It's difficult to play through Batman: Arkham Origins without being struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Not because Warner Bros. Montreal's first crack at the Bat does so little to separate itself from its superior predecessors -- though that's certainly the case -- but because it forms such a striking parallel to Gears of War: Judgment and God of War: Ascension.
Like that pair of prequels released earlier this year, Origins is by no means a bad game, but it feels a bit unnecessary. As if it exists mostly to keep the series' name in the spotlight until the "real" next entry is ready to be released.
Of course, I didn't always feel this way about Origins. In fact, while many Bat-fans were quick to pick on the title's C-list rogue's gallery, I was intrigued by its simple but potentially satisfying set-up. Sure, it undoubtedly felt like the bottom of the bad guy barrel was being scraped, but assembling Copperhead, Electrocutioner, Deadshot, and a handful of other fringe foes to collect a 50-million-dollar bounty on Batman's head also seemed like the perfect launching point for an Arkham prequel. And while this narrative hook doesn't disappoint entirely, it sadly falls short of its promise and potential.
For starters, the suggestion of a younger Batman going head-to-head with eight of Gotham's most menacing foes is just that; while he does cross paths with the aforementioned baddies, as well as the likes of Lady Shiva, Killer Croc, Firefly, Deathstroke, and Bane, not every meeting results in the epic encounter I'd hoped for. Some of the match-ups are relegated to side-mission status, while others undermine the promise of story-punctuating mano-a-mano melees by putting henchmen between Batman's fists and his main target.
On the plus side, not only do some of the assassin encounters deliver, they also refreshingly differentiate themselves from previous Arkham entries' boss battles. Batman's brutal exchange with Deathstroke, for example, feels more like the sort of dedicated toe-to-toe tango you'd experience in a Metal Gear Solid game; with little room for error, the cinematic fight forces players to master the countering aspect of the franchise's familiar free-flow combat, while avoiding everything from Deathstroke's staff and sword to exploding barrels he hurtles your way via a grappling gadget. While this battle left my thumbs blistered and patience nearly depleted, it was also one of the most rewarding ones I've experienced in the series.
The assassin storyline and its supporting gameplay ultimately leads to uneven results. While you'll find some breathless bouts complemented by a few compelling narrative beats, these elements don't define Origins' action or story in the way I'd expected. Or, I'd argue, in the way the game's prerelease marketing promised. Thankfully, though, my deflated expectations were given a second wind when the story took an unexpected turn; without spoiling the twisty, twisted details, I'll just say the title's take on the Joker's origins is far more fascinating than its look at Batman's early career.
Outside of the better assassin battles, Origin's combat feels very familiar. Warner Bros. Montreal has clearly adopted an if-it's-not-broke-don't-fix-it approach, barely tweaking the reliable free-flow rhythm fans have grown accustomed to unleashing on Gotham's criminals. There are more enemies and even some new ones -- such as martial artists who aren't so intimidated by Batman's lightning-quick counters -- but the title too often relies on generic fights with faceless thugs. Getting in the zone and ratcheting your combo counter is still rewarding, but the novelty has also worn a bit thin three games in.
Origin's attempts to inject variety by equipping Bat-fans with fresh gear, but as cool as the new toys are to unleash they're also sullied by balancing issues. For example, it's an absolute blast clearing a room of goons from behind the Electrocutioner's Shock Gauntlets… at first. It isn't long, however, before the overpowered upgrade begins to feel like it's stealing the thunder from Batman's more strategic, deliberate style; why waste time cape-stunning and countering when you can incapacitate most threats with a jolt of juice? The Remote Batclaw similarly robs the game's predator moments of some of their stealth-based challenge; while systematically stringing thugs from gargoyles is still satisfying, the new tool makes the previously tense task too easy to pull off.
When not creeping through interior shadows or cracking skulls on the streets, players can dive into the game's enhanced detective mode. Modestly evolving on the previous games' sleuthing, the feature doesn't add much interactivity or challenge but does offer a nice clue-collecting reprieve from all the fist-to-face action. It's by no means deep -- you pretty much follow prompts to piece together clues -- but I had more fun than I expected playing this slick-looking, glorified CSI mini-game.
I'm not a fan of story-focused, single-player franchises cramming in multi-player modes in hopes of garnering more mainstream appeal. And while Origin's attempt smacks of exactly that strategy, it deserves some credit for layering a clever twist on top of the usual deathmatch-style, control point-capturing fare. The eight-player mode pits two 3-man teams against each other, but throws a wrench in the works by allowing another pair of players -- as Batman and Robin -- to pick off thugs from either side. The online option offers some modest fun and a bit of replay beyond the campaign, but it's also an unnecessary addition in a game that itself often feels superfluous.
