batman: Year One. I expected this to be a younger, naïve Dark Knight, making mistakes and gradually learning the ropes as he went along, but this is not the case. This is basically Batman as he’s been in the previous two games, only time has shifted backwards so now he’s meeting most of the supervillains for the first time. I thought that a story focusing on Black Mask would have more of a mob feel to it; that this would be Batman growing from the start of his career into what we know; that this would be different. But it’s not. It’s just Batman beating up the same old villains. Only the dialogue has changed, really, and there are no jaw-dropping setpieces to rival the first time you swooped over Arkham City, or Scarecrow shocks and Batcave from the first game.
And that’s the third disappointment: this is Arkham City all over again, but without the awe. As I said, that’s not a bad thing, but when Asylum was something new and impressive and City was a dramatic extension of that, it’s a genuine shame that the series has stagnated with this entry. There’s plenty of room within this story and this setting to do something new with the same mechanics, but WB Games Montreal seem content to just stick within the lines drawn out by the first two games. Sad.
There is, of course, one thing that’s new and impressive, and that’s the multiplayer. You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned that yet. That’s because we haven’t discussed the genuinely awful stuff in the game yet.
The multiplayer itself is not genuinely awful, happily. It’s a reasonably clever little mode in which The Joker’s gang takes on Bane’s gang in a battle over control points, gradually whittling away at their opponents’ respawn tokens, and occasionally employing abilities to gain the upper hand. Throughout this, a third team of Batman and Robin is trying to win by building up an “Intimidation” bar, which fills up as they swoop around the rooftops and silently pick people off one by one. Employing different types of takedown fills it faster, and getting taken out by the criminals makes the bar drop like a stone.
For the most part it’s a slightly weird third-person shooter with Batman and Robin as an occasional distraction, but it certainly manage to evoke some interesting feelings, particularly when your team is dead and you’re on your own and you just know Batman is watching you from the rooftops, waiting for you to look the wrong way. Playing as either of the caped crusaders is fun, too, as you basically inject some muted terror into what’s otherwise a rote-but-entertaining third-person shooter.
So why did I mention this in the “genuinely awful” category? Because Batman: Arkham Origins contains more bugs than a year-old spiderweb, and they hit the multiplayer hard.
Let’s see. One of the Enigma Towers (which unlock fast-travel points and are fairly essential to one of the major subquests in the single-player game) is actually impossible to complete on PC. I got stuck on two smaller subquests because the game wouldn’t let me interrogate the people I needed to interrogate. I had to restart one section of the critical story path twice – first because a bug prevented me from opening a door, and then because a bug prevented me from getting off a zipline. I had to restart another subquest when the event that was supposed to finish it didn’t trigger. Another subquest broke because I restarted it, forcing me to quit out and load from the start of the section. And the multiplayer? Well, that hard locked for me every two or three rounds, and the game reset my progression – remove all of my unlocks, weapons, and abilities – every time I restarted it. I’ve pretty much given up on it now.
Not good. It’s not a Total War: Rome 2 level of the-game-simply-doesn’t-work clusterfuckery, but it’s still pretty appalling that a game can be released in this state – where multiplayer barely functions and one of the biggest non-critical single-player bits is actually broken. This is, honestly, a big part of why this game is getting the score I’ve given it.
If everything was in full working order, Batman: Arkham Origins would be something I’d be comfortable recommending as long as you can put aside the fact that it’s pretty much just more Batman: Arkham City. It’s a decent enough game in its own right and it has some high points – particularly a few of the boss fights, and some of the events near the end of the main plot path – but it’s not quite up to the heights of either of the first time games. But the bugs drag it down to the point where, although it functions and although you’ll enjoy it, you’ll regularly smash your head into the desk out of frustration and annoyance. Wait for a patch.