The year of 2013 has been hard as I've had to witness certain franchises that I enjoy pumping out unnecessary entries that pale in comparison to their predecessors. Gears of War: Judgment and God of War: Ascension are stopgap titles that didn't do much to improve on the established gameplay formula, with only modular and easy-to-miss improvements. There are success stories for such titles: Halo 3: ODST and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood are both stalwart examples of stopgap titles that actually do interesting things in mixing things up or adding noteworthy features or experiences to their attached franchises.
But the negative side of this trend continues as I see the Batman videogame franchise, popularized by the incredibly talented folks at Rocksteady studios, being handed to a new developer Warnes Bros. Montreal as they pump out a prologue adventure in Arkham Origins which takes before the impeccable Arkham Asylum. Strange, isn't it, that most of these stopgap titles are prequels, eh? I love the recent Batman games from Rocksteady, and in the months leading to Arkham Origin's nothing I had seen of it led me to believe that it'd be anything but a pretty decent adventure as Batman beating the shit out of thugs with the incredible Freeflow and Predator combat systems. Even if Arkham Origins didn't do a lot new, it would be hard to imagine them ruining such seemingly rock solid gameplay design.
How wrong I was.
Batman: Arkham Origins takes place about two years into billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne's crime fighting career. Most of the criminal underworld doesn't even believe Batman exists and the corrupted police force are intolerant of the idea of some punk vigilante dishing out street justice. Until on Christmas Eve when crime lord Black Mask, a wealthy industrialist and mobster, suddenly storms Gotham's Blackgate prison, releasing most of the prisoners there while simultaneously issuing a $50 million hit on Batman which attracts six of the world's most deadly assassins.
Arkham Origins is interested mostly in detailing Batman's first encounters with his key enemies like Killer Croc, Penguin, The Riddler (Known here as "Enigma"), and of course, The Joker. Indeed, the story quickly switches focus onto The Joker as the primary villain in the game, and diving into the psychological connection between Batman and The Joker which makes them such iconic rivals. It's an admirable effort, but with such a story so, so well told elsewhere in both film and literature, Arkham Origin's take on the subject feels muted and slight, adding nothing new to the well-established storyline.
Indeed, that's how most of Arkham Origins' story feels. It's also filled with plot holes and leaps in logic to simply get you from objective-to-objective, even more obviously so than in previous Arkham games. Rocksteady made me feel invested in the dramatic tale they weaved, even though if not that unique or actually interesting, which is not the case here. The difference in quality of storytelling is evident when Warner Bros. Montreal tries and fails to retell the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, which Rocksteady had already did so well and creatively in Arkham Asylum.
Even its most interesting assets like the Black Mask and assassination storylines are quickly abandoned. Most of the boss fights are simple one-shot boss fights which simply play out like slightly tougher versions of the various thugs you fight throughout the game, making them unmemorable. Indeed, two of the six assassins and the conclusion of the Blackmask storyline are ghettoized in collectible-based side quests which straight-up feels criminal as these characters seemed so central to Arkham Origins' promotion, and are so casually thrown away and misused.
A far greater concern is that almost every aspect of the game design is compromised in some fashion. The Freeflow combat system seemed indestructible to me after Arkham City after having survived the franchise's entrance into the open world play space, but it's surprising how inconsistent AI (a non-issue in previous Arkham games) and a couple of new enemies that don't fit ruins its precious flow. Seriously, one of the new enemies requires you to hit the counter button twice in a row instead of once. It's ridiculous and only serves to slow down and sometimes even bring to a halt Rocksteady's fast paced combat system.
Also the game's idea of challenge, instead of more interesting combat arenas to fight in like Asylum and City, is just throwing more and more special enemies at you over the course of a single fight. It quickly becomes super exhausting and made me bored with my favorite character action combat system conceived in this generation. To add insult to injury the rooms you fight in are super small which causes the camera to get caught in too close, so I was constantly getting hit by enemies that I couldn't even see.
