Batman: Arkham Origins review
The box might say Arkham Origins but this is Arkham City: Round 2. And really, that’s the review done. Really, that’s it. Those 12 words and a number. If it wasn’t for stringent word counts and a designer who’d get angry at having nothing to fill four pages with bar crayons and his imagination, that would be all that would need to be said.
But you’re probably expecting us to be a little more professional than that, so let us indulge you. Following the surprise hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City pushed in the only direction it could – upwards and outwards, making everything bigger, better and dramaticier (not a word but work with us here), the reward being rave reviews and huge sales. Those games were developed by Rocksteady. Warner Bros has since taken the series away from Rocksteady’s capable hands and handed it to its freshly created Warner Bros Montreal studio. This is the Montreal outfit’s first crack at the series.
Apologies for the history lesson but it’s necessary because Batman: Arkham Origins is essentially Warner Bros Montreal replicating the successful Rocksteady formula, like a student who is keen to show his teacher that he’s learnt everything by the book. That’s not being disrespectful to Warner Bros Montreal but it is being entirely honest. Everything here from the combat to the structure to the side-missions to the collectibles has all been done before in Arkham City.
Even the city itself is largely familiar. Warner Bros Montreal has imported Gotham from Arkham City while bulking it out with new areas to poke and prod around in, adding a huge bridge connecting old and new. But you’ll glide around familiar gothic architecture that triggers flashbacks to Arkham City – the courtroom, the steel mill, ACE Chemicals and so on.
What’s surprising is that Warner Bros Montreal itself seems to admit that Arkham City players will feel they’re on familiar ground, as you’re booted into Origins with barely a hint of a tutorial, the gaming equivalent of “blah blah blah, you know the drill already”. It’s a pleasant surprise, as there is nothing worse than a lumbering tutorial that crushes any enjoyment, but it’s also a significant confession. Warner Bros knows that you’ve played this before. It knows you understand how to grapple around the city, how to pull down air-vents, how to scoop patrolling guards from lofty gargoyle perches. Origins doesn’t even focus on the slow build-up of gadgets like the previous two games in the series, happily stuffing Batman’s utility belt with plenty of toys right from the start and only leaving a few gaps to be plugged during the game’s running time.
At this point, we should acknowledge that some of you won’t have played Arkham City, so here’s what to expect from Origins. You’re playing as Batman (surprise!), gliding his way through Gotham’s exteriors and picking off enemies in Gotham’s interiors by striking from the shadows. Stealth is the most effective option when there are goons who need to be cleared out but it’s rarely forced upon on the player, lending a flexibility to every scenario as you decide how you want to approach it and which of Batman’s gadgets to use. Crawling through the air vents and silently taking out the guards? Setting up explosive gel ‘tripmines’ while remaining unseen? Waiting under grates for patrolling guards to pass? Throwing batarangs from higher perches? Do what you will.
While the story and side-missions pull you through certain interior locations, you’ll spend most of your time in snowy Gotham, using your grapple hook to zip from building to building as you explore for collectibles and side-missions and stop crimes that are taking place. Once you get used to the grapple hook, it feels like there are very few limitations placed on where you can go and what you can see. Annoyingly, like Arkham City, there’s a huge dead spot in the city where a building with spikes protruding out the wall prevents you from scaling up and over it (it’s no longer Hugo Strange’s domain but you’ll see what it is when you play Origins). But apart from that, if you don’t want to hurtle through the story, it’s a wonderful city to explore – detailed, intriguing and full of things to do.
And speaking of story, the plot is a simple affair, scaling back the lunacy Batman: Arkham City needed to stitch its multiple villains together in the same plot. Now it’s a hunter-becomes-the-hunted tale. On Christmas Eve, Batman discovers that Black Mask has hired eight assassins to eliminate him and so he decides to take them out first before any innocent lives are caught up in the crossfire. Only things aren’t quite as they seem! Who is really responsible for the mayhem? And so on. We’re not going to reveal the twists here except to say that nothing comes as a real surprise and the eight assassins concept doesn’t quite hold up as well as it initially seems.
But regardless, there are two reasons you’ll fall in love with Arkham Origins. Like the two Arkham games before it, it’s dripping with an obsessive level of detail that makes exploration a joy. Head to Gotham City’s Police Department and nosy players will find Commissioner Gordon’s office, adorned with newspaper clippings of reports about a mysterious and shadowy crimefighter cleaning up Gotham’s streets. Each villain’s lair is adorned with various quirks and oddities that don’t need to be observed but they add so much personality, charm and menace that you can’t help but look. The entire art department at Warner Bros Montreal needs a pat on the back – a lot of work has gone into this.
But this would all mean nothing if it wasn’t fun to see Batman crunch his fist into the skulls of various goons and it’s perfect here. Combat is anchored around a simple system where attacks automatically home in on your enemy, Batman gliding around the battle arena like a muscular ballerina. As Batman slides around, you have to keep your eye out for the small lightning symbol that signposts an incoming attack – your only prompt to counter the move. The two systems combine so Batman attacks and defends himself in a blur of cape and fists, a combo gauge ticking ever upwards and eventually offering more powerful moves.
Although it’s not a particularly sexy sounding award, it’s easily the best third-person hand-to-hand combat system in any game this gen. Better than Assassin’s Creed, better than Uncharted, better than The Last Of Us. It’s powered by how satisfying it is to nail counters and watch Batman snapping loose limbs, rearranging his enemies and folding them up into new shapes like human origami.
Arkham Origins throws new enemies into the mix, such as martial artists who need to be countered twice rather than once, but this is one of the few areas where Warner Bros Montreal is right not to have been too ambitious in pushing its own agenda. The combat is such a delicate, well-crafted system that care is necessary to ensure it isn’t unbalanced by any ill-thought additions. That’s certainly not the case here.
Batman isn’t just about flailing his fists in the general direction of crime though. He’s also a detective, hence the new element of detective work. Upon discovering a crime scene, Batman can start scanning the area for clues, voicing his theory on what happened out loud as you piece together the evidence. It adds a nice change of pace to the storyline, which usually alternates between light platforming and enter-room-clear-room sections where enemies roam. What’s a shame is that it doesn’t really require much thought from you, as it’s simply a case of looking around the room until you find the highlighted object, and Warner Bros Montreal seems to forget about it altogether as the plot picks up pace.
Mostly, the differences between Arkham Origins and Arkham City come down to vague notions of design rather than tangible additions such as new mechanics. There’s a slightly more linear structure threading Batman through the sprawl of Gotham, avoiding the lack of focus Arkham City sometimes succumbed to. Bosses are more straightforward affairs than previously seen in the series – there’s nothing to match the suspense of Killer Croc’s ambushes in Arkham Asylum or the drama of Mr Freeze stalking you in City. The Riddler Trophies (now Riddler data-packs! There’s another difference!) have been scaled back in number, making them a more tempting proposition to hunt down.
But even there, we’re talking about hunting Riddler collectibles and fighting bosses in the same city. This is essentially the same game as Arkham City, albeit with new faces and a fresh coat of paint. So it figures that just like Arkham City before it, Arkham Origins is also brilliant, even if it has a whiff of déjà vu about it. Existing fans will relish the chance to explore Gotham and drink in the detail while going toe-to-toe with some marque villains plucked from DC Comics’ rich history. It’s just a shame that while Warner Bros Montreal proved it was a student capable of copying Rocksteady’s formula, it didn’t have the confidence to add any real ambition of its own.