Batman: Arkham Origins is big! Not world-big like GTA, but content-big. I finished the main story with only 30% game completion, and that was after 12 – 15 hours of gameplay. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a game before, and whilst it’s daunting each time you load your save thinking that you’re miles away from the end, it’s refreshing at the same time because it’s not like many AAA releases that can only offer a second playthrough on a harder difficulty. But is there enough variation after the story to keep you coming back to Gotham?
This is the third game in the latest Batman game franchise, the first two being Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, both developed by Rocksteady Studios, but production for this one was taken up by Warner Bros Games Montreal having previously done the port of Arkham City for the Wii U. I really enjoyed the last two Batman games and was a little wary on what might happen with the development going elsewhere, and was really pleased that when I booted it up to find I was in familiar territory, barring the slightly annoying and initially long connection to WBID. Everything looks like it’s running in the same game engine with the same lighting, textures and sound, all accompanied by the screen tear from the Unreal Engine (it’s not distracting, I just wish it wasn’t there, and it’s more noticeable on the title screen than in-game!).
The story for this is a prequel with us taking control of a younger and more aggressive Batman who’s unfortunate enough to have a $50 million bounty put on his head on Christmas Eve by Black Mask. Eight assassins take up the challenge and flock to Gotham to find the bat and claim the money, and you’ve got to stop the whole thing from ruining your traditional present opening with Alfred in the morning. The style and tone of the story is similar to the previous games, and although it’s been penned by different writers, it still uses inspiration from various stories in the Batman comic universe, particularly those around the first years of Bruce Wayne’s crime fighting double life. Throughout the game there’s enough commentary from the supporting cast and random overheard snippets of conversation to tell you that Batman is only really just starting out, and you see a nice growth in relationship for some of the characters that sets up the previous games/future stories. As you’d expect with a game of this pedigree there’s an awful lot of backstory available and digging through the menus, progressing in the game, and finding collectibles all net you more than enough information about the characters and environment you’re exploring. I am steering clear from listing all the Batman characters that have been included, it’s actually a bit overwhelming when you first get the introductions, but some are good to see and I don’t want to spoil things if you haven’t seen any of the promotional pieces. If you can’t resist there’s a good summary here.
If you’ve played the other games you’ll be pretty familiar with the environment, particularly Arkham City because the map has some of the same layouts, just set a few years earlier. You’re free to run, Batclaw and glide your way around, and fast travel has been introduced in the form of the Batwing as long as you’ve deactivated jammers in the area (which are part of the underlying Riddler plot similar to the other games). Most of the story and side missions take place in the internals of the buildings or under the city streets so there’s a good balance between the open world and scripted linear paths, and you don’t feel totally driven down particular routes even when the story calls for it. I have to say though, the city lacks character at times and when you’re just looking at rooftops it all starts to merge into one. There are some great pieces of architecture replicated in the game (and even nods to city planner in the form of plaques on certain buildings), but I ended spending more time focussing on avoiding snipers and random big groups of thugs picking fights, they’re all out in force on this night. At one point out in the city I did have the entire game grind to a halt, almost as if the journey I was taking couldn’t be rendered and only a reboot could solve it. There have been two patches since release and I’ve not had the problem again so I’m assuming it isn’t something that will happen again.
You don’t have to avoid fights though, the combat is back and is as well honed as it ever was. If you’re not familiar, the combat seems pretty basic with a punch, counter, stun and dodge move attached to one of the face buttons, and the key is to create combos by linking all the moves smoothly and free-flowing through the scuffle. Building the combo benefits you by opening up finishing moves or allowing you to move faster and further, and it is very satisfying when you pull it off perfectly, but can be punishing if you try to button bash your way through. Even with experience I still had to tell myself to slow down and deliberately make the right moves and button presses at the right times. Unfortunately there is a problem at times with the camera when it decides what the best framing is for you, rather than you choosing to watch the armed thugs coming up on you from behind. When I got to the closing sections of the story I was in what was basically a mass brawl with 20 on 1 which I retried around 15 times because I kept getting hit by the AI outside the camera vision. Maybe it was intentional that the struggle to survive the encounter promotes relief rather than triumph, but I came very close to rage quitting!
The silent predator sections are back too where you have to clear a room of enemies and try to keep yourself hidden as much as possible to instigate fear of the Batman, as well as taking everyone down. These were my favourite bits of Arkham Asylum and I loved them in Arkham City too, but I feel let down in Arkham Origins. The mechanics are the same but the AI seems super sharp, and it’s very difficult to take anyone down quietly and in isolation. You’ll get the first one, but no matter the approach something will happen to alert everyone else in the room, and when they know about their downed colleague they pretty much become inseparable unless you’re willing to wait a few hours. I’m exaggerating a little, but these sections were always a puzzle to be solved with positioning and timing, whilst allowing room for manoeuvre if you got something wrong. Get these wrong and you’ll have several holes in your Batcowl. There are gadgets and upgrades that will help, though these take time to open and don’t really do the job because the AI is a bit too good. My most frustrating was when I had a section with 5 guys to knock out, I took the first well away from the group in silence where it was impossible to see. As soon as the knock out animation completed I heard one of the others shout from half a mile away “What was that?” and was immediately surrounded by all the other goons, having to punch my way out instead of tactically raising the nervous level and teaching them why I’m the Dark Knight.
Skills and equipment are upgradeable by earning XP which you get through finding collectibles you’d expect to find in the game, many of which are accompanied by a Riddler puzzle you have to solve before you can get the goodies, and there are nodes of his to destroy and data carriers to beat up in each of the city districts that all link back to his story arc. Then there’s the narrative based side missions which relate to different villains ranging from the well known Penguin to the less well known Anarky (for me at least), with a few others thrown in for good measure. There are also crime scenes to investigate, street robberies to stop, and even corrupt SWAT to battle, everything nets you XP to earn upgrade points. The whole systems sounds like a drag or grind but is reasonably well paced so that you unlock new things regularly, even if you never end up using them. I found the concussion grenades absolutely pointless, and the upgrade seemed to make them worse. You never want for gadgets though, and there are some nice new additions like the shock gloves that come in quite handy. You also can’t forget the return of the combat and predator challenges where you’re given scenarios to survive or complete which you can use as training and practice, or just for fun. There’s also a multiplayer mode here which I haven’t had chance to play, and the latest report is that the game search function has a tendency to freeze up.
My relationship with Batman this time around has actually been very up and down. I was excited for the game because I’ve had fun with the series so far, but was a bit underwhelmed at the lack of move-on in the mechanics and scope. This was counteracted by getting into a well written story with (mostly) solid game mechanics, but then I was brought back down when I realised Mark Hamill wasn’t voicing the Joker because he did an awesome job before, and the tricky combat at times. What I have realised by writing this is that I genuinely did enjoy it despite some of the frustrations, and reflecting back on the experience has brought to the fore that the team behind it haven’t tried to change the format or put their stamp on the franchise because it didn’t need it. This is a good game that is likely to get overshadowed by the massive early November franchise releases and the new consoles coming out, which is a shame because it’s well made and well voice acted and great value for money.
PS3 review copy provided by the Warner Bros. PR company.