The Predator challenges come away as the least harmed, but the scenarios weren't anything you haven't see before from previous games. But what does hurt it, which actually does have an effect on the Freeflow stuff as well is that there are new gadgets which kinda break it. You get a gadget that, when fully upgraded (not hard because the skill tree is small and you level-up so fast), you can just attach four different guards to gargoyles from across the map without having to leave your starting position when you enter a Predator map. It makes the Predator sections feel completely trivial. On the Freeflow side, you get some electric gloves which will knock almost every enemy out in one hit when charged (even most special enemies), which is dumb and takes away any challenge from the melee combat.
Arkham Origins also adopts the open-world structure of Arkham City, indeed copying a decent of chunk of City's map into its larger open world. But Origins does a poor job in justifying this increase in surface space apart from just filling it up with more Riddler collectible trash to pick up. I didn't even collect all of them in City, so I couldn't be bothered to do a lot with the Riddler stuff in Origins after discovering it rarely asked me to do anything much more complicated than throwing a electrified remote-controlled bataring at a powered down electrical box to unlock a collectible.
What Arkham Origins does do new is introduce a multiplayer mode, developed by Splash Damage. I'm not opposed to the introduction of multiplayer in a traditionally single-player experience, as games like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect have successfully navigated such tricky paths. The multiplayer here is solid in concept: a 3v3v2 game type which has two teams playing as members of the Joker or Bane gang in a traditional third-person shooter format, with the other two players playing as Batman and Robin. Everyone fights everyone, taking objectives and shooting/stealth knocking out people until the other side wins.
The problem is that while some cool moments like getting an opportunity to play as the Joker or Bane themselves, the third-person shooting that is grafted on top of Batman's combat system is awkward and clunky. Playing as Batman and Robin is fine since they play as Batman does in single-player, but the majority of players will be playing as the gang members which is frustrating and a bad gameplay experience.
In terms of production values, Arkham Origins is very inconsistent. While some of the character models are well-detailed, the environments come off as bland and uninspired, making the open-world more of a chore to explore. Even the more Arkham Asylum-esque indoor "dungeons" are unmemorable, with poor texture detail and uninspired art direction making the main story missions a drag to go through. The audio design comes off as a little stronger, with Batman themes cleverly mixed with some Christmas tunes. Also series voice acting veterans Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) have been replaced with Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker respectively. Both do an admirable job in mimicking their predecessors, but fail to capture the elegant gravitas of Conroy's stoic and assured Batman or Hamill's truly insane and disturbingly hilarious Joker.
On a quick note, I had a lot of problems with the Xbox 360 version of Arkham Origins. In a two-hour period of play in the open world the game crashed on me over eight times, though never once in the main mission enclosed areas. Apparently there's a patch out that tries to fix that, but 360 player's have started reporting that the patch has been corrupting their game saves. In short, I had a lot of technical issues with Origins from the crashing to constant framerate hitches, and if indeed the patch is now ruining people's saves, I'd highly recommend playing this game elsewhere. Though the PC version sounds even worse, from what I've heard, which is simply unacceptable that this game would ship in this state on both consoles and PC.
Even though I wasn't the least bit excited or interested in Arkham Origins, I couldn't help but come away very disappointed. I wasn't expecting a great experience, but I at least had the expectation that it would preserve previous Batman games' incredible gameplay. Indeed it did not. It's kinda crazy the lengths that Origins goes to compromising or unbalancing these systems, making me feel like Warner Bros. Montreal completely missed the point of what made the Arkham games so good. Combined with a lackluster story, badly implemented multiplayer, and a larger yet blander open world, and Arkham Origins comes across as a poor game.
While playing Arkham Origins I was constantly reminded of one of the opening scenes in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight where you see Batman perched over a drug bust. Then another Batman appears and takes out a guard. Then another comes out of the shadows blasting thugs with a shotgun, then you realize that these guys aren't Batman at all. These impostors may look like or even sound like or sometimes even move like Batman, but at the end of the day they are clearly not The Batman, just dudes playing at the real thing. Arkham Origins felt just like that to me: a thug in a Batman Halloween costume. Fans deserves a better class of vigilante than that.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)