Twas the night before Christmas, when all through Gotham City, not a creature was stirring… except for the bat. It’s Christmas Eve in Gotham and, instead of a jolly red suited-man delivering presents to the children, there’s a man dressed as a bat beating the crap out of bad guys.
Warner Entertainment’s Batman: Arkham Origins continues the tradition of Batman games that started with 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and was followed up last year with Batman: Arkham City. Shying away from what must have been an almost unbearable desire to do Batman movie tie-in games, Warner instead took the Batman mythos from the comic book, the gothic Dark Knight detective, and ran with it.
Whilst last year’s Arkham City seemingly concluding the Arkham saga, Batman: Arkham Origins takes us back to the beginning. Despite the title, this is no origin story. What we have here is Batman two years into his career, a little greener and a little rougher around the edges than we found him in the previous games.
The villain known as Black Mask has put a bounty on the Batman, with eight deadly assassin’s vying for the prize. They have just the one night, Christmas Eve, to defeat Gotham’s resident super-hero.
Arkham Origins is packed with Batman’s familiar rogue gallery of foes, most of which he is meeting for the first time. As the relatively new boy in town, on top of having a price on his head and a number of assassin’s eager to collect, the Batman is also attracting the attentions of the city’s villainous nutcases, from the cockney geezer of the Penguin to the Max Hatter himself. With the proto-Riddler, Enigma, and the warped sensibilities of Anarky to deal with you are never stuck without something to do.
And then there’s the Joker.
Whilst the last two games have been handled by UK outfit Rocksteady, development duties for this episode have been passed to Warner’s Montreal based studio. Obviously they are using many of the same assets and the same game engine, as their predecessors.
The game’s main plot follows a very formulaic route, one that is pretty much revealed as soon as you are told about the eight assassins. It’s obvious from the start, one-by-one, you are going to be confronted by these guys.
But, the story is better than I had feared after hearing that veteran Batman writer Paul Dini would not be returning for this instalment. The writing duties this time have been led by the very talented Corey May, who has also worked on the Assassin’s Creed stories.
Pretty early on in the game the brash, youthful Batman meets his match when confronted by the first assassin charged with his disposal. Deathstroke is no grunt, so the mindless button mashing that has worked rather well for me so far was wasted on him.
It was a bit of a WTF moment for me as he brought Batman to his knees. Up until that point I’d been happily kicking arse without a care in the world. Deathstroke’s own counterattack ability repeatedly took me down. It was only after quite a few deaths, almost to the point of frustration, that I realised what I was doing wrong and how to defeat him.
The idea, both from a gameplay and narrative point of view, is that with each boss fight Batman becomes less of a cocky rich boy in a suit and more like the disciplined Dark Knight we are familiar with from the other games. As well as refining his combat skills, Arkham Origins also sees Batman obtain some of the equipment that we put to such good use in the previous games. There are also some new additions, notably the shock gloves, which can stun enemies, especially useful against armoured foes.
With the citizens of Gotham safely out of the way in the safety of their own homes. The streets are only populated by thugs and the wayward officers of the Gotham City Police Department. It is not hard when traversing the rooftops to happen on a group of bad guys or the misguided police – all armed to the teeth, with Batman in their sights.
At this point in the Batman’s career he is very much alone and that is how he likes it. He is hunted as criminal himself by the police and Captain Gordon; his friendship with the soon to be police commissioner still in both their futures.
All the way back to Arkham Asylum, the series’ combat has been superb. And it still is. There are a few extra enemies this time, such as the Bane-like venom users and the counterattacking martial artists, but it is basically the same as before. The game does seem to spam opponents on you, with bad guys coming out of the woodwork as you take down their colleagues. Compared to these rather epic punch-ups during missions taking out the little gangs of bad guys, randomly encountered in the streets, presents virtually no challenge at all.
As well as the direct combat, there are also the more strategic encounters that require the use of Batman’s predator skills. There are some excellent opportunities to use Batman’s stealth abilities; my favourite being the exterior areas full of snipers. With so many enemies with itchy trigger fingers, patience and careful planning is required to isolated and remove the targets. Again, it is nothing that we’ve not seen in previous games, but still really good fun.
Literally everything that you do in the game earns XP, making it worthwhile doing the side missions and taking out any perps that you bump into on the way. XP levels Batman up and every level allows you to unlock new perks and abilities, from armour upgrades to special combos.
One of the great things that I found with the Arkham series of games is the attention given to Batman’s abilities as a detective. Even the recent movies have overlooked this aspect, instead concentrating on the more physical side of the character. For Arkham Origin’s, Batman’s detective skills have been given a bit of a polish. The world greatest detective can now analyse crime scenes and create a detailed reconstruction of events that in turn can be further analysed for clues. The crime reconstruction puzzles are a bit scripted, but present a fun and interactive way of moving the story forwards.
