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Batman: Arkham Origins review

Highs

  • Superior story captures a formative moment in Batman's career
  • Feels like an Arkham game
  • Invisible Predator Online an inventive take on adversarial multiplayer

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 0

Lows

  • New dev's overly safe approach results in derivative play
  • Animations, particularly facial expressions, take a backwards step from previous games
  • No real justification for progression-dictated content unlocks in multiplayer
Batman: Arkham Origins takes no chances and feels a bit derivative as a result, but it's still another round of good times exploring Gotham City as the Dark Knight.

Batman: Arkham Origins is hiding a carefully concealed secret identity. Don’t believe the smoke and mirrors: this story is more than just Batman beating up a bunch of semi-well known DC universe assassins that are angling to collect on a $50 million bounty the villain Black Mask put on Batman. It gets to the heart of not just Batman, but those who surround him as well. Alfred. Jim Gordon. The Joker. They’re all seeds, half-formed devolutions of characters that we’ve known for years.

This feels like an Arkham game, sure enough, but newcomer developer WB Montreal’s victory lies more in the narrative. There’s very little here that sets Origins apart from its Rocksteady Studios-developed predecessors, save for a plot that miraculously delivers a fresh take on Batman’s oft-explored early days.

Beginnings

The opening moments of Arkham Origins wisely avoids establishing yet again how Bruce Wayne became the Batman. We know this stuff. It’s not news and it’s no longer is needed to inform us about the character. Plus this was also thoroughly explored in Batman: Arkham Asylum. You can only see poor Mr. and Mrs. Wayne shot in the dark alley outside a theater so many times before it becomes a parody of itself. The game delivers brief flashes of that formative moment in the younger Bruce’s life, but it is smartly deployed and used for a broader effect.

That’s the real heart of Arkham Origins’ story: Batman learns the true difference between a criminal and a proper villain.

On the surface, Arkham Origins story is tied around a $50 million bounty placed on Batman’s head by the master criminal, Black Mask. Multiple costumed assassins step up to face a brash, young Batman and claim their prize. At this point in his career, Batman is a crimefighter, not the superhero he later becomes. Your relentless advance through this gallery of deadly rogues amounts to a very literal school of hard knocks. Our hero-in-the-making loses a lot of fights along the way, but he never makes the same mistake twice.

Of course, nothing is ever easy for Batman. The bounty is just a catalyst, a triggering moment that sets a fateful series of events in motion for the Dark Knight, ultimately leading to a formative moment in his career. In Arkham Origins, the scourge of Gotham City’s underworld is introduced to a very different breed of criminal. A true sociopath, the sort of person that commits violent acts simply to see the results.

That’s the real heart of Arkham Origins‘ story: Batman learns the true difference between a criminal and a proper villain. He’s a capable vigilante, but you can’t have a hero without an arch-enemy. The events of Origins exist to educate a blissfully ignorant Bruce Wayne on exactly what that means.

The big beats are infused with “holy crap” moments that should delight any fan, even if Origins‘ presentation occasionally stumbles. Part of this is due to dialogue that doesn’t always sell the action unfolding on the screen. In an early example, Batman locks a thug into a choke hold and interrogates him. The Dark Knight demands info and the thug refuses. So he demands info again with what amounts to an “…or else” tacked on to the end of the threat, and the thug caves.

It’s an inescapably silly back-and-forth when it plays out against what you’re seeing on the screen. Batman doesn’t do anything other than reinforce his demand for info with a vague threat, but that turns out to be enough for some reason. He threatens him, then threatens him harder and gets results. This is partially a script issue, but it’s also a failure of presentation. Regardless of which is more at fault, the result is the same: you are effectively pulled out of what is meant to be a serious moment. It’s not an isolated incident either.

The graphics don’t help in this regard. Arkham Origins sets a pretty scene, but it suffers in close-up looks. This is most evident during in-engine cutscenes. Facial animations express limited emotional range, and the faces themselves tread deeply into the Uncanny Valley. Take the aforementioned interrogation; there isn’t a hint of fear on the thug’s face as he folds under Batman’s questioning. This represents a huge disconnect between the player and the game. Batman’s entire identity is built around the notion of inspiring fear in those he pursues, and the interrogation fails because the performances don’t sell it.

Becoming the Bat Man

Fundamentally, Arkham Origins feels like the two Rocksteady Studios games that precede it. There are some new combat animations, utility belt items, and special abilities, but everything from the overall design of the open world to the combat iconography (counter prompts and the like) feels immediately familiar if you’re a returning fan. You also start off the game with most of the tools that Batman had at his disposal in Arkham City.

WB Montreal had a great foundation to work with here, but the dev team’s apparent focus on replicating the previous games isn’t always for the best. Some of this is minor, like having to quickly tap a button in order to rip a grate out of a wall. Surely we can do better than that at this point? Hasn’t the development community as a whole come to recognize that tapping a button for menial activities sucks the joy out of a game? WB Montreal didn’t get that memo, and misses an easy opportunity to improve on an already-solid formula.

