Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Warner Bros. Games, Montreal
Rating: T for Teen
Released: October 25, 2013
Systems: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
Warning: This review will contain spoilers. If you haven’t played the game, do not read the paragraphs marked “Spoiler”
For a series as old as Batman, there are numerous version of his origin stories. Each one finds a new way to either tweak the all-too-familiar tale (Batman: Earth Zero, for example) or explore the years of Bruce Wayne growing into Batman (Batman: Year Zero and Batman: Year One). Each comic explores different avenues of reaching the same ending. Each issue is of Bruce Wayne learning what it takes to be Batman and the sacrifices needed, in addition to developing the dynamic between Jim Gordon and Batman.
Batman: Arkham Origins, the third game in the Batman: Arkham series developed by Warner Bros. Interactive, executes marrying these elements together like a standard prequel story. There’s the young, inexperienced Bruce Wayne learning to become Batman, with a corral of villains that are relentless in their execution of taking him down (tied altogether by one major antagonist), and the tense, budding dynamic between Gordon and Batman. From his fighting mechanics, to his approach in taking down villains, everything is built to express Batman’s inexperience. For the most part, Warner Bros. Games tries really hard to express how much Wayne is new to this vigilante stuff.
However, it’s easy to discern that this game was made by a different studio other than Rocksteady, who made the first two Batman: Arkham games. The writing , while offering some new elements not explored before, ends up being safe and boring. The game also suffers a lot from what I’d like to call “Prequel-Sequel Paradox”: a game that adds features that would make sense for a sequel, but take away from a prequel being believable. A lot of the gameplay design feels hastily put together, and half of the game seems to borrow its elements from Batman: Arkham City. Lastly, and the biggest problem, are the several game breaking bugs that both take away from the experience and corrupt save files. All of these elements stymie a game that could’ve (and should’ve) been good.
Instill Fear through the Shadows
It’s Christmas Eve, and a prison breakout is happening at Blackgate Penitentiary. While Batman is trying to intervene and stop the breakout, the villain known as Black Mask executes Police Commissioner Loeb and escapes. Unable to chase him down, Batman instead ends up fighting Killer Croc. After defeating Killer Croc, Batman learns that he’s just one of 8 assassins out for his head thanks to the $50 million bounty the Black Mask placed on Batman’s head. While the 8 assassins are out and about, other major villains like Penguin and Anarky are using it as a smokescreen to ravage Gotham City. From Copper Head, to Firefly and Electrocutioner, as well as resistance from the Police, Batman must be ready to face anyone at any time.
However, not all may be as it seems. While it may seem that the Black Mask set up the bounty, there are clues leading to believe someone else is behind this scheme. It’s up to Batman to not only save Gotham City from being destroyed within, but also take down the assassins looking to make his head Black Mask’s Christmas gift.
One of the most exciting elements of the story this game has is the switching of Batman from predator to prey. Sure, he’s trying to uncover the whereabouts of the Black Mask as well as take down the various villains trying to crush Gotham, but it’s refreshing to see these assassins actively trying to take down Batman. This concept sets up one of my favorite sequences in the game; a fight between Batman and Deathstroke. This element changes the pacing of the story, as well as the dynamic…if only a little bit.
What’s also refreshing about Batman: Arkham Origins is the use of villains not normally part of “Batman’s everyday Villain Rotation”. There’s Anarky, a youngin’ who believes overthrowing the governmental establishment and inciting chaos will fix Gotham. There’s Copperhead, a female super assassin that has a toxin so powerful it induces hallucinations before the victim dies. Then, there’s Firefly, whose battle on the bridge was arguably one of the best moments in the game. These lesser known villains are unique, interesting, and do a great job taking away the entirety of the game to focus on the more commonly-known villains.
These lesser-known villains also serve as a great way for Batman to learn, adapt and develop his skills on the fly (as well as the player). For example, Copperhead is both an escape artist and has fast attacks. Batman not only has to improve his reaction for countering, but also prepare for her attacks after she’s escaped.
