Arkham Origins: Birth of the Bat
Arkham Origins, WB Montreal’s prequel to Rocksteady’s critically acclaimed Batman franchise, is a game that is brilliant in fits and starts, with a grittier, more mature incarnation of the Caped Crusader than previous entries have shown us. Here, we see Batman two years into his career as a vigilante, his lack of experience counterbalanced by impulsiveness and anger he has not yet learned to control.
"I Shall Become a Bat"
In the words of his beleaguered butler Alfred, this Dark Knight is little more than “a young man with a trust fund and too much anger.” Much of the fascination of the game’s story comes from watching the birth of the Dark Knight mythos, as Batman has memorable first encounters with friends and foes alike. Along with the familiar (and not always friendly) faces, WB Montreal have given nods to villains that will be unknown to all but the most diehard comic fans. The premise of Origins is a fascinating one, as eight assassins compete for a fifty million dollar bounty placed on the Batman’s head, courtesy of crime lord Roman Sionis (alias Black Mask). Though this plotline moves (and at times meanders) in unexpected directions, it maintains its grip on the player throughout, as we see Batman confronted with his first real baptism by fire. Taking place over the course of one Christmas eve, this trial is one which will test Batman’s true mettle as the self-appointed protector of Gotham City.
Batman reminds Alfred what it means to wear the cowl
Unfortunately, the dissonance between Arkham Origins gameplay and its story is where the game stumbles, robbing the narrative to some degree of its emotional impact. While we are expected to believe that this is a Dark Knight facing a threat that (as Alfred constantly reminds him) he has gravely underestimated, there is never the sense that we as Batman are in any real danger. This problem is compounded as the game equips the player with Batman’s familiar arsenal of gadgets and formidable hand-to-hand combat skills from the outset, allowing you to knock wave after wave of thugs aside like so many ragdolls.
"Much of the fascination of the game’s story comes from watching the birth of the Dark Knight mythos, as Batman has memorable first encounters with friends and foes alike"
Though new upgrades are unlocked at specific points throughout the game, Origins leveling up system ultimately feels too generous, letting you constantly upgrade Batman’s arsenal even when you’ve done little to earn the reward. Despite the surplus of “a-ha!” moments as Batman meets iconic characters for the first time, the game never gives players the sense that they are witnessing, or more importantly, influencing, his evolution as a character. This crucial element would have given Arkham Origins the critical push that elevates a merely decent game to a great one.
Feels Like I've Been Here Before
Unfortunately, the disparity between story and gameplay elements are not where Arkham Origins troubles end. One of the most distinguishing traits of the game is its inescapable sense of déjà vu. In terms of gameplay, Origins hews extremely close to its predecessors, with very little innovation with regard to combat, or even the look and feel of Gotham City itself. In some respects, WB Montreal’s decision not to tamper with Rocksteady’s tried-and-true formula was a good one, as the combat system remains as fluid and dynamic as ever. In the graceful ballet of hand-to-hand combat, you will truly feel like Batman.
Bigger Is Not Always Better
With regard to the design of Gotham itself, however, Arkham Origins runs into more serious trouble. Although Gotham is now a much larger and more accessible playground than it was in Arkham City, it somehow manages to feel distractingly claustrophobic and filled with dead space. Though there are easter eggs scattered throughout the game, they pale in comparison to the small touches of fan service that brought Arkham Asylum and its sequel to life. You will not encounter anything on the scale, for instance, of Calendar Man intoning his ominous prophecies in his cell, or an imprisoned Clayface shape-shifting behind your back. There is nothing about this version of Gotham that feels vibrant or lived-in in any real way, and it sorely lacks the charm and mystique of a setting like Arkham Island, where players were invited to scour every nook and cranny for whatever secrets might be found. The game also makes the grave mistake of opening up the entire city to you from the get-go. As a result, it loses the thrill that comes from unlocking new parts of Gotham as you progress through the game. Despite its shallowness and depressingly empty vibe, the city is at least superficially beautiful, with the trademark gothic architecture and snowy weather-effects offering a nice atmospheric touch.
Origin's Gotham is both beautiful and lifeless
Despite these shortcomings, there are moments in Arkham Origins where the game truly comes into its own. Batman’s first encounters with his arch-nemesis the Joker are especially well-handled, aided by Troy Baker’s phenomenal voice work as the Clown Prince of Crime. The Joker is the Yin to Batman's Yang, the Moriarty to his Holmes. The incredible love-hate dynamic between Batman and his archrival is one that the writers clearly understand. As the Joker, Baker offers an eerily accurate impersonation of Mark Hamill, who voiced the character in the first two games, and whose long-running voice work as the Joker on Batman: the Animated Series re-defined the character in the ‘90s. Roger Craig Smith delivers an equally solid turn as Batman, capturing the grim self-seriousness, inner pain, and anger of the brooding anti-hero that were not as present in the first Arkham games. Though mainstays of the series like Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Hamill have moved on, their replacements have proven more than capable of stepping in to their predecessors' shoes.
Troy Baker's voicework as the Joker is a particular standout
The game’s script also benefits by heavy-lifting some of the most famous Batman comics, like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which delves into the shadowy origins of the Joker himself. In a shocking (and all-too brief) segment midway through the game, players will get much more up close and personal with the Joker than they might have expected. Unfortunately, such flashes of genius are few and far between. For the most part, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, while undeniably entertaining and engrossing, Arkham Origins is a largely by-the-numbers affair, one that does very little to expand or push the series forward in any meaningful way.
The fact that this is a prequel rather than the full-fledged successor to Arkham City admittedly gives the game something of a free pass. That said, it would have been refreshing to see some innovation aside from overpowered shock gloves, or the fact that you can now rewind and fast forward crime scenes (an admittedly cool touch, albeit gimmicky and without much purpose aside from how neat it looks). The overly simplistic detective segments featured in the previous titles have also unfortunately carried over to Origins. As the World's Greatest Detective, it would have been gratifying to see this crucial aspect of any Batman game treated with a bit more loving care, with puzzles that actually require some use of intuition and logic, rather than the mere press of a button to "scan the crime scene". The Arkham series has excelled at putting players into Batman's role as a vengeful agent of justice, striking terror into Gotham's criminal underworld. Hopefully future installments will make them feel more like crime-solvers as well.
How Does the Jury Find?
When all has been said and done, Batman: Arkham Origins is a game that, unlike its hero, is hampered by a fear of taking risks. With Origins, WB Montreal have been reverent to a fault, replicating the basic formula that made its predecessors so successful, while sacrificing some of their charm and originality in the process. Yet in its finest moments, Origins weaves a gripping yarn as powerful and immersive as any of the greatest Batman story arcs. Moments like Batman’s intense altercation with Alfred, or his mid-air fisticuffs with the Joker, elevate Arkham Origins to something more than an exhausted re-tread of two brilliant games. While the official third entry in the series will have to offer something far more revolutionary to keep the franchise afloat, Arkham Origins can stand as a decent game in its own right, and should be more than enough to tide fans over until that more groundbreaking sequel arrives.