Batman is a role that has been defined by many. In Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Batman: The Animated Series actor Kevin Conroy reprised his role and brought the iconic 90s era Dark Knight to the modern day.
For Arkham Origins, a prequel set prior to the events of the previous two games, Roger Craig Smith replaces Conroy, and while Smith's performance is perfectly fine, it has no real soul of its own; it's merely a competent imitation of Conroy with some Christian Bale rasp sprinkled on top.
That spirit of efficient recreation is reflected in the entire game, as Arkham Origins imitates what's best about the series without adding much of anything memorable.
As in Arkham City, Origins follows Batman into a transformed Gotham City. Now the sprawling burg is buried in snow on Christmas Eve. The nasty weather is a good excuse for the noticeable lack of civilians, and creates an open playground for the many gangs and colourful characters Batman will face at this early stage in his career. It also makes for a massive sandbox, but it ends up feeling more empty than immense. Fortunately the holiday decorations strewn all over Gotham's different districts add some ironically festive spirit to the adventure.
As the game opens, Batman has spent two years battling Gotham's many gangs, criminal empires, and corrupt police officers, and that's pushed crime boss Black Mask far enough to offer a $50 million bounty for the vigilante's life. The reward pulls in eight elite assassins from all over the world to pursue the Caped Crusader throughout Christmas Eve, but the plot is thankfully not as predictable as beating all eight in a row and then watching the credits roll.
Yes, Batman will battle the assassins throughout the night, but lurking in the corners is The Joker, a man who's wreaking havoc for the first time ever in Gotham City. Seeing the initial encounters between Batman and The Joker adds some needed weight to Origins, with Mr. J becoming an unpredictable story element that's continually upping the threat the city is under. It also helps that Joker's new voice actor, Troy Baker, gives the role the extra gusto it needs.
Arkham Origins' collection of assassins range from iconic comic villains like Bane and Deathstroke to C-listers like Firefly and Electrocutioner. Most are given one exciting moment or boss encounter that's fitting for the Arkham series, and they never appear exactly how you anticipate. However, the majority of the battles are lesser reflections of moments from previous Arkham entries instead of finding something really novel to do with its cast.
The shadow of Rocksteady's Bat looms over everything in Origins. While having a good time beating up The Penguin's thugs, you'll have the sense you had more fun doing the same thing in Arkham City. Origins' narrative has moments that diverge brilliantly from the campaign, but then you'll recall similar, better executed scenes from previous entries in franchise. And those are when the game is at its best.
Soon the feeling sets in that the developers included these elements because they were in the previous games, not out of any creative goal of their own. They're simply going down a checklist of what people expect from an Arkham game. At least Origins checks those boxes with technical expertise.
"The shadow of The Bat looms over everything in Origins... you'll sense you had more fun in Arkham City."
The devs certainly made sure to check the box marked "side quests" because there's enough ancillary content to fill the Batcave. In addition to the hundreds of baubles that The Riddler has (as anticipated) hidden all over the metropolis, the town is littered with corpses to investigate, weapons to confiscate, and hidden symbols to identify. There's so much to do that your enthusiasm for the quests will run out before the content does.
The secondary missions are at their strongest when Batman is chasing the trail of an assassin across Gotham, but once those end - often with a satisfying, if unspectacular climax - what's left gets pretty bland. Most non-Riddler missions throw Bats at a group of thugs that he must pound into unconsciousness before he can claim his prize. The trademark free flowing combat is still some of the best out there, but it loses some of its charm after the 700th cracked skull.
The combat is also where new developer, Warner Bros. Montreal, tries its best to add something to the series. Batman begins the game with most of his gadgets from the previous games, and throughout the campaign adds new items to his collection, like concussion bombs and electric gauntlets, which do so much extra damage in battle that they border on game-breaking. These add new options to combat, but the additions are mainly cosmetic, like replacing ice grenades with glue grenades.
Beyond combat are the Predator sections, which is normally home to the series' most intricate, most clever designs, and see some of the best improvements Origins has to offer. These stealthy areas continue to be engrossing logic puzzles (with machineguns for added flavour), and the new gadgets have better, far more subtler uses here. It's still very satisfying to find six different ways to catch six different thugs, and the new accessories really open up the options.
Your choices in the field continue to expand when incorporating the RPG-style leveling system. As before, Batman gains experience with every solved crime or broken bone, which in turn translates to points which can be spent on upgrades. The new abilities are on a branching path that give you a helpful sense of choice, like you're creating your own unique Batman for your campaign.
As your Batman grows, the Challenge maps remain a great place to test your skills as well as unlock many of the game's different costumes and other trinkets. The maps are a diverting place to test your skills on a global leaderboard, and have been further enhanced to work as a testing ground for newer players. Like the practice rooms in Street Fighter IV, some sections are part tutorial and part score chase, making for an enjoyable way to expand your experience.
In the past those challenges worked as replacements for online multiplayer, but now they exist in addition to Arkham's first ever multiplayer mode. At its base, Origins' online section transforms the series into a third person shooter, putting three players each on opposing sides of a gang war. Giving Arkham serviceable gunplay threatens to turn something uncommon into a mundane, cover-based shooter, but the level and character design remain true to the franchise.
Of course, what really makes the action different is that Batman and Robin are stalking the shadows throughout the battle. While everyone else is shooting, Batman and Robin play as they do in solo gameplay, meaning bullets will make short work of them. The three sided battle between Batman and the thugs keeps things unpredictable, as the two vigilantes need to use their silent predator skills to invisibly take down members of both teams. At the best of times it's a bit like Gears of War if Batman was hiding behind every wall.
The Batman and Robin players are chosen at random from the party at the start of each stage, but those left without a cape shouldn't get too annoyed. You may be stuck as an all-too-killable goon for Bane or The Joker, but once a match one side will be able to add its gang leader to the map for a limited time. Joker and Bane work as extra powerful characters that, when used wisely, can even take down Batman in one shot.
"Ultimately the online action falls in line with the rest of Arkham Origins' safe-but-familiar style"
The multiplayer's biggest issue is balance. Both teams are evenly matched, plus Bane and Joker have their own special skills, but Batman and Robin take more finesse than some players will be ready for. In our time online, we never saw the dynamic duo win a match, but proper teamwork skills might make the difference there. Then again, without Batman running around, the multiplayer is a fairly perfunctory approach to third person shooting.
Ultimately the online action falls in line with the rest of Arkham Origins' safe-but-familiar style. It's all been done before, but like the character of Batman, the game is still entertaining even when he isn't at his best. And like Roger Craig Smith's gravely Batman rasp, it's basically what you expected and not much else.
Arkham Origins left us wishing the game had followed in the example set by Troy Baker's Joker. Baker's performance follows in the footsteps of previous incarnations, but finds a fresh approach for the icon. Instead, it satisfies, but leaves us hoping for the originators to return, be they Kevin Conroy or developer Rocksteady.
Batman still owns the night, but he's lacking the edge that made his previous games so unforgettable.
- Being Batman is still as fun as you remember
- Tons to do in a frozen Gotham City
- The too-infrequent flashes of brilliance
- Plays it way too safe
- Online mode not all that compelling