Unfortunately, there’s several elements that keep Batman: Arkham Origins from joining the ranks of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. The lesser-known villains used in this game are heavily underutilized and only provide one major gameplay sequence per character. There’s exposition while in battle giving some insight into the character personae and attitude, but do very little in effective characterization. I wanted to learn more about this incarnation of Copperhead and not just have her relegated to a mini-boss battle. The same can be said about Anarky, though he gets a little extra time with his puzzle solving levels. I would’ve been happy if they’d use Deathstroke a lot more instead of having him out the rest of the game after one major boss battle.
Instead, Batman: Arkham Origins ends up playing it safe, relying more on the major characters to drive the plot forward. Of course Penguin has some nefarious plot in the game that Batman must stop from coming to fruition. Of course there are several Bane battles that repeat the same process to take him down. This takes away a lot from the story because it’s all been done before; instead of trying something new that seemed plausible in execution, players get the same stuff they’ve been spoon-fed before.
*Spoiler Territory Ahead, skip to the paragraph afterwards to avoid*
This over-reliance creates the biggest problem I have with the game: the twist of Joker actually being the Black Mask. I was excited to see that the Black Mask would be the main antagonist through the commercial. Black Mask, aka Roman Sionis, would’ve been such an amazing villain, and here’s why; he’s the perfect foil to both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Sionis lost both of his parents, and inherited the company like Bruce Wayne. The difference? Bruce Wayne bought out Sionis’ company due to their bankruptcy created by Roman. With his fixation on carving masks, Sionis went on to carve one from his father’s coffin. Sionis went on to try to get his revenge on Bruce Wayne, resulting in a fight with Batman. The fight left the Mask burned into his skin, turning Roman Sionis into the Black Mask. From there, he became a ruthless, feared gang leader in Gotham’s underworld. Just knowing all that about Black Mask alone makes him such a compelling villain.
Instead, he’s simply used as a bait and switch to have the Joker as the main villain orchestrating the bounty. Granted, Troy Baker does an amazing job realizing the Joker in this incarnation, but the fact of the matter is the Joker’s been the main villain in EVERY game. It’s boring, predictable, and tiring. The worst part about it is how Bane just becomes the Joker’s lackey players have to fight FOUR times. That’s right. Four. Times.
*Welcome back traveler, you’ve gotten through Spoiler Territory*
The story also feels predictable in every facet, and while I respect how difficult it can be to write a story, it ultimately feels lazy in execution. There’s a lack of motivation to push through the story because it ends up being boring. I don’t think it’s the fault of the studio so much as is the producer embracing that this game was a filler between Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Knight. There’s so many great elements in this game that could’ve been utilized to make a strong, compelling prologue story. Instead, the overusage of the “safe elements” just overrides the strides the game takes to bring it up to Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City standards. I could be holding that proverbial line too high, but considering just how good the first two games are, that is the standard set.
Overall, the story isn’t terrible, and is actually pretty good. It’s just predictable, bland and boring due to playing it safe.
The Prequel Paradox: aka feeling New and Old at the same time
Long ago, I wrote an article about how prequels made after sequels suffer from a paradox I call the “Prequel-Sequel Paradox”. With each new iteration of a franchise, new elements are introduced to keep the game feeling familiar and brand spankin’ new. For prequels, this becomes a major problem; new gadgets are introduced that weren’t utilized or known about in the game set after the prequel, new villain types are introduced that were never discussed in previous games, and gameplay is so refined that it feels more like an improved sequel than prequel.
Batman: Arkham Origins suffers from this paradox. There are martial artists requiring some serious countering skills, as well as several gadgets never realized in Arkham Asylum like the electrified gloves. Logistically speaking, these items would make sense in a sequel in that they’re just new enemies Batman has to face. The equipment could’ve just been a new game feature to add to more gameplay elements in a sequel. However, both elements are introduced in a sequel, and instead created a dilemma where they’re never used in a game that takes place AFTER. The combat system, while trying to purposefully create timing issues to manifest this sense of Batman’s inexperience, also feels way too refined and faster than it ought to. Batman feels too easy to maneuver and navigate.
That said, a lot of the mini boss battles, puzzles and crime scene investigations are both fun and interesting. I love the way detective mode is utilized, especially in crime scene sequences players have to solve. Mini boss battles, like the ones with both Deathstroke and Copperhead, were an insane amount of fun that had me wanting more. In fact, every fight in the game (aside from Bane) required strategy and fast-paced critical thinking. The gameplay built up tension and created escalating stakes.
