Origin stories and comic books go hand-in-hand. It seems that once every couple of years, a writer/artist team will go back and tell, or in most cases, re-tell the heroes’ story from the beginning. It works in comic books, as it helps to bring new readers into the fold, but also works to update the origin to fit the modern times. The Bruce Wayne in the comics isn’t 90 years old, which he would be if his original origin were still canon. Origins stories have their place in the comic book world. But do they have a place in the video game world?
In Batman: Arkham Origins, WB Games and developer, Warner Bros. Montreal, take the “Arkham” story to the only place it can go after 2011’s sublime Arkham City, and that is back to the beginning. In the game’s story, Batman has only been around for a few years at this point, and the infamous rogues gallery of villains is still on the fringe. It’s Christmas Eve in the dirty, corrupt city of Gotham, and Roman Sionis, the criminal mastermind known as Black Mask, has put a $50 million bounty on the vigilante known as the Bat Man. The bounty attracts eight of the best, most ruthless killers and bounty hunters in the DCU, including Deathstroke, Deadshot, Copperhead, Shiva, and Bane, and after a mass breakout/riot at Blackgate Prison, which brings Batman out of the cave, the hunt begins.
While the set up should work splendidly, Arkham Origins throws the concept away early by taking Black Mask out of the equation and turning the game into yet another Batman versus Joker story. At least it’s the first Joker story — for this canon. As the bounty storyline fizzles about a third of the way through the 10 to 12-hour solo story, Origins begins to stumble as a game. Instead of trying to bring us something new–as in the set up — it rehashes past concepts.
Gotham City, for some reason, is overrun with criminals on every street. Criminals and corrupt cops; sometimes both; sometimes even working together. At least in Arkham City, there was a set up — a precedence — for the criminals running the streets. This is the origin story for all of this world, and no matter how corrupt Police Commissioner Loeb and his men are, if crime was this rampant, the National Guard would be called in and martial law would be instigated. Even for a video game based off a comic book about a guy who dresses as a bat to fight crime, this is ludicrous.
Late in the second act, there is a strange episode where both Batman and the Joker have active cinematics (cinema scenes that the player controls) where they lament about each other — even though they’ve faced off just once at this point — and the whole thing comes off uncomfortable, as if the Joker is in love with Batman, and vice versa. This does give us an opportunity to see the Joker’s origin — using the basis story from Alan Moore’s 1988 masterpiece, The Killing Joke, as its source.
And not to spoil anything, but once the bounty storyline is abandoned, so is the anticipation of tangling with the eight bounty hunters. I never even saw Deadshot. Once the Joker takes over as the main baddie, the whole game concept falls apart.
The play control is similar to the previous games. Batman has detective mode, which allows him to see doors and hidden items and the heat signatures of the bad guys. And unlike 2009’s Arkham Asylum, you don’t spend the majority of the game in this mode. Batman also has the usual collection of tools and gadgets, most of which can be upgraded throughout the story. This is where the Arkham games resemble a game like Metroid. The problem with Origins is that if Batman has these gadgets at the beginning, why doesn’t he have them years later during Arkham Asylum and Arkham City? Other games in this Metroidvania genre usually have a good, in-game explanation for this. Here, I guess Batman suffers from acute selective game-to-game amnesia (ASGTGA).
The rehashing is bad enough, but WB Montreal has trouble executing some the things they’ve rehashed. Combat, for example, was fluid and smooth and enjoyable in previous games, but here, the punching and constant counters turns into button mashing and hoping. Whereas in previous games, I felt like I was in control of Batman, here I’m just kind of hitting the attack button and praying it connects. Singling out one guy is very difficult, and when WB Montreal throws guys with blades — which require a special combination for takedown — guys with blast shields, guys with guns and a giant or two, all at the same time, combat becomes an episode of extreme frustration. It shouldn’t take Batman punching a common street thug six times and then using a take down move to take him out.
This is none more evident than in the “boss” battle with Deathstroke. Slade Wilson is, by far, one of the most dangerous men in all of the DCU. Origins makes him the second boss fight (after a comical showdown with a bounty hunter called The Electrocutioner), which comes about two hours into the game, and then they make the fight a quick time event, that requires precise counters and precise punching. Seeing as button mashing is required in every other combat encounter, the change is jarring, and this was the most difficult fight in the entire game. Two hours into it, I almost quit and walked away. Uneven combat, and repetition is definitely the theme.
Even with these problems, Origins does have a few things going for it. It looks amazing, keeping the same art direction from previous games, and save for a few frame rate stutters late in the game (I played this on the PS3, and WB Games has admitted to issues and are working on a patch), the game runs smooth.
As in the previous games, there are a ton of things to collect and side missions to pull off. The mysterious man known as Enigma has left extortion documents all over the city and is threatening to expose high-ranking officials on Christmas day. Batman is tasked with collecting them all before he does. Barbara Gordon asks Batman to find and disable The Penguin’s weapons caches all over the city, and Black Mask has canisters of toxin that need to be disposed of. There are also “Dark Knight Challenges” for batman to accomplish, and dossiers of the rogue’s gallery, that includes Batman stalwarts like The Penguin, Killer Croc, Mad Hatter, and the aforementioned Enigma, who will soon be called The Riddler. Each of Gotham City’s sectors has plenty of stuff to collect or disable. And the sporadic police band radio report gives Batman a chance to stop crime as it’s happening, even if that combat will be button-mashingly frustrating.
There are multiple game modes, which includes a New Game + that opens up after the story is completed and makes the game that much more difficult. Another mode is called I am the Night.
For some reason, WB Games has once again included online multiplayer in the package. Now, I love multiplayer. Team based or squad based combat is awesome, but in a game and universe that is focused on the war of one man versus an army of evil-doers, team-based multiplayer doesn’t make sense. And having Joker’s Army fight Bane’s army for the sake of getting players to play together online is dumb. There. I said it. WB Games outsourced the online multiplayer to developer, Splash Damage. Those resources could have been better spent solidifying a worthy single-player campaign instead of a forced multiplayer mode.
Even with its problems and issues with the story and combat, and inability to bring anything fresh to the table, Batman: Arkham Origins is still a decent game to play. There is a dearth of great comic book based games, and these Arkham games are the absolute pinnacle of the genre. I can forgive a misstep in a game like this, as long we know that another game — post Arkham City — is in development. Even the Star Wars saga had ewoks and a whiny Anakin Skywalker. Twice.
When it’s all said and done, fans of the series will enjoy Batman: Arkham Origins. It stays within the world of the previous Arkham games, and this game — while forcing it more often than not — does have the first meetings of Batman and Joker, Batman and Gordon, and there is even a tense philosophical confrontation between Bruce and Alfred, a confrontation that could only have happened early on in the crusade to rid Gotham of crime. As an origin tale, this is where the game truly succeeds.
Batman: Arkham Origins was reviewed using a PS3 copy purchased at retail. It was released October 25, 2013, and is also available for Xbox 360 and PC.