How do you top two stellar instalments adorning the utility belt of the Dark Knight? In the case of Batman: Arkham Origins, you don’t.
Warner Brothers Montreal has taken the helm from Rocksteady. The studio has reiterated what’s best about series and added a few unobtrusive new additions so as to not upset the applecart. And why would they? Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were spectacular. They defied expectation and breathed life into the licensed game space, one hitherto defined by rush-jobs and cash-grabs. Batman: Arkham Origins is a quality instalment, a steady-as-she-goes entry that is neither bold new statement nor all-out disaster, just more.
Origins introduces a younger, gruffer Batman only two years into wearing the batsuit, and he’s been busy making use of it. He’s an especial nuisance in the eyes of Gotham’s crime lords and their cronies, and his brand of vigilante justice hasn’t endeared him to the Gotham City Police Department either. One villain in particular, the mysterious mob boss Black Mask, has had enough of the Bat foiling his plans, and on this Christmas eve has put a $50 million price tag on his head. With that kind of notoriety and bragging rights at stake, the world’s finest assassins convene in Gotham to do their best to turn Batman into a bat shaped smudge on the pavement. Looks like Christmas dinner will have to wait, Alfred.
It turns out that everyone wants a piece of the Bat. Long time series fans will be happy to see a few familiar faces from Gotham vying for Batman’s attention, like the elusive Enigma, the man before he became the Riddler, and the Penguin. The familiar faces even extend into the eight assassins that have been offered the contract to do Batman in. Bane makes more than one appearance and Deathstroke even has his own turn in the spotlight in Origins’ first downloadable content. Batman often walks into these confrontations as he tries to put a stop to Black Mask and his operations, and so spends the game swatting these would-be assassins aside like so many flies as he grapples and glides towards his main objective.
Not to say that any of the eight assassins aren’t worthy of the Bat’s attention. Each boss battle with the assassins will push Batman to the limit. The series hasn’t earned many trophies for its boss battles in the past so these battles should delight with their depth.
Veterans will also be pleased to know that the powerful and rhythmic way Batman leaps from foe to foe is still here and still satisfying. As with Asylum and City, there are rooms upon rooms of henchmen and cronies to clothesline in Origins. With the opening move of a smug ‘come hither’ gesture, Batman serves cold, hard dishes of pain to any enemy that dares to throw a punch. Dislocating a jaw here, fracturing a tibia there, tombstoning this guy, clapping the ears of that guy, head knocking those two and raining bats on everyone has never felt so good.
WB Montreal ha the toolset laid out by Rocksteady in order to do justice to the Batman franchise, just as much as Batman has the arsenal to help him cleanse the streets of Gotham. Series favourites such as explosive gel and the remote batarang feature, but new additions such as the remote batclaw, which enables Batman to create tightropes, are most welcome. The remote batclaw also comes in handy when Batman enters a room full of armed thugs. Yes, Predator mode features greatly. The remote batclaw allows Batman to creatively and stealthily pick them off one by one, or to knock them together, or throw gas tanks at them. But that’s just the beginning when it comes to new gadgets and gizmos. The near game-breaking shock gloves Batman eventually inherits from the Electrocutioner – one of the would-be assassins – deals out massive amounts of damage, quickly ending battles in rooms with twenty or more henchmen.
There is a whole lot of pain to bring, whole lot of corrupt cops and hooligans to bring it to, and assassins to jump like hurdles, but they’re all part of a larger narrative that brings Batman ever closer to a fateful event. In Origins, Batman will meet his greatest foe, The Joker. Origin stories are always tricky, especially when origin stories about Batman are a dime a dozen. But this one expertly delves into the psychology of the ‘bad romance’ of Batman and the Joker, and why the two are locked in an eternal battle. Troy Baker’s Joker is excellent and will put fans of Mark Hamill’s Joker at ease, or not, especially when maniacal laughter escapes the horrifying face of the clown prince of crime.
Gotham is wide open for Batman to traverse while he searches for his enemies, made navigable by gliding and Batclaw, and it makes a nice change from the closed of sandboxes of Asylum and City. Fast travel is now an option via the Batwing, but in order to encounter the many side missions, apprehend Gotham’s most wanted criminals and find the many tidbits of information left behind by Enigma, it’s recommended to leap from building to building to get to them. Gotham city civilians won’t get in the way, having barricaded themselves inside with urging from the GCPD, leaving the streets teeming with criminals to glide kick and batter.
Beneath Wayne manor, players will also be able to explore the Bat Cave for the first time. Batman can fast travel to this location by accessing his map when he isn’t deep in the bowels of a building hunting down criminals. At first glance it’s invitingly large and open to exploration, but it offers nothing to players beyond a combat training simulator, a few Batsuits (think Adam West), and outfitting our hero with weapons that appear as necessary in the workshop. The Bat Cave feels like a missed opportunity to explain how Batman came to acquire or create the gadgets that came in so handy in Asylum and City. As it stands it feels as if WB Montreal was obstinate in its decision to not make better use of the location.
Worst of all, standing vigilant and awaiting master Bruce is an abysmal representation of Alfred. His only function throughout the game is to nag Batman, remind him that he is a Wayne and that he is squandering his inheritance, and for he to be berated by Batman in turn. Doesn’t help that the Dark Knight often sounds like an insolent teenager when he responds. Most interactions between the two are cringe worthy. Listening to Alfred bestow his ‘advice’ has only one positive aspect: he grants the player experience to spend later on upgrades to Batman’s arsenal.
Three skill trees that focus on melee, predator mode and Batman’s utility belt are all available for upgrading. Experience points can be spent one at a time in each tree and can be focused wherever players feel is best. If a player lives for predator mode, upgrading the stun time of the batarang will come in handy. Perhaps even being able to remote-detonate explosive gel one at a time. Or ensuring Batman’s armour is up to scratch, in case he dances with Killer Croc again. There are options aplenty.
Detective vision is back but with a new addition, this time to Batman’s investigative work. Batman now has the ability to recreate 3D holograms of crime scenes that he can scrub through to figure out what happened in the room. These vignettes only require all the pieces of evidence Batman locates at the crime scene, helpfully highlighted whenever Batman activates detective vision. It’s a cool tool and isn’t used nearly enough.
This is a game that rests too heavily on the series’ laurels. WB Montreal had two excellent templates to work from, and work closely from them it did. Origins left the worst and kept the best of the series to date but in WB Montreal’s attempt to do justice to the series, it opted for a less-is-more approach that doesn’t give the game the same depth as its predecessors. Ultimately the game feels like a stopgap between Arkham City and Rocksteady’s next-gen title in the Dark Knight franchise. Luckily, there is plenty to do in Origins to keep players occupied until then. Batman: Arkham Origins is as safe and neutral as Switzerland.
Let’s hope Rocksteady doesn’t follow the same mandate when the Dark Knight returns on the next generation.