*Note: While this review is primarily based on the PC version, we also tested both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions.
As both a hardcore gamer and Batman fan, I can safely say that there was a time I thought the two worlds would never meet successfully. Failed attempts at superhero games were common place and many fans started to let go of the hope they had once shared for the potential in this genre. But when all seemed lost and the book was almost closed on this tale, the Dark Knight himself (along with some help from developer Rocksteady) returned to save the day with 2009′s genre defining Batman: Arkham Asylum. The critical and commercial success of Arkham Asylum was immediate cementing it as one of the best games of its generation and this high standard was maintained in Rocksteady’s 2011 sequel, Batman: Arkham City. City ended on even higher sales figures and review scores than its predecessor and fully established Arkham as a franchise, not just a game.
So with all this in mind, it was with some fear and trepidation that I approached the franchises latest instalment, Batman: Arkham Origins. Origins is a prequel to the established ‘Batman’ seen in the other entries and tells the tale (or tales) of many of his first encounters with villains such as The Riddler, Deadshot and even The Joker. However, despite the concept itself showing a great deal of promise, I (like many other fans) were a little worried when it was announced that many of the creative minds behind the previous instalments would not be present in its development. This included the recasting of many voice actors such as Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker (two names now synonymous with the franchise since the early 90′s) and a new developer at the helm, the recently formed Warner Brothers Montreal.
So with all this new blood and the idea of undermining the outstanding work that came before the question is can Batman: Arkham Origins really live up to the expectations of the franchise? Strangely, the answer is both yes and no for there are both steps forward and backward in this tale of a younger Dark Knight.
From the offset, it is clear that WB Montreal’s aim was not to deviate too far from the established formula. After a brief spell at Blackgate Prison you will once again find yourself in the streets of a slightly expanded Gotham. This updated sandbox encompasses both a new island and the map from Arkham City in its entirety as well as a few other areas to explore. Despite it being in much better shape than the Gotham seen in Arkham City, you will feel at home almost instantly if you have played the franchises previous entry.
However, as Gotham itself is not (at least in part) a prison here as it will be in the future, the feeling of isolation feels far less fitting here than it did in Arkham City. The idea is that due to a bad snowstorm, the fact that its Christmas eve and what is happening in the streets of Gotham over the course of the night, police have told civilians to stay indoors and have inducted martial law, moving anyone else to shelters for the nights duration. It’s in no way a bad explanation but unfortunately feels more like an excuse to cover limitations in the hardware and a lack of necessity to spend too long on turning the game around for a pre-next-gen release.
Despite this aspect of the tale however, Arkham Origins most stand out qualities are found in its narrative. In terms of story and flow, it is possibly the most solid entry in the series so far, never at any point feeling like it has succumbed to tangents, even in its side missions and extra content. It also not only gives grounding for many of Batman’s motivations as the more established character we see later in the timeline but also keeps the essence of the franchises depth throughout their explanation. What seemed in the marketing to be a basic tale of Black Mask hiring a group of assassins to deal with the petulant vigilantly known as the Batman is actually so much more and long-term fans of the Dark Knight are sure to be more than happy with the themes explored here.
Perhaps even more than the story however, the Batman franchise in all its forms is often a character study and this in turn meant that WB Montreal once again had a tough act to follow. For many, the idea of an Arkham game without the voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would have seemed absurd before Origins. As a long-term fan of both Conroy’s Batman and Hamill’s Joker, I was more than a little worried about feeling alienated from characters that I have followed, known and loved for over 20 years. However it seems, for the most part, my fears were in vain. Both Roger Craig Smith and the seemingly endlessly talented Troy Baker do amazing jobs here and both Batman and the Joker respectively sound like you would expect them too in their younger forms. In fact in some cases you would struggle to tell the difference between these and the original actors and this is not just true of the voices but the performances as a whole.
Unfortunately however, it is not all good news for Arkham Origins. For all its strengths it does have other weaknesses besides its similarity in structure to Arkham City. At the forefront of these is what many would consider to be the greatest sin with regards to the franchise. Messing with the combat system. Now luckily, the changes WB Montreal have made are well intentioned and not drastic however for fans of the series who put the time in for those coveted combat/campaign challenges, the shifts in timing and enemy AI will only serve to frustrate. Enemies on the whole are now more aggressive changing the counter timing considerably and new equipment like the shock gloves mean that little or no skill is needed once they are attained due to their ability to hit almost any enemy type for damage. This, along with a many other small changes, unfortunately make the combat here not as enjoyable as in previous instalments and also render many of the games unlockable challenge modes as agitating trawls rather than challenging content.
The other major flaw on show here is the general lack of polish that may have been present had a little more time been allowed to elapse before the games completion and release. There are many serious bugs here that seem to appear across all formats as well as some that seem format specific. As an example, if you use the newly added batwing fast travel system at all on the PlayStation 3 version, the frame rate will subsequently drop to an unplayable level forcing a console restart. Another common bug across all platforms is falling through the map into un-subtracted game space and again forcing a re-load. Less serious bugs are also present as well as general frame rate issues throughout that can be a real problem, especially in combat. Some of these bugs are serious and not only affect the experience but also serve as a near constant reminder that a Triple A franchise like this should have higher standards with regards to quality control.
Another new addition to the Arkham franchise seen in Origins is the multiplayer. Players take control of either a Bane follower, a Joker follower, Batman himself or the Boy Wonder (Robin). Although game types vary, the basic idea here is that Team Bane and Team Joker are fighting it out for supremacy whilst both are united against the two heroes that stalk their prey from the shadows. Hero players have a stripped down version of all Batman’s campaign abilities allowing them much more freedom of movement and method of attack. Those on the ground however are instead outfitted with the suite of your average 3rd person shooter. This does add an interesting spin on things especially as heroes can be thwarted quickly to gain full re-spawned for the chosen team if they are not stealthy enough, however when not playing as the heroes things soon get old. This coupled with yet more bugs and a lack of enthusiasm from the Arkham community means that this decent but ultimately unnecessary multiplayer is unfortunately not destined to take on the world of online play.
All in all Batman: Arkham Origins is a decent prequel to an amazing franchise. At its worst it’s a slightly frustrating version of the Batman that we have come to know and love and at its best it is a great story that subverts expectations and gives real grounding to the Arkham world and its inhabitants.