‘Batman: Arkham Origins’ Delivers More Of The Same, For Good Or Ill [Review]
In the world of video games, it's been a pretty big year for sequels. Of course, it's kind of always a pretty big year for sequels, but in the past few months alone, we've gotten Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row IV, Assassin's Creed: Stabbin' In The Pirate Times, a new Pokémon game, and more. For those of us who have a keen interest in seeing Batman punching people right smack in their big ol' stupid faces, however, there is one game that has been more anticipated than any other: Batman: Arkham Origins, the third installment of the series that began with 2009's Arkham Asylum.
Now, it's finally out, and the short version is that by and large, Arkham Origins is very good at what it does. It just doesn't do anything new.
As damning as that sounds, there's a way to look at it where that's not that big a problem. Despite a few complaints, I was -- along with literally everyone else who plays video games, I think -- a pretty big fan of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, and if you're looking for more of exactly what you experienced in those games, Orgins is going to provide it. The same bone-crunching combat, the same fun predator levels in buildings that have inexplicably installed gargoyles and man-sized vents in all their open-concept rooms, the same ludicrously over-the-top designs, they're all back for another round and they're all as good as they've ever been.
But at the same time, while it sounds insane to complain about getting more of this fun thing that I like, it is a little frustrating. Asylum and City were good partly because they were doing something new and interesting. Asylum set the tone by giving us a game that, for all its flaws, was great at capturing the feel of being Batman and being able to just brutally wreck a roomful of dudes, where the only time you were even slightly bothered was when they were armed with assault rifles, and even that only stopped you for a minute or two before you hung some dude from an inside gargoyle. City took that same feeling and expanded on it, moving it from the claustrophobic setting of Arkham Asylum to an entire free-roaming chunk of Gotham City -- a chunk that, you know, just happened to have every important and recognizable landmark from Ace Chemicals to the scene of the Wayne murders. It was bigger, there was more to do, and they adapted the gameplay to it in a way that made sense.
Origins, on the other hand, just kind of keeps it there, and it's underscored everywhere you go. The idea, I think, is that they're giving you a look at the city before it was walled off to make the world's most improbable prison, but in practice, all it does is feel like you're back in the previous game with a slightly different arrangement of buildings and a bridge thrown in there for variety. They haven't really done much to distinguish it, right down to setting the game during a winter storm so that we're still looking at a city where the only people outside are standing around with baseball bats and clown masks waiting for someone to swoop out of the sky and smash their heads in.
That's the weirdest thing about the aesthetic in Origins: It looks exactly like the other games. Part of that's to be expected -- the game's visuals are a huge part of its identity, after all -- but it also completely undermines what they're trying to do thematically. I get that the Gotham City of the Arkham games is meant to be a crime-riddled urban dystopia, as is the Gotham of most Batman media, but showing that it hasn't really changed from the "early years" setting of Origins to the climax of Arkham City doesn't reflect well on Batman. But then again, you don't want to see a Gotham that looks better before Batman started running around knocking people out, either, and it's hard to make a city that looks like it's in worse shape than Arkham City was. In a way, they're trapped, and the end result is that it just looks static and unchanging, reinforcing the idea that you're playing through the same things you did in the last game.
It's also just plain weird. I mean, there's a level where you go into a fancy hotel through the parking garage, and it looks like you stepped into a level from a Fallout game. Walls have holes in them, columns are collapsing, water is dripping in from outside, things are just randomly on fire for no reason. I get that there have been supervillains there, but it is hilariously over the top even by Arkham standards, as are the eight-foot snowdrifts in front of the open windows when you get up higher into the hotel. It's not an isolated to that location, either: The police station has walls that are boarded up and crumbling bricks, and one of the early levels has the Penguin living on a ship that, of course, is half flooded and features plenty of banners that have been reduced to tatters. The only reason for it is that finding your way through a flooded section lends itself to more challenging platforming game than just walking through a door.
