Rocksteady set the benchmark high with their open world action Batman series Arkham Asylum (2009) and Arkham City (2011). Warner Bros. Games Montreal was tasked with developing Arkham Origins (2013)—the prequel to Rocksteady's established canon. Question is: is this iteration of the Bat worthy of the Arkham title?
It's Christmas Eve and Gotham City's Black Mask places a bounty on the Dark Knight's head. Instead of enjoying a baked ham with his butler, Alfred, Bruce Wayne spends his evening in his batsuit fending off assailants and dealing out justice one blow at a time.
Arkham Origins is supposed to be set on the evening of December 24, which is a bit of a stretch considering the Bat gets a lot done in the space of a few game hours. A recurring trope of the Arkham series is the gradually degrading state of the damaged batsuit as it wears and tears over the course of the 15-20 hour playthrough. Take a close look at the holes in the cape, the scratches on the cowl and the dints and bullet marks all over the bulky armour pads.
The attention to detail is impressive and extends to the slick character design and overal visuals.
On such a festive time of year you will slowly realise that there are no last-minute shoppers running around town. Instead all we see scattered across the city are gangs of criminals that outnumber the Gotham City Police Department by a staggering number.
Despite the criticisms of a strangely populated Gotham, the visual aesthetic of the place as a whole works a charm. The dull and dreary nightscape is lit up with all kinds of festive decorations and lights, which makes exploration fun. The neon signs and the architecture are all pleasing to the eye.
Critics slam Arkham Origins for being too futuristic, too anachronistic, for the beginning of Batman's vigilante career. The offending concept is the hologram-wrist-gauntlet-projector-thing that recreates a crime scene that can be fast-forwarded and rewound to assist our caped detective in solving plot-relevant mysteries.
Those opposed to the high-tech gear ask 'where was this equipment in the other two games?'. The counter argument is that Bruce Wayne did have those tools available to him in his future however he no longer needed to rely on them.
The gadgets batman uses can be deployed to solve environmental puzzles and can also be used to drop baddies. Glue grenades plug steaming pipes and when thrown in the water become a raft that you can stand on. Fire the batclaw at a metal ring while standing on your improvised boat and pull yourself to where you need to go.
Concussion grenades are great for larger brawls where you need to even out the playing field. The disruptor is like the EMP gun from the movies where it can disarm a weapon. Explosive gel is an old favourite for demolishing weakened walls and knocking out thugs with a blast of rubble. The cryptographic sequencer enables the Bat to hack locks and computer systems.
One of the other new toys is the remote claw that draws a cable between two distinct points, which enables Batman to traipse a tightrope. A more exciting addition to the armoury are the shock gloves that, when charged, can unleash a might series of blows that can knock out specialist enemy types without having to counter them properly. The shock gloves at times seem overpowered.
The batcave is a practical hideout. Use the training simulator to earn trophies in the challenges mode by learning new combos. This is the best tutorial to hone your skills and to experiment with tactics.
Alfred maintains the batcave and stands around waiting for Bruce to return. Talk to him often because the conversations grant you bonus experience. His narrative that unfolds is also important. This is a time where Bruce is a little rebellious and may not listen to Alfred's wisdom.
The Batwing design looks better than the one in Dark Knight Rises. This new feature allows Batman to fast travel between unlocked locations around Gotham. That cutscene where Batman enters the Batwing and disembarks never gets old.
The Map feels smaller because of the fast travel. It can be argued that Arkham Origins is a shorter experience because of the express mobility available to the player.
And then there is the gliding. The Bat cannot fly but he can use his grappling hook to swing up to the top of buildings and apply the grapnel accelerator to kick off the surface with a boost. Surprisingly, Batman can glide with a cape riddled with bullet holes.
Enigma, better known as the Riddler, has a stranglehold over Gotham's privacy ... or lack of it. By unlocking radio towers, smashing Enigma's network arrays and interrogating data handlers you play your part in undermining the cyber criminal's grip on Gotham's sensitive intelligence-gathering exercise.
The game engine allows for detailed characters, stunning environments and a smooth flow with melee combat.
The free-flow combat system has not been tweaked much, which is excellent because Rocksteady perfected it. Performing combo moves and timing the right counter is the key to survive a fight. Successive hits reward the player with a Dark Knight that gradually gets faster and more powerful. He swirls around his opponents throwing kicks and punches. The combat system offers bonus experience for variations too. Instead of spamming same moves over and over if you mix up different methods of dealing pain you earn upgrades at a swift rate. These upgrades range from improved bullet armour and health to new combos and access to better gear.
There are many opportunities to stalk your prey. Sneak up on someone from behind and perform a silent takedown or swing down from your perch and tie up a felon.
Some of the bosses are a pain to defeat. Fortunately I found the mandatory boss levels throughout the main storyline to be fairly easy once you work out what their weakness is. There is a lot of trial and error but thankfully the checkpoint saves are frequent.
Of all the side quest villains you come up against I found Deadshot to be one of the most annoying characters. He has a fancy red laser that scopes you out if you decide to challenge him in the bank. Deadshot's entourage are all appropriately packing heat. The trick is to drop enough armed thugs to beat up Deadshot and then retreat to the shadows before a barrage of automatic weapons ruin your Christmas. This process rinse and repeat. Only attempt to defeat Deadshot if you are feeling patient.
My favourite boss encounter was Firefly. The guy has a jetpack and a flamethrower! The dude is crazy. Take him down to your level with a batclaw and fling a few batarangs to end his blazing terrorism.
We meet other familiar faces along the way too. There's Penguin, Killer Croc, Deathstoke and all stages of Bane from intellectual threat to overdosed meathead. We also encounter a lesser-known rogue by the name of Copperhead. She replaces the fear, doubt, guilt arc that Scarecrow would bring to the story.
And it wouldn't be a decent origin story if the Joker didn't make an appearance. The Clown Prince of Crime's roots are handled adequately with a brilliant soliloquy voiced by Troy Baker. The Joker ponders out loud to a psychiatric intern, Harleen Quinzel, how he is fascinated with someone new in his life. Jokers lets Harley assume he's talking about her. The trippy scene is memorable and fitting.
Multiplayer is also a new feature for the Arkham series. Sadly, due to the lack of online players I have not had a chance to duel anyone yet. Maybe if I purchase a second controller and challenge my wife ...
Arkham Origins is crammed with enough content outside of the core story to keep you busy for many hours. That is if you do not tire of the repetitive nature of brawling punks. And that really is the difference between selling this game and waiting for something else. If you played the other Arkham games then there is nothing much in the 'new' department that is worth revisiting. Arkham Origins has an intriguing narrative however there may have been more complexity in the earlier titles. Should this review leave you indecisive take a cue from Two-Face and flip a coin.