Warner Brothers Montreal pick up where previous developer Rocksteady left off, polishing the already great looking Gotham City from the previous game. Gotham City is in a state of lockdown. Armed criminal gangs stalk the bleak city streets; there is a riot in Blackgate Prison. Someone has put a $50 million dollar bounty on Batman’s head with eight of the world’s greatest assassins taking up the offer (a great roster of bosses for fans including Bane, Shiva and Deathstroke), all on Christmas Eve during Gotham’s worst winter storm in years. Batman has got his hands full, and so Origins begins.
You play Batman in the early part of his career set a few years before the events in Arkham Asylum, where he has just begun his vigilante journey to become the Dark Knight and Gotham’s protector. As such, Batman is not quite yet a butt kicking, detective super ninja. As the story progresses Batman has his moments of doubt about his own fallibilities and is yet to fully develop his martial skills and attain all of his gadgets. So as Batman learns to fight better so do you by unlocking skills and new toys to play with through leveling up. XP is gained through story progression and the ever-awesome Free Flow combat system.
The Free Flow system initially seems like a simplistic button masher, but scratch the surface a little and you will realise that it is actually very deep, rewarding and entertaining. Whilst daunting to newcomers (who may be inclined to do the aforementioned mashing), previous players will feel right at home.
Combat involves timing attacks in order to chain combo’s together, chaining higher combo counts gives you the ability to unleash Take Down moves, basically enabling you to instantly take down enemies in a variety of entertaining bone breaking ways. The higher the combo multi-plyer the more XP you earn in order to unlock upgrades for your gadgets and new Take Down moves. This is all well and good, but the gang members you are tackling are obviously not going down without a fight. If you get hit by an enemy your combo count is broken and you have to start chaining again in order to unleash your better moves. However Batman can block incoming attacks, which are handily highlighted by an icon by countering, thus ensuring that your combo continues. This is where the difficulty curve is for new players, as it can be frustrating to continually have your attacks interrupted and feel like you are getting nowhere. But once you get the hang of it and muscle memory begins to kick in for the stack of button combinations needed to be inputted (even allowing you to quick-fire gadgets on the lam), it becomes a deeply satisfying and an exciting system to master.
Yet it is not all-open air brawling on the streets of Gotham. When Batman ventures indoors combat changes to a more stealthy affair, which gives you the opportunity to stalk your pray in the Predator mode. These play out in indoor arenas (whether it is in a court house, hotel lobby or an enemy base) with multiple avenues of attack. Indoors Batman is able to swing up to gargoyles to assess the situation and silently take out enemies form under floor grates or set explosives to booby trap foes. In later levels these encounters get decidedly tougher as you encounter gun toting enemies and those with thermal vision, who are able to spot you even if you are up high above them. Thankfully the A.I. in general is fairly good, although not majorly challenging on the initial difficulty. There were only a few times were the A.I. went goofy, with enemies continually walking into walls unaware of my presence, until I snuck up behind them and choked them out.
Traversing the free roam map outside is as cool as it was in Gotham City, with Batman’s ability to grapple and glide in play, you can quickly make short work of long distances, all the while scanning for groups of bad guys to drop down on and beat the merry crap out of. This is much needed as Gotham City is a big place, not as big as some open world games, but this is made up for in its verticality. There are multiple levels throughout the city consisting of roof -tops, bridges and balconies, mostly all traversable by Batman. As it is Christmas time, Gotham is now adorned with decorations and the winter storm really adds to the city’s bleak ambience and gives it a palpable sense of doom and coldness. This really is a great looking game.
Yet there are some problems, playing Origins gave me a distinct feeling of déjà vu. This has all been done before in the previous game, there are no new real innovations apart from some extra gadgets which at best are gimmicky and really only serve to help you get collectibles. Worse though is that the game is buggy. It crashed on me numerous times, gladly not game breaking, but it is a massive pain to have to restart your system and replay an hour or two of game play.
Musically the score is duly somber and brooding, adding gravitas to the dark and gloomy Gotham City skyline and the impending violence of Batman’s actions. Yet I did not bond with Batman. That may sound weird, but when I sink 20 + hours into a game I like to bond with the characters. Roger Craig Smith is the new voice actor for Batman, and he has some pretty big bat boots to fill, since Kevin Conway (the previous awesome Batman) left. He is suitably gravelly voiced yet admitted himself in an interview that he feels no empathy with the characters he plays and he only sees a nerdy guy when he looks at himself in the mirror and not Batman. This comes across in his work (he also woodenly played Chris Redfield in various Resident Evil games) and I just did not care for his Batman as much as I did for Conway’s. You may scoff at my thoughts here, but I feel voice acting to be an important element of video games, bad voice acting can and will ruin a good game.