I also enjoyed the tower control mini-games added to the game. Akin to something Far Cry does, Batman: Arkham Origins has Batman take over Towers under control by Enigma to act as Fast Travel points. The puzzles per each one vary in difficult, but add a fun element deviating from the normal combat-based gameplay. Unfortunately, side quests were mixed; the trophy collection one is a fine example of that. Some of the puzzles were way too easy, and some of them incredibly challenging to solve. The harder they were, the more fun they were. Easy challenges felt like “give me” than puzzle solving.
The biggest issue, and the one that really damages Batman: Arkham Origins, is the fact that there are so many game-breaking bugs. There were several gameplay experiences I had that ended up with Batman freezing up right next to a game mission, or midway through a current mission I was playing. Out of the several times this happened, there were quite a few that had me walk away from the game for a couple days out of frustration. I’m lucky I’m not one of the few who had their save state corrupted by these bugs, but I did have a friend who experienced it. I know if I’d had that experience, I’d have never touched the game again.
Otherwise, the combat and predator maps are as good as you’d expect from any Batman: Arkham game. The challenge of getting the high score to get ALL the trophies or to get the highest combo chain is still just as fun and exciting as when it was introduced in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The maps also serve as a great break from playing the campaign.
If it looks like the Bat, it is the Bat!
Batman: Arkham Origins has the look, feel and atmosphere players have come to expect out of Batman games. Batman’s suit looks like it’s straight out of Christopher Nolan’s concept drawings, the Joker looks like the maniac that he is, and each character has both the gritty tone of the Batman: Arkham series as well as unique traits of their own.
It also goes without saying just how good Troy Baker’s performance was as the Joker; his performance not only uses Mark Hamill as a base, but contains enough difference to make it stand out on its own. Baker has always been a fantastic, consistent voice actor in the video game industry. His experience shines and provides one of the biggest strengths to Arkham Origins. Roger Craig Smith does pretty good creating his own incarnation of Batman/Bruce Wayne. In fact, all of the cast does a great job of bringing each character to life. The sound composition, from the gameplay elements to music, bring Gotham city to life and provide a great backdrop for the game.
I wish the same could be said for world design. Half of the world map is completely taken from Batman: Arkham City. That alone feels lazy, and the familiarity of the place made traversing through it both boring and bland. The look of a snow covered Gotham was also just as boring and felt like a way developers could rush through production without any delay. The color scheme also feels too dark and grey. Granted, the colors Batman utilizes are oftentimes cool and dark, there are some characters that do provide a sort of contrast (Anarky being one of them). However, the characters who would normally provide contrast oftentimes do little nothing to break up the murky grey feeling of the game.
Overall, it feels like the Bat, it is the Bat…but it’s also a mixed bag.
The Batman We’re Familiar with we’re not Supposed to Be
I really wish I could say Batman: Arkham Origins maintains the standard and integrity we’ve come to expect of any Batman game with the Arkham label attached to it. With a new storytelling element added of Batman being prey instead of predator, to lesser known characters being utilized as assassins, Batman: Arkham Origins had the makings of a great game. Unfortunately, game breaking bugs, over-reliance on major antagonists to push the plot and semi-lazy world design take away from the game. Troy Baker was fun, exciting, and terrifying as the Joker, but the Joker’s still been used too many times. This huge reliance on these villains creates a lack of motivation for players to get through the game, and turn a promising story into a boring game.
For those who’ve come to enjoy the Batman: Arkham series and come into this game with a mindset it’ll be similar to Rocksteady’s work, it’s not worth buying. However, if the game is on sale (under $20 dollars), I think it’s worth purchasing if it’s been patched to fix the bugs discussed. The game has a lot of good elements in it that just don’t completely marry to create an excellent game. That said, I’ll leave it up to you if you want to give this game a spin.
About Terry Randolph
The moment he was born, Terry Randolph knew he would play video games. Okay....not the exact moment he was born, but definitely at an early age. His affinity for video games was cemented in the multiple tantrums he threw while being dragged away from playing Sonic the Hedgehod at his daycare when his parents came to pick him up. Since then, Terry continues to enjoy all the experiences gaming provides. He also loves to write short stories and ambitious novel projects. Last Token Gaming was born from both his love of writing and video games. Twitter: @wanderinganbu Email: firstname.lastname@example.org