Developer: WB Games Montreal
Publisher: WB Games
Do you know what I’ve learned from Arkham Origins? That Batman used to be a complete jackass. Not one of those loveable gruff types whose acts of being rough around the edges translate into a sort of cavalier coolness, but just a straight-up, actual jackass. Thankfully, by the end of the game he morphs into a more likeable person, but damn, there were points where I was routing for the bad guys.
But I’m rushing ahead of myself here, so let’s rewind a little bit. With Rocksteady Studios now done with the Arkham series, the developmental mantle now falls to WB Montreal – the team responsible for the Wii U’s Armored Edition of Arkham City. The port proved that they were capable caretakers of the franchise, but Origins would be the real test to see if they could continue the legacy of Rocksteady’s work moving forward. Unfortunately, the answer to whether they are up to the task is a difficult one to answer, because for everything they get right there are problems just waiting around the corner.
Plot-wise, the game takes place a few years before Arkham Asylum, telling the tale of how Batman went from being a wanted vigilante to hero of Gotham over the course of a Christmas evening. With eight assassins in the city aiming to claim the $50 million bounty on the Dark Knight’s head issued by Black Mask, it’s up to the caped crusader to discover the depths of the scheme and put an end to it before the city descends into chaos. It’s a well-told tale overall, with Batman meeting many of the criminals who we know and love for the first time, and some clever twists and turns during the course of the game that make it a worthwhile proposition for fans of the Bat.
Those of you that have played the previous Arkham games will slip back into the action with ease – the controls and the combat system remain unchanged for the most part, with melee action and use of gadgetry being the order of the day. In fact, Batman feels surprisingly well equipped for such an early adventure, and as such makes the task of unlocking upgrades in the Waynetech skill tree a trivial task beyond acquiring better armour (and gating off certain things until specific story points are reached doesn’t help matters here.) However, this makes for a much more accessible game despite the slight issues with the canon of the series. Case in point – the grapplehook accelerator which allows Batman to fling himself forward with speed is available from the start, which considering the size of the open world map is the best thing for everyone.
Not everything is great in terms of the gameplay mechanics though, with the biggest problem coming from the takedown system. In the previous Arkham games this has felt like an option mid-fight to remove one enemy, but for some reason it proved impossible during all but a few moments during fisticuffs, rendering it redundant. Likewise, the special finishing moves tended to be temperamental in their execution, to the point that I largely ignored them (and still managed to get through most normal encounters with ease.)
The large open world of Gotham is where Batman will spend the majority of his time, and while the sense of verticality is a fine thing to behold, the lack of any sense of life beyond the thugs that lie in wait is glaringly obvious. With the exception of the occasional randomly spawned crime alerts (which are just brawls Batman can jump into for an XP boost) Gotham comes across as a rather static and repetitive place in terms of things to do. Still, that means there’s always something to fight which, in the hunt to earn XP to unlock the better skills in Waynetech skill tree, is fair enough (that, and the fact the combat still looks fantastic when the punches start to fly.) On the flip side though, the placement of mission markers usually being on opposite ends of the map from one another ends up making going from one location to the next more of a chore than anything else.
Once inside these missions though, WB Montreal’s level design really shines through a sequence of puzzles and set pieces that, while incredibly linear, are the best moments in the game. They also usually take advantage of the Dectective Mode to have the Caped Crusader analyse crime scenes to locate clues to further the story. It’s just a shame these moments don’t happen more in the game, as I enjoyed rewinding time and finding the next piece in the puzzle, despite their straight forward nature.
Although, thinking about it, why dig for clues when you can grapplehook a foe and then punch him in the face as he propels towards you? It’s all about getting results, damn it.