Conversely the new Joker Troy Baker has done a sterling job (taking over from Mark Hamill), the Joker is suitably unhinged and hysterically deranged and really shines during a segment of the game where he charismatically puts under his spell prison psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel (the future Harley Quinn), whilst relating to her his thoughts on the Batman. During this segment, we get the Joker’s perspective on his relationship with Batman and this is one of the games stand out moments, as you play the Joker albeit briefly as he battles through the downright disturbed trippy landscape of his own mind. He does not see Batman as Batman but rather as a grotesque shade that he has formed a bond with in his twisted mind and plays out in a similar to vein to some of the hallucinogenic Scarecrow elements of Batman: Arkham Asylum. It is a real shame that WB Montreal did not utilise this concept further (or something similar) with some of the other main foes of the game.
Unfortunately the game relies too much on you knowing some of the mythos of Batman’s world and I feel it has an identity crisis. It is called Origins yet none of the villain’s origins are truly explained bar the Joker’s. Nothing is explained of Bane’s obsession and hatred of the Batman. Just why is he so pissed at him? Why does Shiva talk of watching him? Obviously they are there to kill him and collect the reward, but the dialogue hints at more. If you have read the comics, graphic novels or seen the cartoons you may be able to draw your own conclusions. But it would have been nice to have some more origins in an origin story.
The series has always had a ton of collectibles and Origins does not disappoint. The Riddler’s trophy puzzles are back, although they are called Nygma data packs, as Edward Nygma is yet to evolve into the Riddler. These play out like mini puzzles having you utilise your varied arsenal in order to open doors, power junction boxes and decode passwords in order to pick up the data packs that are scattered throughout the game world. Then there are Anarky graffiti tags to find, relay boxes to destroy and nine optional side missions to complete featuring the hired assassins from the game, usually ending in very cool boss showdowns. In my humble opinion the best sideline in the game are the crime scenes that need to be investigated and solved. This involves Batman scanning crime scenes and piecing together what has happened to the victim or victims. Once he has some of the evidence you are able to scrub through a computer generated reenactment of events, enabling Batman to solve what has occurred.
They are pretty simple to solve, but the whole mechanic is very cool to experience. All in all it is a very healthy list of side missions to keep you busy.
The multiplayer aspect of the game - made independently from the main game by British developer Splash Damage - feels tagged on, an obligatory necessity to please the gamers out there who feel they are being ripped off if it is not included. Conceptually it sounds good, an asymmetrical last man standing battle between three factions: Batman and Robin (yes you can play as Robin), and either Joker’s or Bane’s henchmen. The bad guys get to shoot each other and hold bases, whilst the hero’s get to swing and creep about using their gadgets to take them out. There are only few a levels to level up and a handful of weapons to unlock for each group. It’s all a bit bland really, squeezed in, sitting uncomfortably alongside the core game play of the series. I know developers do it to help sales, but really, is it necessary?
I also found it difficult to find people playing online. It has obviously failed to ignite any major following, which is a shame as it is an interesting concept, just not well executed.
Playing Batman: Arkham Origins gave me a brooding sense of over familiarity. I have been here before in Arkham City, seen this and done all of that, yet the combat is still endlessly amazing and the boss battles epically entertaining.
Players and fans of the series will enjoy it (whilst perhaps sharing my view), but new players will get most of the fun, once they have got their head around the fighting system.
I may have been overly harsh in some of my criticisms, but there is a lot of game here. There are extra unlockable challenge maps where you play the Predator mode for trophies and your score gets posted to online leader-boards, as well as combat training scenarios (again with the ability to earn trophies) where you square up to hoards of enemies in order to hone your skills. Along with the plethora of collectibles, the game is going to take a lot of time to get everything done and once finished the game has two new modes. New Game +, which sees you squaring up to tougher enemies in different formations without the attack warning icon (making blocking and chaining combo’s a lot harder), albeit with everything you have earned unlocked and then there is I am the Night (for the masochistic) where the game ends if at anytime you get defeated.
It is just a shame that it is not more innovative as it plays out like Batman: Arkham City version 2.0,
If you enjoyed the previous installments you will love this, if you are new to the series there is a lot to like and learn. For those of you who did not fall in love with the combat of the first two, my advice is to give it a miss. WB Montreal played it too safe, which is a shame.