Bruce Wayne has been running around Gotham dressed as a bat for just two years when we encounter him in Batman: Arkham Origins. He’s young, brash, and a tad stubborn. It’s clear through the course of the story that he has some growing pains coming his way as the Caped Crusader; something that can also be said of developer Warner Bros. Montreal with regard to the game itself. While Arkham Origins is a solid addition to the series, some of the studio’s design choices can be found questionable and awkward, like a young man trying to find his way in the world by beating up criminals in a bat suit.
The most prominent of these in the single-player game comes from a few of Batman’s gadgets, and the fact that this prequel to other games in the franchise doesn’t explain them away satisfactorily. If the shock gloves that Bruce acquired in the second half of the game are so devastating – acting as an instant-win button for any brawl – why wouldn’t Bruce have them in Asylum and City? The very same can be said of the remote grapple – an easier way to knock out guards and traverse predator segments – and the glue grenade, which replaces City’s ice grenade. While I can understand the need for improvisation and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, it would have helped matters if the team at Warner Bros. found a reason for Batman to not want them around anymore come the end of the story.
Luckily, as is always the case with the Arkham games, it is indeed the story that makes this and other questionable decisions forgivable. Arkham Origins is far less an origin story for Batman or the Asylum itself and more one for the relationships between The Dark Knight and two of his biggest nemeses: The Joker and Bane. Pulling from classic graphic novels such as “Knightfall” and “The Killing Joke” while putting its own twist on them, WB Montreal weaved a tale perfectly fitting of these characters with several memorable moments that sent chills through my body.
Of these moments, the first came upon Joker’s grand introduction, which couldn’t have been as excellent if not for a tremendous performance by Troy Baker. It was incredible to hear how similar to Mark Hamill he sounded while at the same time making the character just enough his own to be perfect. Put bluntly, he steals every scene he’s in.
The rest of the game’s cast does a commendable job as well. Whether it’s a major role like Bane or a minor appearance such as Mad Hatter, there isn’t a weak performance to be found in the bunch. Even Roger Craig Smith – known to the masses for his work as Ezio Auditore in the Assassin’s Creed franchise – played his newfound role as Batman strongly enough to alleviate all sadness and worries I’d harbored over Kevin Conroy’s departure from the character.
Traversing the streets of Gotham as The Bat, the series’ three returning methods of play cast me in the roles of detective, predator, and brawling expert. The latter two modes played nearly identically to Arkham City, meaning that while there isn’t a ton of innovation, they’re still just as much fun. The new gadgets, continuity issues aside, were addictive additions to Batman’s arsenal. New adversaries in the forms of Venom soldiers and martial artists also kicked up the challenge, while the GCPD offered different faces other than goons for me to worry about while battling in the open world.
In terms of Gotham itself, the chunk of the city accessible to exploration is essentially the same area that everyone got to know and experience in Arkham City, with a few new districts and notable locales from the art-deco metropolis added in. Although returning to several iconic sites from the earlier game was nice – getting to see what it was like before it had been turned into gigantic criminal playground – I was really hoping to see more of Gotham that we hadn’t already been exposed to before. It acted as another reminder that Arkham Origins has borrowed heavily from its predecessors and feels like a game that hasn’t quite come into its own.
One new feature that had a certified Warner Bros. Montreal stamp on it and made me feel even more like The World’s Greatest Detective than ever before was the new crime scene investigation mechanic. Acting as an enhanced feature of detective mode, these segments played out crimes in a futuristic, augmented hologram fashion. While using the bumpers to interact with clues, Batman gave brilliant, insightful analysis of the crime as it played out in front of me. Where Asylum and City lacked this sense of the nearly Sherlock Holmes-level of deduction Batman is famous for, Origins pulled it off in what I personally found to be one of the game’s highlights.
Another of my personal highlights came whenever The Dark Knight was pitted to face off with the game’s numerous bosses. Origins made every battle with the likes of Deathstroke, Killer Croc, and others feel authentic. It’s all due to specifically designed mechanics tailored to each big baddy’s fighting style. In the end, it created a group of intense, frantic encounters that had my palms sweating from the challenge.
When I wasn’t duking it out with members of the Batman rogues gallery, Origins tried to offer me other challenges through its numerous side quests. While varied in style, these optional missions ranged from enticing and exciting (a trip to Jervis Tetch’s drug-induced Wonderland) to mundane (finding weapon caches that the Penquin intends to sell and blowing them up). In a way it isn’t too surprising, as this is the same manner that previous Arkham games have treated their side quests, but I was hoping that Warner Bros. Montreal would have learned from Rocksteady and gone in another direction.
Somewhere that the developer did take the Arkham franchise in a different direction was multiplayer. Considering that no AAA game today seems able to go without a player-versus-player component, it’s not much of a surprise that it finally arrived in the Arkham series with Origins. Unfortunately, the mode never seemed fleshed out enough for me and came off as an incredibly awkward experience that deeply tested my patience.
Two of three teams feature three players, and represent either Joker’s or Bane’s gang. It’s their job to take over control points and eliminate enemy reinforcements; a very popular gametype found in most titles that offer multiplayer. The twist comes when two other players take on the roles of Batman and Robin, who must silently take down the gang members and fill an intimidation meter before the gangs achieve their end goals.
The problem that arises with this mode is that six out of the eight players in these games run and gun in traditional third-person cover shooter action. This is not the gameplay found throughout the entire single-player campaign, and shooting in a Batman game feels out of place. Getting to play as the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder is great, but those moments come few and far between.
To make matters worse, playing a game in Origins’ multiplayer requires eight players to join; no more, no less. Add to this the fact that the game’s matchmaking is snail-race slow and I found myself sitting in lobbies for the better part of a half hour before one person had enough and quit; creating a domino effect that put me right back to square one. Though I was eventually invited into lobbies with other players, this sometimes created a major level gap between my opponents and me that provided for some embarrassing, lop-sided matches.
Despite this pile of negative experience, it was almost made up for by the multiplayer’s deep customization options. I was able to create my own distinct character for each gang with plenty of clothing options, some of which even provided bonuses like damage reduction. When playing as Batman and Robin, I was capable of using any of the suits I had unlocked through campaign play, and I slowly unlocked others as I leveled. It was satisfying to know that the clothes I chose actually benefited my play while in the meantime having a blast dropping in on thugs dressed as Bruce Wayne circa “The Dark Knight Returns.”
To say that Batman: Arkham Origins is a subpar experience within the Arkham franchise is accurate, but also equates to claiming that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” was subpar to “The Dark Knight.” Both are sure to satisfy any Batman fan, but it’s hard to overcome such a strong second act. At the same time, Warner Bros. Montreal – much like the Bruce Wayne it portrays in the game – exudes a relative inexperience while at the same time working to find an identity. Hopefully the studio will turn out just like Bruce by learning from its shortcomings and coming back better than ever before.