FEATURE: "Batman: Arkham Origins" Review

An exciting retelling of the Dark Knight's early years... when it actually wants to work

When a video game sequel comes out, it can usually be summed up in one of two ways: either it completely outshines its predecessor by improving on every aspect, or it's "more of the same" with a fresh coat of paint. Batman: Arkham Origins clearly falls into the latter camp, "simply" doubling the size of Arkham City's massive open world, tightening up the combat, and unleashing a young, untested Batman on a city that still thinks he's just an urban legend.

 

That isn't a strike against it at all--Batman: Arkham City was a damn good game, one I replayed several times and whose challenge maps I practically lived off of, so a bigger world and more story are a welcome thing, especially when the gameplay was so spot-on the last time around. Set five years before Batman: Arkham Asylum, Origins is kind of a misleading title--it's not about the origins of anything Arkham-related, but a story set early in Batman's career, and a retelling of his first encounters with some of his most iconic villains.

 

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On a Christmas Eve two years after Bruce Wayne's return to Gotham City, Arkham Origins starts with crime boss Black Mask putting a $50 million bounty on Batman's head. As if having a whole city's worth of thugs and a corrupt police force on his back isn't bad enough, Batman also has to contend with eight of the world's deadliest assassins... well, four of the world's deadliest assassins, and four other jackoffs who want to try their luck at the bounty. It all amounts to a very violent Batman Christmas Special, complete with heartwarming moments of family bonding.

 

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Even as a die-hard comics fan, I'm pretty flexible about retelling origin stories, which is what Arkham Origins does, shedding some light on Batman's early history in what's known as the Arkhamverse. Liberally borrowing from great Batman stories like Year One, The Long Halloween, Turning Points, and Knightfall, the story of Arkham Origins is one of its strongest points, keeping the action moving fast and the tension high while developing Batman's relationships with Alfred and then-Captain Gordon.

 

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It's in the little details that Origins excels. This younger, rougher Batman isn't the cool, collected and experienced crimefighter from Asylum and City--he jumps head-first into the action, solving problems with his fists first and believing he's invincible. His moves are meaner and more straightforward, criminals refer to him as "the Bat Man" or "the Bat" to reinforce his mythic status, and Batman's overwhelming pride and arrogance drive a lot of the story's direction. Roger Craig Smith does a great job filling in for Kevin Conroy, although I have to admit it takes a little getting-used-to having Ezio Auditore/Chris Redfield/Sonic the freaking Hedgehog as Batman.

 

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As this is a more physical Batman, the game's challenges feel more physical as well, slightly tweaking the Freeflow Combat system to require more skill from players. While you still get the full range of attacks and quickfire gadgets, you can't counter out of attacks as quickly as you could in Arkham City, forcing you to play a bit smarter and plan out your attack. Stealth is also tightened up, giving you greater variety in the ways that you can terrorize Gotham's goons from the shadows. Takedowns are now available from inside vents, on tightropes, and while hanging on ledges, and each "Predator segment" sets itself apart with room designs that call for evolving strategies instead of by-the-numbers enemy disposal. Your combat and stealth play are rated immediately, granting extra experienced based on how well you handled a particular challenge. I find this kind of cool, since I love the Arkham challenge maps, but gamers who aren't as good at the fighting or stealth and are just here for the story probably won't appreciate constantly being handed Cs and Ds, and thus not leveling up as quickly.

 

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The open world of Gotham City is literally Arkham City's map, with a whole new section added on and connected by the huge Gotham Pioneers Bridge. In addition to story missions and collectibles, you'll occasionally catch "Crime in Progress" transmissions, random encounters that can be as simple as four hoods jacking an ATM machine, or as lethal as twenty armed gang members cornering a pair of cops. While the Crime in Progress encounters break up the monotony of gliding around Gotham (and fast travel is unlockable), it can get frustrating having to drop whatever you're doing just to run over and handle another random event. Then again, there are eight currently-running Batman-centric comics, and seven spin-off or guest-star titles, so I guess this is a way of explaining how Batman gets so much done in one month.

 

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Along with the Crime in Progress events, the "Most Wanted" side missions pit you against villains like The Penguin and Mad Hatter, and open up confrontations with some of Black Mask's stronger assassins. A nice addition is the Remember Me-esque murder investigations, which have you reconstruct a crime scene, watch closely for details, then find and arrest beat the crap out of the culprit. On paper, it sounds kinda cool, but they're pretty linear and really just boil down to "look for the red arrow and scan," with very little actual deduction involved.