Challenge maps return, as previously, in two flavours- the melee combat maps and the stealthy predator maps. They are unlocked as you progress through the game, with some having been offered as pre-order incentives and store exclusives. Expect some additional DLC challenge maps in the future. They are a great way to hone your batskills or to use as a quick distraction.
This is the first time that we have been able to take Batman into Gotham City itself, the previous games restricting the action to Arkham Island and the segregated prison of Arkham City. A lot of the areas in Arkham Origins will be familiar to players of Arkham City, as much of it is the same place; albeit slightly less run down.
With the expanded city, Warner Entertainment has really put the Goth in Gotham. Batman’s home town is fittingly portrayed as a grim nightmare of a place. Everything about it is foreboding, from the oppressive gothic facades to the tall ornate cells of the police precinct. Gotham City has the tortured architecture of a city gone wrong. It is understandable that such a moribund place would inspire its most fortunate son to become a bat.
Cranking the PC graphics up to the max and switching on the Direct X 11 features I was treated to something that looked pretty close to what I’d have expected from a pre-rendered cut-scene few years ago. The game runs on the Unreal Engine and whilst not exactly next-gen, it is pretty close with nigh-on perfect anti-aliasing. There are some nice graphical touches as well, like the way that pristine snow gets trampled underfoot during combat.
On the subject of nice touches, there are a few nods to the fans. I spotted a theatre poster for Zatanna’s magic show outside the infamous Monash Theatre (where Batman’s parents were gunned down- look for their white silhouettes in Crime Alley). Also It was good to see a fresh-faced young Barbara Gordon showing a spark of interest in Batman that will no doubt lead to her donning the cape as Batgirl, and unfortunately Oracle, in the future.
Whilst I’m sure they will get ironed out in time, I did come across a couple of inexcusable and potentially game-breaking bugs. The first I encountered during the Mad Hatter side-quest. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull myself across the chocolate river on the saucer. It either fell on the ground and not in the river, or when trying to get on it, I’d just fall in.
I was eventually successful, but it was very annoying. The other was when trying to get out of the Burnley Tower, having switched on the relay. It is currently impossible to get out as Batman’s hands sink into the duct opening, stopping entry. They are both silly little things that should have never got passed QA. I suggest you avoid these two sections until a patch is forthcoming.
My biggest criticism of the game is that despite more of that great combat, Arkham Origins plays like Arkham City DLC rather than a new game of its own. Don’t fix what’s not broken? Well OK, but they have effectively sold me the same game three times now. Twice I could excuse, but now I’m left wondering if I’m being played.
But it is still such a great game. It’s like Warner Entertainment has found a winning formula; even so I’d expect them to try a little harder to push the boundaries. I don’t want to sound like a whiny bitch moaning when the game is still great like the last one, but come on, it’s Arkham City all over again.
The real downside is that the familiarity with the game mechanics means that a lot of the puzzles fall a little flat this time. We’ve seen most of the gameplay devices before- like using the grapple to pull rafts through water. It was clever once, but now it’s old. And that’s the problem. By the end of the Arkham City‘s Harley Quinn’s Revenge DLC I’d had my fill of the game. It was like I’d over eaten an amazing feast and, whilst I’m happy to gorge myself once more there, was still the risk of heartburn.
It seems fashionable to shoe-horn multiplayer modes into fundamentally single-player games at the moment, and Batman: Arkham Origins is no exception. The online multiplayer takes an exciting single player game and turns it into, for the most part, a generic third-person shooter.
The basic concept is that two teams of thugs, or rather “gang elites”, are fighting with one another to capture positions on the map. At the same time two players picked at random to play as Batman and Robin, who must take out as many members of both teams as they can.
Half-way through the match Bane and the Joker become available to the first two players to reach the marked doors.
OK, so two players get to be heroes, but the rest are just grunts; which is an awful idea. Who wants to be grunt? Not many PC players it seems, as I spent more time waiting in the lobby than playing. Still the retail PC version is not out yet. It is only out as a Steam direct download at the moment, so there’s a chance that the servers will fill soon.
At launch only the Invisible Predator Online game type is available. With extra game types and more players on the servers, the online multiplayer may evolve into something worth players’ time. As it is, it isn’t really my cup of tea, but it is early days.
The term “more of the same” describes Batman: Arkham Origins perfectly. Whilst there is in art to the perfect follow-up- nobody wants a game to stray too far from what they liked about its predecessor, Arkham Origins go the other way; the developers have played it too safe. We’ve got a fantastic game that lacks any sort of flair that would set it apart what has gone before.
At the end of the day Batman: Arkham Origins is a very capable and enjoyable addition to the series. It is similar to the other games, especially Arkham City, but that isn’t entirely bad, as they are both really good games. There are a few bugs that need sorting out and the multiplayer kind of misses the point of the game- to become Batman.
Overall though, it is a good game and one that I can’t see players being at all disappointed with.