Though it’s easy to stow away in the darkest recesses of our memories, it was not all that long ago that superhero games were almost entirely abysmal across the board. The preceding generation was littered with the detritus of scores of woeful to play, cheap to produce co-marketed garbage. Even the start of this generation looked dire from the outset, with Sega’s truly horrifying Iron Man game released on the unsuspecting masses. Luckily, Warner Bros took it upon themselves to put the time and effort into producing a truly top-notch experience with Batman: Arkham Asylum, reminding the superhero faithful that at least there was a glimmer of hope that truly great superhero games could be made regularly over the horizon. As this generation comes to a close with Arkham Origins, however, it is difficult not to feel the familiar dark pall beset the land once again.
Batman: Arkham Origins, developed by Warner Bros Montreal, is set as a prequel to the events of the Arkham series to date. Following a mass breakout organised by Black Mask from Blackgate prison, Batman learns of an octet of assassins, competing for a $50 million bounty for his demise. The game presents itself as an old-school, linear experience with Batman chasing down each bounty hunter and removing their threat of terrorism from Gotham. Instead, however, the game quickly relegates this to being the sub-plot, choosing to once again focus on the relationship between Batman and his newest rival, the Joker. It is disappointing as a fan to see the introduction of a number of new, novel characters that are almost completely sidelined in favour of the same cast as we’ve seen from the last two games. Whilst The Joker and Bane are interesting characters, Shiva and Deathstroke added a unique wrinkle to the moody, caped crusader that was disposed of far too quickly. It smacks of lack of confidence in the product and speaks volumes of the efforts made to introduce new and exciting changes to the series.
It is hard not to notice how eerily similar Arkham Origins lies to its predecessors. The map is repurposed from Arkham City, albeit with a new zone added in for good measure. The Enigma challenges that have flooded the map are Riddler Trophy quests in all but name only. The combat, soundtrack, gadgets and mission structure are all left basically untouched, besides from menial adjustments to gameplay. Though the game still plays well, it is impossible to laud the creativity or effort of a game that feels as identical to its predecessor. It’s bizarre to see this outside of a sports game, and entirely unwelcome.
The gameplay is almost picture-perfectly identical with its forefathers, roughly divided into three separate stages: exploration, free-flow melee fighting and stealthy, predator sections. Exploring Gotham City in Arkham Origins is handled, once again, very similarly to how it was handled in Arkham City. Batman can glide, run and grapnel his way around the city streets and rooftops, swooping down from overhead to take out a local thug on the street. The city is divided into two distinct areas of land, divided by the lengthy Gotham Bridge. The size of the map can be quite cumbersome; however a quick-travel system has been implemented to help alleviate the burden of travelling. Stationed around the map are a number of Enigma-controlled radio towers, that once liberated, provide a free-travel location. It’s a novel way of tying gameplay to a shortcut mechanic and was a welcome addition to traversal.
Combat is the same as ever, relying on swift counters and intelligent use of items to defeat foes as quickly and intelligently as possible. Successfully completing a chain of strikes without missing an enemy or being hit builds a combo meter that can be cashed in early for an instant knockout, or stretched further to enter free-flow mode, where time slows down and Batman’s strikes are more powerful. The combat has always been the Arkham series’ crowning glory, at it remains unbesmirched here. The introduction of more gadgets for use in combat helps ensure variation, however, the best addition is the experience system and how it pertains to combat. Varying fighting styles and combos, using more items and not getting hit increases an experience multiplier displayed after every combat scenario, pushing the player to fight better every time. Furthermore, three challenge trees pertaining to different gameplay mechanics are open at any one time, asking for combos of a certain length, or the use of a particular takedown mechanic in combat. Though it’s a rather rudimentary interpretation utilised in this game, it is easy to see how it could be used better in the future.
The stealthy, predator sections make their return in Arkham Origins, though with admittedly little fanfare. Batman, traditionally, would enter a tightly-designed room stuffed with guards and would be tasked with taking them out stealthily in any manner that befit the player. In the past it was glaringly obvious when the player had set foot into these stealth-based sections, however in Arkham Origins they are metered out so meekly that it can be difficult to know that it has happened until the first target has been taken down. There is an overabundance of ways to take down foes available almost immediately, and the room design varies so little that it can be very easy to re-use the same pattern in every encounter. Perhaps it is just the mechanic going slightly stale, but it was difficult to look at what was once an incredibly novel experience with the same lustre anymore.
It must also be stated that Arkham Origins is far from the most polished game ever produced. The boss fights feel clunky and rudimentary, taking far too long, relying on pattern recognition and not giving appropriate feedback to complete them. An early fight against Deathstroke could well be the single worst boss encounter I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing. Attacks would be countered seemingly at random, with a weapon later in the fight that could take a quarter of Batman’s health away in a hit. The only way to beat it was to cheese the system, exploiting the fight mechanics in an incredibly slow, laborious way that was the exact opposite of fun. Furthermore, textures load abysmally slowly, and there was more than one occasion of Batman falling through the terrain he was walking upon. The worst thing, however, is the appalling rate at which the game crashes completely. Playing the 360 version resulted in twelve crashes in a single day. Twelve! It is completely inexcusable, with potentially the notorious Fallout: New Vegas being the only game ever to crash on me more that Arkham Origins did. Warner Bros have issued a statement advising that a stability patch is to be available soon, but the damage is already done – my playthough was already marred by the misery it provided.
At its core, Arkham Origins feels rough, rushed and, perhaps most damning of all, unnecessary. It adds little to the experience and squanders what good opportunities it has to expand the plot in favour of aping what has already been presented. Though the core gameplay tenets remain strong on the backs of its predecessors, almost nothing worth noting is added to the experience. There is enjoyment to be derived from this game, but players entering looking for the revolutionary experience Arkham Asylum initially provided will leave disappointed.