Batman: Arkham Origins had to endure a lot of cynicism from the peanut gallery as it rushed headlong from sudden announcement to pre-Christmas release. It's hardly surprising, too -- after the Arkham series earned high critical acclaim, the third installment appeared to be little more than a hollow cash-in.
It was set to be a contentious prequel, Warner Bros. announced downloadable content in tandem with the reveal of the full game, a pointless multiplayer mode was added, and it had switched developers from the beloved Rocksteady to the less lauded Warner Bros. Games Montréal and Splash Damage. Most people had come to expect little more than a stopgap release -- a bit of filler, made to scrape a quick buck off the Arkham name simply because that's what could be done.
Guess what. Arkham Origins is exactly what most people expected. Except slightly worse.
Batman: Arkham Origins (PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montréal / Splash Damage
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Released: October 25, 2013
Arkham Origins is, as the name implies, a story set before the events of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, featuring a younger and more hotheaded Batman as he defends himself against assassins hired by Black Mask. They have one night to "kill the Bat," though things grow significantly more complicated when Batman has his first ever encounter with The Joker and, conveniently, a load of other supervillains who also have never faced Batman before now.
The problem with prequels rears its ugly head. Just as the Star Wars prequels awkwardly shoehorned chance encounters with previously established characters, we're supposed to believe that Batman met not only the Joker, but Bane, Deathstroke, Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, and a whole bunch of other Gotham City antagonists in a single night. It could only have been a couple of years ago, too, if the environment and visible technology are anything to go by. This is despite everyone looking at least a decade younger.
One of the real thrills of the previous Arkham games was in seeing which members of the Batman rogue's gallery would turn up next, a thrill that simply isn't in Origins. The assassins hired to take out Batman are mostly D-list baddies at best, while more credible opponents have simply been pulled from previous games. Apparently, we needed far more Bane, a character who has been in every Arkham game to date, than any newer, more interesting characters. With the exception of Deathstroke and Firefly, fresh introductions to the villain roster inspire little more than apathy.
The lack of excitement inspired by the villains permeates Origins' entire story. While the plot has one or two interesting moments, events seem rushed through and barely fleshed out. The whole assassin storyline becomes an unresolved mess, while the relationship between Batman and Joker condenses years of animosity into a handful of hours. One of Arkham Asylum's biggest strengths was that it avoided any sort of origin story, allowing us to delve straight into a world we knew without trying to sprint clumsily through a back story. In Origins, a team of lesser writers attempts to do what superior talent wisely avoided, and the results are what any reasonable person could expect.
Arkham Origin's narrative simply doesn't feel very fleshed out, a problem made all the more galling by Warner Brothers' presumptive promises of incoming downloadable content to "pick up where the story left off." With that in mind, the entire campaign feels like little more than a delivery system for more paid content, which is fairly despicable.
Reusing much of the map from Arkham City, Warner Bros. gives us another open-world game set in Gotham's streets, but one that makes far less sense. Gotham was full of criminal gangs in City because we were in a gated section of town designed solely to house criminal gangs. Gotham was apparently Arkham City years before the events of Arkham City, at least according to Arkham Origins. Makes you wonder what it was that Dr. Strange actually did to change anything in the previous game.
Alongside of the map, most of the gameplay has been recycled too. Yet again, you'll be gliding from rooftop to rooftop, collecting Riddler trophies (now called "extortion data"), and punching out bad guys. Combat is yet again a case of pounding on opponents and obeying button prompts in order to counter enemy attacks, while utilizing the same arsenal of gadgets found in previous titles. Something about melee combat in Origins feels off, with Batman frequently failing to target foes properly, punching thin air, and failing to perform ground takedowns. I replayed Arkham City a few months before this, and found none of the problems with combat that Origins has given me.
One fresh addition to the game is quick travel. After clearing out data scrambling devices in key areas of Gotham, Bruce Wayne can use the Batwing to quickly enter a new section of town. This is a welcome new addition, especially since mission destinations seem to force players to cross the same lengthy, interminably boring bridge. That said, one has to watch the same dreary cutscene every time they use the Batwing, but it's better than the lengthy alternative, even if you do have to navigate some poorly designed environmental hindrances to unlock the travel points.
