BATMAN ARKHAM ORIGINS Review: Best Story Yet in Love Letter to Batman
Batman Begins Again
It’s time once again to suit up as The Batman, putting on the cape and cowl to take down the villains of Gotham City. In Batman: Arkham Origins, players turn back the clock on the popular Arkham series, going to Batman’s second year of operation as Gotham’s vigilante. The younger, less-experienced hero meets many of his popular Rogue’s gallery for the first time in this story designed to show how he went from scrappy vigilante to trusted superhero. Developed this time by Warner Bros Montreal (the first two games in the series came from Rocksteady), Origins lets players become the Batman in a different way than the rest of the critically acclaimed series; the player learns how to be Batman while he’s learning himself. The approach changes the implementation of tried-and-true gameplay while delivering a story that surprisingly feels more like the comics than the rest of the series.
This game is, at its heart, still an Arkham title. If you’re used to the controls for movement and fighting from the prior games, especially Arkham City, you’ll have no trouble jumping right in. Warner Bros Montreal has made no secret of this fact, that they’re using the same engine and assets as the prior games, with full access to Rocksteady’s creations – they even give Rocksteady a substantial portion of the credits as thanks. There are new gadgets to play with, all of which have both combat and puzzle-solving use. Gliding around the city moves pretty quickly, but if you have to get somewhere a little more quickly, you can fast travel via the Batwing – once you unlock the fast travel spots via Edward Nigma’s towers.
Overall, it’s more of the same – in the best way. There are puzzles to solve, random crimes to bust up (that get progressively harder, keeping the challenge level high), and of course the major villains to contend with, from the Assassins and beyond. The freeflow combat is still some of the best hand-to-hand fighting in the business, and the new gadgets only increase the fun. Glue grenading one enemy, shocking another, and pulling the next toward you into a clothesline with the batclaw keeps the variety going throughout the 30 hours of game (if you do about 50% or more of the side missions), and the game helps you master various parts of combat as you go, with each boss tuned mostly to a specific style. Bane requires dodging and stunning, Deathstroke is all about well-timed counters, Deadshot makes you sneak around in predator and Firefly makes you attack via your long range weaponry.
The puzzles have changed as well, both in using the new gadgets and in using a new detective mode that allows you to investigate and reconstruct crime scenes. It’s a fun and effective way to bring in the actual crime-solving aspect of the character that first appeared in Detective Comics, and both breaks up the action and helps you explore more of the city.
If there’s a flaw in all this, it’s the same flaws that have existed in the last two games. The dodge mechanism is very touchy. It makes for several frustrating moments when taking on large groups of enemies, or the aforementioned boss fights that require you to use the dodge as part of the battle. You don’t always dodge in the direction of your thumbstick, instead sometimes just going whatever direction Batman happens to be facing – even if that means diving directly into the attack you were hoping to avoid.
Likewise, when you’ve progressed into the game, you’ll meet large groups of varied enemies, each with their own specific disarm/takedown move. It presents a very high challenge, and novice players or those who prefer to just play for the story should definitely go on the easy difficulty. You can’t change difficulty once you’ve started the game, so be warned: even Normal gets tough, and you should anticipate your level of struggle from the beginning. The good news about the way the difficulty ramps up is that you never feel like there’s nothing new to do, and you always feel incredibly accomplished after a hard fight. When you defeat some of the assassins like Deathstroke and Bane, for example, it is nearly impossible not to throw your arms up in celebration – you’ve done something very few people can do – you are the Bat.
There’s just something about an origin story. Those early moments of a character’s life or career divulge so much more about them than you can learn later in their fictional lives. That certainly holds true here, as the story of a young second year Batman on one crazy Christmas Eve gives us a deeper insight into the emotion of the character than the previous two games combined. Bridged together by first encounters with villains both famous (The Joker, Riddler – who is Enigma here, Bane) and some mostly known only by comic book fans (Firefly, Shiva), “Arkham Origins” offers up a story that feels closer to the comic book incarnations of these characters than ever before – ironic, since comic book and TV writer Paul Dini wrote the first two games and wasn’t involved with this one.
The story all takes place on Christmas Eve (one long Christmas Eve, since it’ll take you about 15-20 hours for just the main story, with another 10-15 hours of side content), and starts with Black Mask putting out a hit on Gotham’s fledgling vigilante. He’s offering up a hefty $50 million for the head of Batman, and it brings all sorts out of the woodworks including eight assassins, the Gotham PD, and more villains who might be more interested in simply matching wits than cashing in. There’s a major twist to the story we won’t spoil here, but when it happens, the entire story shifts dramatically, and for the better. There are several “holy crap” moments scattered throughout the game, and the various villains are introduced in many different ways that make you actually feel like they’re different, not just placeholders for the next big fight.
