The “Batman: Arkham” games breathed some much-needed new life into the superhero genre of video games. Sure there had been the odd game worth checking out, but many superhero games were based on film adaptations (suffering the same fate as most games based on films) or just generally shoddy. Conversely, Rocksteady (creators of the underrated “Urban Chaos” on PS2) created their own Batman universe from scratch, filled with their own take on the caped crusader and his numerous villains with great success. Newly formed developers “WB Games” have taken the reigns for a prequel set two years after Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City, as crime boss Black Mask calls in a massive hit on Batman, drawing in several assassins. In order to review the game properly I feel the need to go into spoiler territory, however I’ll briefly outline the game without spoilers first.
There’s one word that really sums up “Origins”, and that’s “Familiar”. It’s the same mixture of smooth, brutal combat, stealth sections, detective work and exploration. In terms of new features there are a few new animations and enemy types, a couple of tools and a slightly more involving crime scene investigation system, but the gameplay is fundamentally the same. Said crime scene system has gone from observing one thing in a room and following a trail to observing several things in a room and virtually re-creating the crime. It doesn’t add much, but it is a nice touch. The combat is still enjoyable and has new challenge in the form of martial artists and heavy enemies. The former have to be countered twice in a row and can counter your attacks, and the heavy enemies charge and have to be knocked out with beatdowns- basically a long sequence of rapid punches that can be tricky to pull of when surrounded by other enemies. Similarly to “Arkham City” enemies are often uniformed according to their boss, and the only real effect of this is that some heavies are all pumped up on Venom (which is now a popular street drug rather than an experimental serum) a la Bane, and can’t be attacked until you cut off their supply with a takedown. The new enemy types mixed in with returning ones “Shield Guy”, “Electric baton man” and “The merry shankster” mean the combat is still fun, but combined with the fact that enemies now seem more aggressive and their attacks connect just fast enough to get you stun-locked make it begin to drag, particularly late in the game. Faring less well is the stealth, which gets boring quicker due to crap A.I (you can do an inverted takedown from a gargoyle, cut him down from a different perch, then go back to the first gargoyle to do another takedown repeatedly. Between that and chokeholds you’ll have rooms cleared pretty quickly), and the fact that it’s the element that most has the feeling of “You’ve done this all before” about it. At one point I genuinely thought “Oh good, another room full of eight men with guns and a series of gargoyles has conveniently popped up to pad the game out before I get to where I’m going. Oh joy”. That’s not a good sign.
All I can really say on the story without spoiling it is to say that it starts off being focused on Black Mask and his merry band of hired assassins, then ends up going in a very different direction. The Joker has a large role, and a lot of focus is placed on Batman’s fragile relationship with the police, specifically Captain James Gordon. It has a couple of stand-out moments, but otherwise it’s a pretty standard Batman story. Besides, as I’ll describe shortly, a lot of the best moments are taken from famous Batman comics.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy “Arkham Origins” can be attributed to one main question: do you want more of the same basic “Arkham” framework with a few new additions that end up changing things a bit in the short term but not much in the long term? It’s definitely enjoyable, but they need to make some more drastic changes if this series is going to reach its previous heights.
Anyway, onto the spoiler portion of the review. About a third of the way into the game you arrive at what Batman believes to be the current location of some interesting new villain called “The Joker”. It turns out that Black Mask is actually The Joker in disguise having taken over the former’s operation. Furthermore the assassins were also called in by The Joker, and they all pretty much fall into the “B” plot for the rest of the game, with a few serving as boss fights to pad out the game’s run time, but with some of them relegated to side-quests, including Deadshot and, in an encounter that turns out to be quite disappointing, Lady Shiva. The biggest problem is that the interesting Black Mask set-up and references to the deep-rooted organised crime element that essentially runs Gotham is pushed aside in favour of safer ground. Obviously I’m not going to attack a developer for giving The Joker main antagonist duty in a Batman origin story, he’s Batman’s greatest villain and I like this version, despite him not being particularly original (more on that in a minute). It’s just that the mob set-up is an interesting one, and they could have kept Black Mask as the main antagonist and had The Joker turn up now and then. It’s just a waste of a good idea. The story’s other main problem is that it tries to cram too much in. The Joker’s backstory is taken straight from “The Killing Joke” (which is an amazing story but they could have come up with something different) and one sub-plot involves Bane working out Batman’s secret identity a la “Knightfall” which doesn’t really affect the story in any serious way (Alfred nearly dies but seeing as it’s a prequel you know he’s fine) and it all gets tidied up very conveniently. These, as well as the various sub-plots, villains and Bruce’s story arc (if he even has one, it’s your standard “I won’t kill anyone”, “Oh hey, this Batman guy seems like a good egg”-type plot) make things blur together, apart from one or two stand-out moments (the last confrontation from Batman and The Joker is good, apart from how it ends; a beatdown that goes on for two long and loses all effect).
The story isn’t great, but it’s enjoyable enough. That’s a statement that adequately describes the game as a whole. The mechanics of the “Arkham” series still work well for the most part, but you’ve seen it before. If you loved the first two games and really want another Batman outing, give it a look. If you’re looking for something fresh and different to what’s come before, you might want to hold out to see what Rocksteady is up to.
Oh, one last thing, new voice actors Roger Craig Smith (Ezio Auditore) and Troy Baker (Booker Dewitt) as Batman and The Joker respectively do a good job in the roles, but they’re obviously no Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill.
By James Lambert