But again, nothing distinguishes it from being exactly the kind of challenge we've seen before. I don't think I encountered anything in this game that struck me as being new, to the point where there's even the now-standard (and apparently mandatory) scene where Batman gets dosed with some hallucinogenic poison and wanders through some flashbacks about his parents getting killed. That was really neat and effective in Asylum, but is it really necessary to see it again here? Is a Mad Hatter level that's just like the Scarecrow levels in Asylum and the, uh, Mad Hatter level in City something else that needs to be revisited? The folks who designed this game seem to think so, but they sure don't make a good case for it.
The one thing that has the best shot at being new is the new Crime Scene Reconstruction mechanic, which, in a lot of ways, feels like it belongs in the new Phoenix Wright game more than Arkham. The idea is that you look at evidence and then create a virtual model of whatever horrible murder you're investigating, using the magic of the Batcomputer to rewind time and discover where crucial pieces of evidence went.
It's interesting, and it's pretty nice to see Batman investigating things, but it's also flawed in that the players are never really doing anything themselves. They just look at things for a second, and Batman explains what they are and what they mean in the larger scheme of things. At least part of that is to be expected, because after all, he's the World's Greatest Detective and you're not, but it doesn't do much to engage the player in what's happening. In terms of being involved, it's even less than a minigame. It's just pointing at things while the game tells you what they are so that you can then go back to punching. It doesn't really need to be there when the same thing could be accomplished in a cutscene.
In the end, that's what really strikes me about this game: It's as unnecessary as it was inevitable. Of course they were going to do another Arkham game, and of course they were going to do a game that focused on the first encounter between Batman and the Joker, because there's nothing the superhero genre likes more than staring at origin stories over and over and over again. One of the reasons Asylum worked so well, for me anyway, was that it was a game that used things that were already established about Batman. We didn't need to see the setup for Batman's relationships with the villains because we'd gotten them in other media over the past 70 years. All the pieces were there, they just had to arrange them in a way that kept our attention, and they did. Origins runs counter to that idea, but to their credit, they actually do a pretty good job of setting the story up in a way that is pretty interesting.
That might sound weird coming from someone who thought that the story was, without question, the single worst part of Arkham City, and it's certainly true that there is some hilariously terrible dialogue thrown in for good measure. The ones that spring readily to mind are mostly delivered by Tracey, the Penguin's personal assistant who sounds exactly like Jetta from Jem and the Holograms and who may be my new favorite character, but there's one about her that's even better/worse. She's described as being "tough... on everything but the eyes," which is a line so perfect in its awfulness that I genuinely wish I had written it. Barbara Gordon telling Batman that his gadget is a "cool pwnbox," on the other hand, is just kind of bad.
But still, the idea here is solid. A younger Batman having to run a gauntlet of ten assassins just as he's starting to accomplish something in his career is a pretty great concept, even if it brings in characters like Bane that should probably have their own things going on apart from just being hired guns for a younger Batman. The thing is, the story that that concept really lends itself to is one that's more linear, as opposed to the open-world style of play that Origins encourages. The game presents you with plenty of sidequests to deal with (and more Riddler stuff, if you're the kind of maniac that enjoyed that in the last two games), but it sticks to the "TEN ASSASSINS! ONE NIGHT!" idea so hard that it's hard to justify going after them.
There's a disconnect there, and I don't think anything sums it up better than the idea that the pre-release hype for the game mentioned that you were going to be seeing a younger Batman who had to learn that his brute force approach to fighting crime didn't always work. That's a nice idea, but have you played Arkham Asylum, the game Origins is a prequel to? It ends with Batman turning his hand into a bomb and punching someone in the face. There is nothing more "brute force" than the Batman of the Arkham games. If that's an approach that wasn't working, he definitely didn't change it.
And neither did the developers of Arkham Origins. They've taken the same approach, the same mechanics, the same setting, the same aesthetics and the same beats to their new story, and it suffers for it even when that approach is just as solid as it always was.