Harsh criticism aside, Batman: Arkham Origins is still the third best Batman game I've ever played. Like the God of War and Gears of War prequels, it's still an above-average creation despite being overshadowed by the titles that preceded it. Those expecting an evolution of the Arkham franchise should probably wait until the Bat makes his next-gen debut. Faithful fans craving yet another dangerous night beneath the cape and cowl, however, can look forward to combating more thugs, collecting more secrets, and encountering more cackling villains in a way that feels comfortably familiar.
Despite having never played an Arkham game before Origins, I also found my time with this game familiar... but not because of other, recent, underwhelming prequels. I simply didn't realize how similar the Arkham series is to so many other of today's big franchises. But no, it hits all the industry-standard requirements, from simplified combat filled with "cool" cinematic takedown flourishes to awkward boss battles that impose arbitrary rules on the standard game mechanics and inevitably require a few retries when you lose through no obvious fault of your own.
And, like so many other contemporary games, it feels rushed out the door. I've read horror stories about sluggish performance, extreme screen tearing, choppy frame rates, and other technical flaws affecting the game on every platform but PC. I didn't notice those specific issues on Wii U, but about two hours into the adventure the game suddenly decided to stop playing audio for environmental and radio dialogue, which had the effect of making Batman appear to talk to himself most of the game. This would have been hilarious (everyone's right, Batman really is crazy) if resetting and reloading the game had cleared up the problem, but it proved to be a permanent affliction. Even more crucially, the game had a tendency to lock up the console with a hard freeze every time I traveled across the bridge dividing Gotham. I hope a patch is inbound, because Arkham Origins actually is fairly unplayable in its current state for me -- though I soldiered through the best I could.
Yet despite the fact that Origins feels like a bug-ridden slog through a checklist of modern-day triple-A design points, I actually do want it to be patched up. There's a lot to like about this game, perhaps most of all its somewhat off-the-beaten-path approach to the Batman license. Despite ultimately falling back on certain familiar villains, much of Origins revolves around lesser-known characters that, as someone who never followed the DC Universe, I find much more interesting than the usual Batman rogue's gallery. (Admittedly, I'm the sort of comic consumer who prefers Great Lakes Avengers to vanilla Avengers.)
Origins plays with the nature of its B-tier cast to great effect; the back-to-back Electrocutioner and Deathstroke battles early on offer a perfect contrast of Batman vs. a trivial foe and Batman vs. a major threat from the larger DCU. Admittedly, given the game's title -- Origins -- I was really hoping for something lower-key, more long the lines of Batman: Year One. But since someone high up the chain declared Origins had to be yet another trip through the comic property cliché of every threat in the city surfacing all at once, this wasn't a bad way to go about it.
Origins also presents its tasks and challenges in an organic, compelling fashion. New side objectives pop up constantly throughout the quest, while certain others interrupt the game to force you to deal with matters more urgently. Structurally, it's not so different from Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, but it feels more seamless -- less "go to this map checkpoint and activate a mission" -- than its peers. And its combat is a damn sight better than in those games, too, even if it does drag on after the hundredth fight with random gangsters hanging out under a bridge.
Everything I've heard about the Arkham games really is true: The absolute best part of playing as Batman in this sandbox isn't the ability to fight the Joker or to walk casually up to a knot of thugs and beat them down without taking a scratch. No, it's the ability to get the drop on a foe, take him out silently, then dart back into the shadows without being spotted -- then repeating, one by one, as the thinning ranks of criminals grow increasingly nervous. Stealth in most games involves waiting around for bad guys to complete their robotic routines so you can sneak past, but here it's more about watching them whirl chaotically until one of them drifts off by himself and gives you a chance to dispatch him. It's a subtle difference, but a profound one.
And yes, I love that it stays true to the spirit of Batman. The fact that you can't scavenge foes' dropped weapons stands out conspicuously here; Batman has an ethos, after all, and it forces him to rise above that industry-standard cliché. Certain bosses even taunt him about it. Apparently this is early enough in the caped crusader's career that they hadn't heard the news: He's the goddamned Batman.
So, while this particular outing for the goddamned Batman could certainly stand to be better (especially on the technical side of things), it still manages to combine a beloved license with bog-standard triple-A game design tropes in an entertaining way -- something that happens far less frequently than most publishers would like it to. At the very least, it's a good enough introduction to the Arkham universe to make me want to finally go back and play the previous chapters of the series.