It is universally agreed that Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City are both two of the finest games this generation that provided a pleasant change of scenery from the usual horde of sub-par superhero games. This certainly paved the way for some cautious scepticism when Warner Bros Montreal took on the onerous task of creating a prequel to the esteemed series. Making a sequel, or prequel, to a highly successful and beloved franchise is never easy, and no matter how well a team does there will always be some who relentlessly hate on the new games (just look at the outcry about the latest Devil May Cry’s change in developer). If you create something too similar to the previous games then fans will be disappointed by the lack of change but create something that’s too radically different and fans will complain that it just “isn't insert game”. The trouble with Arkham Origins is simply that the core mechanics and the overall formula of the Arkham City worked so well that there’s just very little room for improvement. Fortunately, a much more interesting story, some great writing, and a hell of a lot of fan service manage to just about carry Arkham Origins away from being a totally rehashed failure.
The plot of Arkham Origins sees a $50 million bounty placed on Batman’s head by a notorious gang leader, capturing the attention of eight world-renowned assassins. A consistently interesting and well-written narrative should be enough to keep you going through the insufferably repetitive combat and stealth scenarios. Arkham Origins is, obviously, an origins story and predates the events of Asylum and City. The game plays heavily on the idea of it being an origins tale, with prolific use of the idea that Batman is still just an urban myth amongst thugs and still just a vigilante criminal to the masses. The story is gets pretty crazy at times, perhaps appropriately so for a superhero story, as it follows Batman trying to defend Gotham City, defend himself, and defeat all the evil super dudes on his own because everybody hates him. As crazy as it gets though, it is actually rather compelling, and the story is actually what carries the overall experience unlike in the previous games where the gameplay carried the story through. The idea of the eight assassins is rather immediately downplayed and certainly feels a little underdeveloped, several hours into the story the C/D list villains, that basically just serve as fan service, are pushed to one side for Bane and the Joker, who both quickly steal the show. As in Arkham City, the available side missions offer a set of completely separate narratives that all revolve around a particular villain; however, most of them just end up being underdeveloped sub-plots that are more often than not tied up through anti-climatic means.
One of the many things that made the previous two Arkham games so excellent was the fluid and extremely satisfying combat, which featured combos, dodges and counters and the use of quick-fire gadgets. It should be no surprise that Arkham Origins features the same fast-paced combat, and I mean the exact same. Aside from a couple new gadgets and a pair of “shock gloves” that essentially give you more damage for a limited time when you achieve a high enough combo, the combat plays out exactly the same as it did in the previous games, even more so Arkham City. So much so that when you’re out on the snowy streets you’d be easily forgiven for mistaking the game for Arkham City, the combat just looks, sounds, feels and plays the same as the previous game. Although the combat is still fun, satisfying and well-paced, the lack of originality and innovation can make the combat quickly grow tiresome, especially later in the game when the game goes crazy with the combat and just consistently throw 20-30 guys at you again and again. Although they don’t add much mechanically, the inclusion of the “shock gloves”, gloves that are basically just made of lightning, adds a satisfying visual effect to your attacks that makes reaching high combos feel very rewarding.
Just as the combat transitioned into Origins with very few mechanical changes, so did the game’s “predator” stealth sequences. Although the combat changed so little, I feel like these stealth sequences underwent even less innovation. These slow, methodical sequences place you into open rooms full of conveniently placed gargoyles near the room’s ceiling and have you take out a group of patrolling thugs; both armed and unarmed. Methodically take down enemies one by one without getting caught, using vents, floor grates, and the gargoyles to your advantage. The well-paced difficulty of these sequences curve nicely, and the steady progression from unarmed to armed to high-tech sonar detection manages to make them these feel consistently challenging and engaging. Although initially fun and satisfying when pulled off efficiently, these encounters grow tiresome quicker than the overused combat does and, if you've played the previous two games, the daunting realisation that these encounters simply have not changed one bit since they were introduced in Asylum just makes them feel even more frustrating. Just like with a lot of the unoriginal gameplay in Arkham Origins, the repetitive nature allows tedium to quickly set in.
The scale of Gotham City makes it feel considerably large, but the frequency of buildings you can’t grapple to and the lack of high vantage points make it feel more enclosed than open. The game rather lazily uses the literal cover of a storm to explain why the streets are only populated by thugs and criminals, which is a shame because I was expecting them to have a more bustling, lively city sandbox if you they were going to set the game in Gotham City, but I guess the whole point is that the city is just full of corrupt cops and criminals anyway. The game introduces a handy fast travel system that allows you to zip around the city and get back to the Batcave, which acts as the game’s main hub. There are no more Riddler trophies in this game, likely because the Riddler has yet to earn his nickname and is referred to only as Enigma, and instead there are “Enigma Extortion Data” which basically act as the same collectibles that are earned through completing mini puzzles, except some can also be found through exploration.
Unfortunately, Arkham Origins was released in an extremely messy state, game-breaking bugs are commonplace here and almost everything is liable to break be it animations or scripting, and I had to restart to last checkpoint far too many times of because I fell through the floor or because the scripting failed to function properly. As well as frequent freezing and crashing, but hopefully these issues will be quickly patched. The game’s presentation continues to be utterly stunning, beautiful visuals, fluid animations, gradual deterioration of your cape and armour, those wonderful cape physics, it all looks absolutely incredible. It’s all well optimised as well, thankfully, and I was able to pull of a consistent 60 fps on medium settings with my rather outdated set-up The game’s sound design is every bit as good as the visuals, from the fantastic voice acting to the spine-chilling crunch of a thugs bones it is all top notch, when it actually works that is.
On the surface, Arkham Origins is actually a pretty great game and a worthy addition to the acclaimed Arkham series, it’s just a shame that a number of game-breaking bugs, character arcs that lose momentum too quickly, and an over-reliance on the previous games’ success make the experience feel rather unforgettable.