And then there’s Bruce Wayne’s journey. Again, holding back for fear of spoilers, but the emotional resonance must be pointed out. This isn’t the Batman whose confidence helps him take on anything – instead impulsion drives him into the fray. His frustration is palpable, his choices meaty, and you get to see the character you love develop before your eyes. If Warner Bros Interactive’s one main goal in this game was to make you feel what it is to become Batman, they succeeded.
Arkham Origins looks graphically near-identical to the prior two games in the series, as all three run on the same game engine and use shared assets. The larger-than-ever city shines with a coat of white snow thanks to the Christmas Eve setting, and it leaves footprints (or body prints) while exploring or fighting. It makes for a nice contrast to the usually dark and grey Gotham City without taking away the mystery of this perpetual nighttime. Characters have been redesigned to fit the younger, earlier-in-the-timeline needs of the story’s setting, but are all familiar enough looking to pick them out of a lineup, for fans of the game or comic book franchise. Batman’s armor plating is thicker on his costume, which fits his less-confident and more-brutal fighting style, and Joker’s grin is as creepy as ever. They’ve done about as much as they can with the Unreal Engine 3 and the current generation of systems, and if games WBIE is making now look this good, I can’t wait to see what they do with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The music of this game will strike players because of its familiarity – it pulls themes from the prior “Arkham” games, as well as some nice winks and nods to film and TV versions of Batman – and also because of how well it suits moods. The tension-inducing rising violin for Joker, the staccato pulse of Bane – it’s a beautiful score that carries the action ever-forward.
As for the voice acting, it is nothing less than top notch. There were many people worried about replacing Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, and their replacements were among those worried. Luckily, Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker lead a voice cast that makes it easy to forget you’re playing a game, and not watching a high-end film. Baker’s Joker is a somewhat approximation of Hamill’s, but with an edgier quality that genuinely sends shivers down the spine as he plays fast and loose with the rules of morality. Smith’s Batman lends a more genuine quality than I’ve heard in years to the character – he’s more relatable, and that makes the emotional moments that much moreso. Voices new and familiar pepper the rest of the supporting cast (don’t want to give too many nods and ruin any fun surprises), and all are expertly acted. Any worry fans had should be dispelled within moments – especially once the Joker comes into play.
Batman: Arkham Origins features multiplayer for the first time, where up to eight players can battle for turf and the control of fear in a unique match-up. Two players (chosen at random on a roulette-style wheel) control Batman and Robin, while the others are divided into two teams of three, a Bane gang and a Joker gang. You’re controlling elites, so you’re stronger than rank-and-file thugs, and once you’ve surpassed a certain level of kills and control points, you can unlock control of Bane or Joker themselves, complete with a gun that gives a couple of one-hit kills. Batman and Robin, meanwhile, seek to stop both gangs, stalking them from the shadows and using predator techniques. The multiplayer mode isn’t without its fun moments, but seems to be a bit of a mess. You don’t feel as much like Batman in this mode, and that’s the whole purpose of the game. Most players will likely skip this, at least after playing for the requisite trophies or achievements.
Luckily, there are so many side missions and collectibles in the main campaign of the game, as well as copious unlockable (and in the future, downloadable) costumes, playing the campaign after beating the main story remains a blast. Challenge rooms also offer a chance to prove your skills, and of course give you the opportunity to suit up as Deathstroke, bringing the total playable super-characters to five.
If you enjoyed the first two “Arkham” games, Batman: Arkham Origins is quite simply a must-play. Forget the naysayers worried about leaving Rocksteady, Conroy, Hamill, and Dini behind; Warner Bros Montreal and the team they assembled proved more than ready to take on the mantle of the Bat (for our comic book fans, they’re more Dick Grayson after Final Crisis than Jean-Paul Valley after Knightfall, we promise). The game has its bumps and bruises, most of which are carried over from prior entries, but the engaging, twisty story, passionate, twisted performances, and boss battles that make you feel like you’ve conquered the world vastly outweigh those mild frustrations.
Warner Bros Montreal wanted to show gamers what it was like to become Batman, and they delivered.
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Batman: Arkham Origins is available now on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and WiiU - WiiU edition does not have multiplayer