I had an opportunity to play Batman Arkham: Origins, the anticipated third installment to the critically acclaimed Arkham series. I’d never played a Batman game before, so I was eager to see what all of the hype was about. Many fans levied their criticism at the fact that Arkham: Origins was under the care of newer, more inexperienced developers. Toward the beginning, this wasn’t readily apparent. In fact, it was hard not to become immersed in this hard-nosed portrayal of DC’s mysterious vigilante, from the complex gadgets to the raw fight sequences in the cold alleyways of a frostbitten Gotham.
Coming into Origins, it was refreshing to see a new antagonist as the driving force behind the plot. From what I’d read, the Batman: Arkham series had always done a good job of including much of Gotham’s prominent villains, but Joker was always the one to beat in the end. The only real exception I’d seen was the Christopher Nolan directed The Dark Knight Rises movie, which gave most of the spotlight to Talia Al Ghul and Bane. In this plot, Black Mask took up the “Batnemesis” mantle, targeting a much younger version of the caped crusader three years before the events of Arkham: Asylum. Unsurprisingly, this would also be spun into another episode of Batman and Joker’s Gay Adventure later down the road.
Origins showed a lot of promise in the beginning. The graphics were nothing less than amazing, detailing everything down to the creases in Batman’s armor. Its art is best described as a more crisp, realistic version of Dishonored’s that totes pointed features and exaggerated body shapes, bringing the unrealistic comic book standard of peak physicality to living color. On the artistic side, this game could do no wrong, and the atmosphere it established helped to drag me into an allure that seemed long lost with popular characters like Batman. You stare down at criminals from the perches of limestone that you‘ve seen drawn time and time again, and blend in with the darkness that presides over the gothic-styled city.
You truly do feel like Batman for the first few levels, swinging from building to building as surveillance equipment endlessly replays those generic ‘Joisy’ accents. Mobsters sound like stereotypical mobsters and cops speak like clueless guards passing rumors on a boring shift. When you analyze crime scenes and simulate the deaths of civilians, the grey, red and bright cyan interface really brings out the state-of-the-art feel that the game tries to portray with Batman’s gadgets. Ultimately, you’re introduced as the apex predator of a city overruled by criminals and drug lords, but this feeling is one that becomes bittersweet as Origins does little to preserve the authenticity of being one of DC’s greatest crime-fighters.
When you get past the flashy martial arts sequences and high-tech gadgetry, you’re left with nothing but a series of patterns. Stealth feels forced; in many situations, Batman’s only option is to stupidly engage a crowd of armed thugs. The combat system has been streamlined to a counter, attack and dodge button so the game plays much like Assassin’s Creed without the ability to employ tact when ambushing the guards. Batarangs can deployed through battle but do little damage and only hold enemies off. Smoke bombs can be used to set off a battle, but fighting within smoke only helps you to get damage in before the inevitable swing-fest. At the most, you can expect to take out maybe three thugs because ground takedowns are slow and inefficient, even in stealth missions.
While the combat system punishes button mashing by taking away buffs that you generate from stringing hits together, it’s impossible to coordinate and maintain an organized attack unless the game wants you to. Most of the time, Batman will be artificially gliding between enemies, landing hit after weak hit until he eventually begins to take them out. If anything, I was introduced to the reason why most superheroes look completely badass and bored at the same time. Gotham loses its luster in a matter of levels, going from a city overruled by corruption to a map with randomly respawning thugs who always want to brawl or rob ATM machines. At the most, Arkham: Origins is reduced to a mindless beat ‘em up with an iconic protagonist.
Batman’s upgrades fail to ameliorate this experience. You’ll earn shock gloves and glue grenades, which pale in comparison to things like the cryptographic sequencer and crime scene simulator in creativity. Some of these things just feel put in place to give players a puzzle for when they engage in the mind-numbing hunt for data packs. I will credit Origins with this: Having the side-villains trash talk the player was a brilliant way of encouraging them to participate in mundane side missions. Enigma’s consistent badgering prompted me to go on a hunt for his data packs when they appeared on the map after he threatened to release private data. After boring myself to death collecting what must’ve been at least a hundred data packs, I was given a cheesy resolution to a threat that barely passed for a side-plot to begin with.
Yep, in order to catch Enigma, I was expected to hunt down the rest of the 200 data packs across the map, as if the forced stealth missions, crime scenes and other repetitive side objectives weren’t enough. Arkham: Origins would thrust icons onto your map and make random criminals seem important with no real reward aside from experience. Doing missions wasn’t much better because none of Batman’s awards offered damage buffs, you were instead given the opportunity to unlock more reward incentives for when you pulled off combos. You go through this entire game never seeing any real changes and improvements in Batman aside from the moments where he’ll bust out a new gadget he’s been working on or do a different move or two, then you’re lured back into the same monotonous spiral.
Batman: Arkham Origins only redeems itself in its story missions and lapses of storytelling genius, which are improvised through creative level designs and convincing dialogue. The former is best observed through Hatter’s Wonderland level or the level where players get a glimpse into the endless chaos of Joker’s mind. The main story of Origins is constantly self-reinventing and making every effort to keep itself fresh that the game’s open world doesn’t; this offers a heavy contrast in the fun factor between exciting story missions and redundant side-objectives that are put in place for cheap replay value. While Joker’s voice actor does a marvelous job of bringing the character to life, Joker’s presence just feels impromptu and crammed in the game to give casual players a familiar face to glare at through their TV screens.
The online of this game is slightly more impressive, though I felt that giving two characters the roles of Batman and Robin was blatant gimmick to seem more original. It could’ve been much better with created characters, an open world, or even created characters with the ability to choose a faction at the beginning. Hell, even limiting it to the Joker versus Bane would’ve carried this Gears of War-esque competitive online mode further. Nevertheless, it serves its purpose in being a considerably decent third person shooter alternative that delivers the replay value the game’s free roam fails to. I actually found Arkham: Origins’ online to be entertaining despite the fact it had the potential to be so much more.
Calling Arkham: Origins a bad game takes a lot away from those who made it, because there’s a clear attention to detail in some big aspects of this title. By no means would I say it was sloppily thrown together, but I recognize that many parts reflect the inexperience of its developers. Before they put out the update, I was among some of the users who suffered the Burnley tower glitch. I also found myself wandering to data packs on parts of the map that I couldn’t possibly access because I didn’t get a list of upgrades that I needed. Some doors were inexplicably locked and required me to actually Google why and what was going on. Reasons like this are why I resign much of my good criticism about this title. The game is great, but it had the potential to be so much better.