Batman: Arkham Origins tears me apart inside. In many ways, it’s the perfect successor to 2011’s Batman: Arkham City, building upon everything the genre-defining superhero game did so well. With a larger open-world, new enemies, expanded combat and new modes of traversal, it takes everything that made Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City great and expands upon it. At the same time, many of these improvements don’t provide the same jump that we saw between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, making this sequel feel more iterative in nature. Much like Batman’s nemesis Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (who does not appear in this game; I just needed to keep my metaphor going), these conflicting emotions result in a turmoil within myself that I’m having difficulty reconciling.
This conflict extends to virtually every facet of the game. Batman: Arkham Origins is a prequel, taking place five years before Arkham Asylum, although still two years after Bruce Wayne has taken up his costumed endeavor as the Batman. Much like the previous two games, Arkham Origins takes place over the course of a single night - Christmas Eve, in this case - as Batman must fend off eight assassins who have been hired by Black Mask to kill him. Compared to previous games, these assassins tend to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of Batman’s rogues gallery, but it’s still cool to see some of the hero’s more obscure villains take center stage, although fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on your point of view - most of the focus of the game ends up being on Black Mask, the Joker, and Bane.
The “Origins” of the title is less about the titular asylum and more about the insane mad men that come to inherit it. The idea that Batman meets the majority of his rogues gallery on a single night seems a little far-fetched on the surface, but for me ultimately worked in showcasing the theme of escalation that has defined the Batman saga for the last few years. More so than any game or movie in recent decades, Batman: Arkham Origins creates an epic tragedy that sheds a new perspective on both the Arkham series and the Batman mythos as a whole.
This is accomplished in part by the phenomenal voice acting. When it was announced that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would not be returning to comprise their iconic roles as Batman and Joker, respectively (going on for almost 25 years!), fans were tepid at the prospect of new blood. It’s a surprise, then, that the new voice actors not only match their predecessors in terms of quality, but quite possibly have even outdone them. Roger Craig Smith (Ezio Auditore, Assassin’s Creed; Chris Redfield, Resident Evil 5 & 6) brings humanity and a hint of desperation to Batman, resulting in the most emotionally dynamic voice acting performance I’ve ever seen for the character. Meanwhile, Troy Baker (Booker DeWiit, BioShock Infinite; Joel, The Last of Us) does the best Mark Hamill impression short of the real thing, but brings with him a menace and unpredictability that makes his take on the character truly terrifying. Whereas many prequels fall short due to the audience already knowing where the characters' fates lie, Arkham Origins is the rare prequel that casts a different light on its characters, retroactively making better the stories that follow.
Although voice actors and storytelling undergo a substantial evolution, changes in gameplay are more incremental. Arkham Origins builds upon the open-world gameplay introduced in Arkham City, and it’s largely the same experience you remember from 2011; gliding, grappling, solving environmental puzzles for collectables, and beating up thugs that roam the streets.
Most of the reason for this familiarity is due to WB Montreal’s choice to re-use Arkham City’s map for most of Arkham Origin’s playable areas. This decision initially bothered me prior to the game’s release, but the map is actually used to great effect. This is Gotham City prior to being walled off into an urban prison, and has been subtley redesigned to reflect a city that feels lived in rather than abandoned. Visually, the city looks so different that it almost feels like playing in a whole new city altogether, save for a few select recognizable landmarks. It’s a testament to Arkham Origin’s absolutely fantastic art design that WB Montreal was able to capture such a different side of Gotham City, despite re-using most of the same map.
Of course, it’s not completely the same. A whole new area has been added - separated by an unbearably long bridge - that shows a new district of Gotham. As a result, the total map size is effectively double that of Arkham City, helping to alleviate any complaints to be made about re-using its map. To make up for the increased area size, a quick-travel option has been added, allowing Batman to use his Batwing to instantly traverse between Gotham’s various districts. While I appreciate the addition of the quick-travel feature, I feel like its implementation could have been better - long load times and an annoying animation make the alternative of simply gliding through the city a more convenient (and fun) option, and the only way to unlock quick travel points is by solving various environmental puzzles throughout the city using Batman’s gadgets. However, the game never tells you whether or not you have the gadgets needed to unlock the quick-travel point, so you just end up wasting time trying to solve them, which kind of defeats the purpose of a quick-travel option if you ask me.
Batman’s new additions to his gadget repertoire end up resulting in my favorite line-up in the series. While many gadgets simply return from previous games - including Arkham City’s ice grenade, now re-purposed as a glue grenade - there are a few notable additions that make this entry stand out. A remote batclaw allows Batman to hang enemies from gargoyles stealthily from afar, and shock gloves defeat enemies quicker and go straight through enemy shields. Although these new abilities may seem cheap, I actually quite enjoyed them for shaking up the series' stealth and combat sections, especially since the game throws seemingly much more at you than previous entries.
Combat is fundamentally unchanged from Arkham City, utilizing the same rhythm and flow-based combat upon which the series has built itself, combining strikes, counters and gadgets to make what still remains the most entertaining fighting system in gaming. Like the city design, it is somewhat disappointing that the most of the combat and animations are re-used from Arkham City, but a new martial artist enemy capable of countering Batman allow the developers explore new aspects of the combat system.
Perhaps the most improved aspect of Arkham Origins is its boss design. The series has always struggled to find its footing when it came to translating Batman’s most famous foes to video game boss fights, but Arkham Origins finally nails it. Rather than glorified puzzles or simple pattern recognition, Arkham Origins actually utilizes the combat mechanics in unique and innovative ways towards the Batman’s foes, making the boss fights actually feel like fights. It feels silly to ascribe praise to what seems like such a simple concept, but Arkham Origins rolls with it to provide truly memorable boss encounters.
For all of everything that Arkham Origins does right, it’s a shame that WB Montreal felt compelled to throw in a half-baked competitive multiplayer mode. On paper, it sounds great: play as teams of Joker’s and Bane’s thugs in third-person shooter arenas, while separate players play as Batman and Robin who have to stealthily take them out. It’s a neat concept that hopes to combine the best of Splinter Cell's Spies vs. Mercs or Metal Gear Online, but incredibly poor shooting mechanics mar the experience, and none of what makes the series’ single player so compelling transfers over to the multiplayer. Like last year’s Spec Ops: The Line and this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, the quality of the multiplayer is so poor that it essentially drives down the value of the game.
Taken on its own terms, it’s hard to deny that Batman: Arkham Origins is the best yet in the series. However, the “been there done that” aspects, arising from over-familiarity with the concept and the re-using of many assets, as well as being yet another victim of tacked-on multiplayer, makes this seem like a less worthy entry by comparison. That said, WB Montreal has shown a darker side to this knight than we’ve seen in Rocksteady’s iterations; one I'd like to see more of in the future. If Batman: Arkham Origins accomplishes anything, it’s proving that Rocksteady Games aren't the only ones capable of making great Batman games.
*It should be noted that many review outlets have reported a substantial amount of glitches for Batman: Arkham Origins, but no glitches were encountered for this review’s playthrough and thus did not affect our score.
This review is based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham Origins for the PS3