Well, Batman: Arkham Origins is pretty much exactly what I expected…actually, no, it’s worse than I expected. This is quite obviously a cash in game to tide us over until Rocksteady release a new Arkham game of their own, and it looks like WB Games are going to be going the annual release path with this series, with two studios working on games at the same time, as Activision do with Call of Duty and Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed. The difference is that with those examples both teams are of roughly equal competence, but Arkham Origins fails to even come close to the quality of Arkham Asylum or Arkham City. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the odd flash of the old magic, but it’s buried under a pile of inadequacies. The least I hoped for was an uninnovative game that simply offered more of Arkham City; instead we got a game that’s significantly worse.
Arkham Origins isn’t Batman’s origin per-se, as it takes place around two years into his career, but it does show Batman’s first meeting with some classic supporting characters, such as James and Barbara Gordon and, most importantly, the Joker. Black Mask has orchestrated a break out at Blackgate Prison and put a $50million bounty on Batman’s head, and so eight of the world’s deadliest assassins descend on Gotham to claim it. There’s more going on than it seems, and Batman is drawn into the labyrinthine Gotham underworld to find the real story behind the bounty.
Arkham Origins’ plot is probably its biggest asset, and by not simply retelling the tired old origin story it ends up being genuinely surprising. This may not be the start of Bruce Wayne’s costumed hero career, but it’s probably the beginning of him being Batman. You get the feeling that before Arkham Origins, he was just an unhinged nutcase beating criminals half to death, but that the events of this game, and the new threat of the Joker, forge him into something better. Not all of the assassins are well handled; Electrocutioner and Firefly are just plain dumb, and Deathstroke (one of my personal favourite villains) was terrible underutilised. The star is, once again, the Joker, proving that even without Mark Hamill the character can still steal any show.
By and large, the gameplay is unchanged from Arkham City but slightly worse. It’s the little things that make Arkham Origins so disappointing. The combat, which in previous games put other similar games, such as Assassin’s Creed, to shame, is much less satisfying here. That free flowing movement which was so fun in the previous games never seems to quite work out here; it’s not an issue of making it more challenging, it’s just more frustrating. The previous games had a strong Metroidvania influence, which incentivised exploring and returning to previous areas. I very rarely bother to 100% games any more, I just don’t have the time, but I did so with Arkham City. I felt absolutely no impulse to do so here, with the collectibles and trinkets usually hidden in plain sight, reducing them to simple busywork. The only real gameplay addition are the new crime scene investigations, but it’s incredibly basic with precisely no player thought involved. They look cool, but it’s really only skin deep.
However, the biggest shortcoming in this game is Gotham City. It’s a blizzard, and so everyone is inside, leaving the streets…well, exactly the same as Arkham City. It made sense in that game, but the idea that the supposedly populated Gotham City can be so deserted is ludicrous. Yahtzee said in his review that the overworld failed because he couldn’t tell whether the areas were simply taken from Arkham City or were new, so either way the world design must be dull. It’s a good point, but I’d actually say it’s worse than that. I could tell the difference between the Arkham City stuff and the new stuff because the Arkham City stuff looked interesting. I finished this game less than a week ago and I’m hard pressed to remember a single part of the new areas. I loved zipping and gliding around Arkham City, but it was always a chore in Arkham Origins. There are all sorts of clumsily placed walls to Batman’s movement, I suppose to clumsily mask load times, but it only contributed to the dull, inorganic feeling that Gotham has in this game.
Arkham Origins runs poorly, with frequent graphical irritation. I’ve heard that the PS3 and 360 versions are filled with game breaking bugs, but not the Wii U version that I played, but even that is a poorly running mess. How is this game running worse than Arkham City, a game that came out two years ago? There are some cool looking set pieces, particularly one on Gotham Bridge, and the character designs are excellent, but they’re only occasions of brief respite from the mediocrity. Thankfully the voice acting is superb, and Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker admirably live up to the seemingly irreplaceable Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively. The overheard dialogue between the grunts is still as amusing and fun as ever.
A strong story and voice cast can’t save this mess of a game however. I expected more of the same, a Fallout: New Vegas to my Fallout 3, but instead we get a massive step backwards. Don’t get me wrong, Rocksteady can certainly save this series, and a post-credits tease suggests an amazing spin-off, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any Batman games made by anyone else for a while.