The snow covered Gotham is a great sight to behold while up high – in fact the entire game gives off a vibe of Rocksteady’s work mixed in with Batman Returns worked well (most likely due to the whole Christmas thing), with a sprinkling of Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight soundtrack thrown in for good measure (with the exception of traditional Christmas music being used on occasion.) It’s a shame then that there was such a noticeable change in graphics between the pre-rendered cutscenes and in-game action that stood out far more than it probably should have. Likewise, there were graphical problems with the game as I walked around the rooftops, such as some graffiti floating away from the wall (and at the same time, a defeated enemy who continued to walk around but refused to fight with me.) Oh, and the bug that caused my 360 to crash well of 10 times during my playthrough? Not really acceptable for a big budget purchase, really. It is examples like these that demonstrate that while WB Montreal know how to replicate the overall feel of the Arkham series, they needed a bit more time to deliver a more refined and stable game overall.
Not everything in Origins is another iteration of what came before it, as WB Montreal have added a multiplayer mode. The short description would be “it’s like someone mashed Splinter Cell’s Spies Vs Mercs with Mass Effect 3’s co-op offering,” but I’ll add some more detail for the sake of clarity. Two teams of three will face off against each other in a rather average third person shooter game mode, while two other players will assume the roles of Batman and Robin, whose job is to fill up an intimidation bar by taking out the two teams. After earning enough credits by playing matches, additional cosmetic gear and temporary boosters are gained by purchasing crates in Penguin’s Black Market, although what you get is pot luck. Thankfully, weapon unlocks instead being linked to level XP progression, but while this means that jumping into the game later will put newcomers at a disadvantage, I feel this was probably the best way for the system to work without progression coming across as annoying or meaningless.
The main issue with the multiplayer mode is that, while the concept is rather cool, the need to balance each team in the match means we get a watered down version Batman and his sidekick, taking away the feeling of power players get in the single player mode. This is absolutely understandable in terms of making it fair for all, but I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated by it.
For those that aren’t interested in the multiplayer shenanigans, longevity in the single player side of things exists through the usual routes. Challenge modes come with leaderboards that place your best scores against your friends and the world in the quest for the perfect free flow combo, and New Game + is there for those of you who want to go through the story again with all of the unlocked gadgets and increased difficulty. For those looking for a punishing challenge, the ‘I Am The Knight’ mode brings a hardcore approach of ending the moment Batman’s health is depleted. This is all on top of the usual thing of optional bosses and collectables to find (once again provided by The Riddler / Enigma.)
I should also take a moment to mention that those worried over the change in voice actors need not worry, as not only does Roger Craig Smith do a decent job with Batman, but Troy Baker’s turn as the Joker is truly standout, emulating Mark Hamill’s performance with the right amount of insanity and menace needed to make him a true contender to take over the roll on a permanent basis. Hell, even Nolan North wasn’t as bad as the Penguin this time around, so it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
At the end of the day, fans of the series will no doubt find enjoyment as long as they aren’t expecting anything new or genre defining, with WB Montreal playing it relatively safe with Origins. It certainly doesn’t have the same level of refinement that Rocksteady have previously delivered, and with more time the new custodians of the franchise will be the right team for the job, but the short of it is this - you can see the potential for a great game with Origins, but until the patch hits to fix the bugs it's difficult to recommend at full retail price.
- The storyline is a well told and enjoyable one.
- Plenty of content to get through in both Single and Multiplayer modes.
- Fantastic set pieces and detective sequences.
- Besides a lacklustre MP mode, it’s basically the same game yet again.
- A large, static world & redundant takedown mechanic highlight a lack of refinement.
- For a triple-A title, there are far too many bugs at launch.
The Short Version:
Stepping into Rocksteady’s shoes has proven to be difficult on the first attempt for WB Montreal, and with more time they might have been able to achieve the same levels of quality, but an enjoyable storyline and well-crafted set pieces rescues Origins amid an array of bugs and general lack of polish at launch. Fans of the Dark Knight’s adventures will enjoy the ride, but this is ultimately only a good game when, had it been given a bit more time, it could have been as great as it predecessors.