There’s still a lot to like about stepping into the armored boots of the Dark Knight.

Navigation, both during missions and around Gotham City as a whole, also gets to be tiresome. Inside a mission there is actually no way to figure out where you’re expected to go without paying a visit to the pause screen’s map/mission objectives listing. Even then, there’s no directional indicator in the HUD to help point the way.

The problems escalate once you get out into open world Gotham City. Arkham Origins gives players the whole of the city to explore, two full islands dotted with side missions, collectibles, and the series’ ever-present Riddler Challenges. It’s great to know that all of this content exists, but there’s nothing that really encourages exploration. A compass at the top of the screen points the way to your current objective, but nothing else. You can highlight points of interest on the map if you want to pursue a side mission, but you’ve only ever got one objective marker active in the compass.

Why have this beautiful open world if there’s no mechanism built into the game that encourages you to diverge from your set path? There’s always the option of keeping Detective Mode active at all times and simply looking for highlighted objects in the environment, but after Rocksteady worked so hard to discourage players from leaving the helpful visual overlay on at all times, it’s a shame to see WB Montreal take the backward step of leaning too heavily on it.

There are some improvements though. WB Montreal smartly chose to incorporate Challenge Mode more completely into the main campaign. With all of Gotham City now accessible, the Batcave suddenly becomes a perfect between-mission hub. While all Challenge Mode features are still accessible from the main menu, you can also now access them via the Batcave’s training computer, along with an assortment of straight-up combat tutorials. It’s a minor change, but a welcome one.

Batman-Arkham-Origins-screenshot-23

More importantly, Origins easily captures the vibe of an Arkham game. You can’t shake the feeling that you’ve played this game before, but it was a kickass game in 2011 and it’s still a kickass game today. Lament the fact that WB Montreal didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to establish a voice of its own within the series, but as safe plays go, you could do a lot worse than a derivative sequel to Batman: Arkham City. There’s still a lot to like about stepping into the armored boots of the Dark Knight.

Own the night

Those looking for truly fresh ideas in Batman: Arkham Origins must turn to the all-new multiplayer mode, Invisible Predator Online. This unusual adversarial game type pits three Joker gang members against three Bane gang members in a race for control points, all while two other players try to ruin the criminals’ day as Batman and Robin. The goal for each faction is to max out the team’s meter. The criminals do so by hanging onto as many control points as they can for as long as they can, while the heroes instead employ non-lethal tactics to intimidate everyone, slowly filling a bat-shaped meter in the process.

When you’re Batman or Robin, you want to vary your beatdowns to fill the intimidation meter that much quicker. On top of that, it’s in your best interest to also keep the two team’s scores from climbing, so you’ve got more time to fill the hero team’s meter. There are tools, for example, that slow down the capture time for control points.

The criminals, on the other hand, have to be constantly mindful of the fact that they’re being hunted from the shadows even while they’re gunning each other down. Batman and Robin aren’t impervious to bullets either, and taking out the heroes again and again is the only option the criminals have for reducing the intimidation meter.

The two heroes control much like Batman does in the campaign during stealth sequences. You’ve got fewer gadgets to play with, but success hinges on using each of the four multiplayer maps’ nooks and crannies to get the drop on your opponents. The thugs are built more for direct combat, and you control them like you would any protagonist in a cover-based third-person shooter.

This intentionally uneven balance establishes a three-way push-and-pull that makes for delightfully chaotic engagements. You’ll often find yourself forming unspoken partnerships with nearby opponents as you unite to bring down a common enemy. The 3v3v2 match size is perfect; teams are large enough to be effective as a group, but small enough that they can’t splinter into multiple groups.

Invisible Predator Online works best if you’re willing to participate in a public game chat, unless you can get a full party of eight friends together. Matches with fewer than eight players in the lobby aren’t filled out with bots, and you definitely lose something when you play in a less-than-full room. This is a mode that is perfectly balanced for eight players; no more, no less.

Conclusion

Batman: Arkham Origins scratches an itch, but it doesn’t really go out of its way to evolve the series in any meaningful way. WB Montreal creates an impressive carbon-copy of Rocksteady’s past efforts, highlighted by a larger open world, a series-best plot, and an inventive take on adversarial multiplayer. It’s still just a copy though. In a year that has seen the medium evolve in new and unexpected directions, derivation equals death. Arkham Origins isn’t a bad game – it’s quite strong, in fact! – but it’s also not a new game, and it’s destined to be forgotten as a result.

This game was reviewed on an Xbox 360 using a copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Highs

  • Superior story captures a formative moment in Batman’s career
  • Feels like an Arkham game
  • Invisible Predator Online an inventive take on adversarial multiplayer

Lows

  • New dev’s overly safe approach results in derivative play
  • Animations, particularly facial expressions, take a backwards step from previous games
  • No real justification for progression-dictated content unlocks in multiplayer

This game was reviewed on Xbox 360 using a retail copy provided by the publisher.