 

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Those of you who've played Arkham City probably remember the Mr. Freeze boss fight--it was a real highlight of the game that required skill, strategy, and variety, as you couldn't use the same attack twice. While Origins has a few standard "mob" encounters where you fight a small army, all of the game's setpiece battles--particularly the fights with Black Mask's eight hired assassins--require a mastery of Freeflow Combat, gadget use, and pinpoint countering ability, while others require highly-mobile stealth and forethought. Batman is no longer the baddest fighter in town, and even players who have been there from the beginning have to add to their fighting skills to defeat the new standard enemy types, as well as enemies like Deathstroke and Shiva, who don't exactly go down with one punch.

 

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After seeing single-player-centric games like Tomb Raider and The Last of Us drop the ball with tacked-on multiplayer modes, I was surprised to see Arkham Origins come up with something a little more interesting for its multiplayer component. One team of two (Batman and Robin) takes on two teams of three (Joker's goons and Bane's mercenaries) in a fight to the finish over control points, similar to Splinter Cell's "Spies vs. Mercs" multiplayer. Goons play a third-person shooter and try to take over control points while killing heroes and opposing goons (occasionally getting game-changing chances to play as Bane or Joker), while the heroes try to stealthily take out goons. I wish I could tell you more than what it says on the box, but I haven't yet been able to finish a game. I got my review copy of Origins on launch day, last Friday, and you'd think a lot of people would be online trying this out--unfortunately, you need eight players to get a match started, and I've had wait times of more than thirty minutes before a match starts. Connections also constantly drop out, and the sometimes unbearable lag makes being stealthy (or alternatively, playing a shooter) a ridiculous chore.

 

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With all that it does right, Arkham Origins really drops the ball when it comes to being a functional game. Part of what's taken this review so long was a game-breaking glitch halfway into the story where my file would load, and then Batman would immediately start falling through the floor forever and ever, forcing me to delete my file and restart from the beginning. Other glitches include massive slowdown during routine activities like autosaving or gliding from one place to another, enemies flying offscreen at Mach 2 whenever they get hit by something, objective markers not showing up on the map, completed objectives not being triggered in-game (i.e. "Destroy one more canister" when you've already destroyed the last canister), invisible obstacles and walls hindering progress in open areas, enemies getting stuck in level geometry (or falling through the floor themselves), and some really funky hit detection, like enemies throwing a punch animation from across a room... and hitting you with it. Thankfully, the company is fully aware of these problems that are spread out across all platforms (PC, PS3, 360, and Wii U), and are working on a fix.

 

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This is also just a personal gripe, but I think some of the new gadgets really push the game into "easy mode" territory. The Remote Claw is sadistic fun, letting you string up guards from across the room or launch projectiles (or other guards) at enemies, but it takes a lot of the tension out of stealth segments. The Shock Gloves add some new possibilities to the melee combat, letting you counter (or blow right through) enemies with shields and cattle prods, but again, it completely removes every semblance of strategy and skill from the fight sequences. Less-experienced players will find these items to be a boon, but thankfully they're both optional, and feel less overpowered when used sparingly.

 

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Batman: Arkham Origins is an excellent game... when it works. It gives a fresh take on Batman's early years and his Rogues Gallery, with updated combat and stealth mechanics, along with a much bigger world to play in with plenty to do. While its multiplayer is a cool idea, more often than not it's painfully unreliable. Questionably-balanced items and terrible quality control show the cracks in what should have been a by-the-numbers follow-up. I'm really looking forward to that patch--I know I'll be enjoying this game much more once it's out.

 

REVIEW ROUNDUP

+ Feels like a world-expanding add-on to Arkham City, which is not a bad thing at all

+ Fine-tuned combat and stealth adds new enemy types and forces you to learn new tactics

+ Smartly-designed boss fights test every aspect of gameplay, even while most lean toward straight combat

+ Huge open world gives you a lot to do, with sidequests that rarely (if ever) feel like busywork

+/- New gadgets can lighten the load for less-skilled players, while making the game too easy for others

- Even though it's a cool idea, multiplayer is laggy and unreliable, with really long wait times for matches

- Right now, the game is riddled with bugs, glitches, and slowdown that really pull you out of the experience

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