The only other added feature enhances crime scene investigation. Using Batman's trusty Detective Vision, players can examine evidence in crime scenes to build a virtual reconstruction of events. Taking a blatant page from Capcom's Remember Me, these reconstructions may be rewound and replayed in order to find fresh evidence. The attempt to add more detective work into a Batman game is respectable, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Funnily enough, it turns out that watching a blue virtual reality man fly backwards through the air so that you can hunt for little red triangles is very boring.
There are a number of boss fights, though few of them are anywhere near as inventive as the ones in Arkham City -- which weren't all that inventive to begin with. Many of them are just straightforward combat encounters laced with quick-time-events, with the battle against Firefly providing the only truly unique encounter. As for the several Bane fights, they are uniformly repetitive and utterly chaotic. It should be common knowledge that tossing more and more regular enemies into a boss fight doesn't make it more difficult so much as it makes it more of an anarchic bloody mess. It should be common knowledge, but WB didn't know that, apparently.
On top of that, Arkham Origins is littered with glitches. I had the game crash on me twice in a row while fast traveling, and I encountered a number of physics bugs that saw enemies become almost untouchable or completely disappear. At one point, I needed to restart a checkpoint because a character I needed to interrogate couldn't be interacted with. These are just the issues I had, with many other users reporting other bugs, such as important ledges that can't be climbed, and horrendous framerate drops. Warner Brothers' proprietary little online account system -- an aping of Origin and uPlay -- also appears to be broken, as using it can further make your game unstable.
Because this product seems to be going out of its way to epitomize the concept of the cynical cash grab, online multiplayer has been crammed in with all the grace of a cat in a bathtub. Essentially a mediocre third-person cover shooter with Batman shoehorned into it, Arkham Origins Online pits three of Bane's thugs against three of Joker's goons, with two other players taking on the roles of the Dark Knight and Robin. It's a three-on-three battle, with the rival gangs capturing territory and shooting each other, while the superheroes use gadgets and predatory stealth to take them out.
As a gang member, you can look forward to awful movement controls, with the character wildly swinging when trying to run, sometimes not running at all, and occasionally refusing to fire his weapon. As Batman or Robin, you get to be frequently stuck on walls, or have diving kick attempts halt in mid-air for no good reason. The demented controls and obnoxious errors were able to be experienced almost instantly, and consequently, I managed to withstand only a few rounds before having to turn it off, utterly appalled.
Add to that a general sense of lag and graphical texture pop-in, and you have one buggy, unwieldy, ugly, deeply unpleasant bit of online guff. It's almost as if the whole thing was cobbled together quickly to satisfy some advertising department goons, so much so that I'm pretty sure that's what happened.
Is there any good in Arkham Origins? Well, when it works properly, there's still a general satisfaction in getting to be the Batman. There is still a basic amusement in stalking criminals, stringing them up by their feet, popping out of vents to tackle enemies, and tossing Batarangs around. It's still neat to grapple up onto buildings, and utilize classic gadgets. WB Montreal can't really take any of the credit for whatever good Origins does, however, considering anything "new" in the game is a malingering disappointment.
It must also be said that Troy Baker does an impressive turn as the Joker, whose scenes are sometimes pretty damn fun to watch. There's also one genuinely well done section of the game involving the Clown Prince of Crime, though to detail it would venture into spoiler territory. It's a shame many of the other voice actors, as well as the script, make for difficult listening. Anything involving the Penguin and his "British" assistant is so badly written and terribly acted that I felt almost offended.
There are few things more dismaying in the videogame industry than a publisher that's willing to throw its own creative successes under the bus for a chance at easy money. This is what Warner Bros. has done with Arkham Origins. It's contemptuously pissed all over what Rocksteady accomplished with the previous Arkham games and shat out a soulless wreckage of a game. The only good in Origins comes from work already accomplished in previous games, with a whole lot of bad added in. If all you want is to re-experience Arkham City's gameplay, I'd recommend you just replay Arkham City, because at least that packed in a lot more fan service and didn't make such blatant concessions for narrative DLC and utterly contrived multiplayer modes.
If Batman: Arkham Origins does one thing well, it's epitomize the kind of exploitative garbage that has steadily eroded so much faith in the so-called "AAA" gaming scene. When publishers whine and moan about piracy or used sales, this is the kind of game you can point to when you ask if it's any surprise that so few customers are willing to gamble $60 on a brand new game. This is the kind of game that, when publishers panic over flagging sales, you can hold up and say, "You did it to yourselves."
In that regard, Batman: Arkham Origins is not the game this industry needs. It's the game it deserves.