On Christmas Eve, set some years before the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, a younger Batman has a $50-million bounty placed on his head by the Gotham crime lord Black Mask. This price tag brings a host of the DC universe’s most notable assassins to town to try and bring the gadget-slinging billionaire down. The flimsy plot setup, creating a checklist of boss battles to tick your way through as the caped crusader, falls aside quickly when you discover that Origins is not that story. In a riskier turn Origins is attempting to retell the first meeting of Bats and his arch-enemy, the Joker.
Wait, what? Yes, this is another Batman game with the clown prince of crime as the main antagonist, but what were you expecting? How can you have a Batman game without his grinning psychopathic counterpart? And if you are going to have Joker in the mix, how do you NOT make him the central figure?
The gameplay? Oh, it is note for note exactly every other game in the Arkham series. Batman grapnels his way across Gotham, entering a double handful of buildings when the plot demands you encounter a named adversary. You toss Batarangs, spray Bat-spolsive gel and whip concussive Bat-grenades at circling gangs of foes as you make your way to each subsections supervillainous boss battle. While some of these fights, like the early kung fu slap fight with super soldier Deathstroke, are merely extended combat encounters, things do get more interesting. You silently stalk the minions of hitman Deadshot and have a gadget tossing exchange with the battle-suited pyromaniac Firefly atop Gotham’s Pioneer Bridge in two of the more interesting encounters. The cinematic battles do a fine job of emphasizing the rich character of Batman’s gallery of foes and these meetings carrot you along through an otherwise inconsistently tuned game.
Bruce Wayne’s combat regimen is nearly identical to earlier outings. You attempt to string unbroken combo strings together among whichever clutch of galoots you’re pounding on to unlock more devastating martial arts tricks. You augment your vicious flurry of elbow strikes with your belt of wonderful toys and earn experience based on the difficulty of the fight and your panache at curb-stomping. His stealth takedowns and silent predator encounters are also largely unchanged. You swing from indoor gargoyle (seriously!?) to indoor gargoyle, hiding from incompetent guards who still don’t have the sense to look up, check an air vent or not stand with their back to a darkened doorway.
Batman’s legendary detective skills do receive a bit of an upgrade with his new (old?) crime analysis skills. But this pause-and-rewind reconstruction of crime scenes is little more than a 3D clue hunt. While tedious, it does inject some dimension to the character and puts a bit of the investigation into the plot.
Oddly enough, it is the plot where Origins shines. Taken point by point, Origins seems a lazy mess. It’s the Joker, again. There’s a punch list of superfoes to fight, again. You have a city to “explore,” but it is little more than a trail for the bloody breadcrumbs of psychopathic violence. Yet, the Joker is fresh again, an unknown operating on a murderous scale above all the rest. The background tension of a Batman hunted by enemies and the police alike frame the chase well, and the snowy Christmas night set the tone at exactly the correct tenor of calm before the peril. Origins made some bold choices in to it’s benefit but it carries too much of it’s forerunners mechanics while backsliding on some of their functionality. Batman: Arkham Origins seems like the odd game where it could have done more with less. Restrict this Batman to his wits, fists and fewer tricks and put him up against the same cast of foes and the experience would be richer for it. B+
– Glenn Given
Glenn Given is a writer, designer and game maker. You can find more of his reviews at gamesbyplaydate.com
As seen in the December 19th, 2013 issue of The Hippo