Jingle bells, Batman smells.
Video games have become so chock-full of conceits that anyone without experience in the medium would be forgiven for laughing in the face of even the most blockbuster, AAA releases. When Mario doubles in size, we shrug it off as a tenet of Nintendo gospel, but the more rationally minded player would dismiss this in the face of perceived impossibilities. Depending on the focus, the relationship between player and player-character could be solidified or be totally broken by mechanical conceits.
Thankfully for Batman’s Arkham adventures so far, such conceits—like a steady gadget progression or a health bar—have enabled Warner Bros. Games to unleash what was previously unheard of: excellent Batman games that maintain tension and enrapture players with twisting plot lines. Both prior Arkham games proved successful in packing in more villains than a California penitentiary, but the latest Batman game from WB Montreal feels more forced than elegant, shedding light on how narrative ploys can weaken an experience too. While Black Mask’s bounty on Batman has attracted eight assassins to Gotham in a prequel to Arkham Asylum, players will find something more like a cast of benchwarmers than an elite killing squad out for Bat blood in Batman: Arkham Origins.
I want to be clear that Arkham Origins is far from anything resembling a failure. Many of the tried and true mechanics from Arkham City have returned, including Batman’s fantastic method of locomotion: grappling around the city and gliding with ease. Players can rocket off into the night, discover hidden goodies, engage in hand-to-hand combat with thugs, and just as easily disappear around another skyscraper. The map design itself is nowhere near as interesting as that of Arkham City, with a lengthy bridge stupidly conjoining two sections of Gotham, but plenty of nooks and crannies await Batman’s investigation.
Players will get caught up in Black Mask’s holiday horror quickly, but nagging bugs rear their head all too readily. The open world runs smoothly, but the framerate drops frequently and too many baddies on screen can cause Batman to hang mid-punch. The level of polish in Arkham City hasn’t returned for Origins at launch, but many of these issues may very well be patched out as Warner Bros. continues post-release support. Technical issues aside, WB Montreal’s biggest problem is a lack of focus.
At one point in the beautifully realized Batcave, Alfred asks Batman why he’s risking his life jaunting around an assassin-filled Gotham even though no one knows his identity and a safe Christmas Eve complete with ham is waiting for him at home. Batman replies that the nefarious forces that seek his demise would put innocent lives in danger to draw him out. This question and answer stuck with me for the remainder of Origins. Arkham Asylum stayed believable because it drew Batman into the supervillain’s natural habitat. Arkham City’s central conceit tried to validate that the supervillain problem was so viral that it inevitably spread to Gotham City, but Origins tries too many twists and turns, none of which satisfy on the level I wanted.
Surprisingly, new Batman and Joker voice actors, Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker respectively, did not disappoint even in the slightest. I grew up with Kevin Conroy, and the prior Arkham games were made better by his talents, but Smith manages to make this younger Batman sound untested and eager with room to grow into Conroy’s portrayal of The Dark Knight. Baker’s dialogue isn’t as well-written as Hamill’s was in Asylum and City, but he’s now my third-favorite Joker in any Batman media ever. The production values in Origins set the bar for superhero games and the Warner Bros. orchestra can still sweep players up in the moment, whether Batman's exploring the city or battling a (foolish) assassin.
Freeflow combat and Predator challenges unlock steadily as players proceed through the game, and replaying these for high scores and long combo chains is still extremely satisfying. Having dug deep into Batman’s fisticuffs in previous games, I can say without a doubt that there’s still no better brawling system in modern gaming. Building a better superhero game in the wake of Rocksteady Studios might seem impossible, though fans of the franchise will note that WB Montreal had the talent to create an even better sophomore effort. (Warner Bros. Montreal has only previously developed Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition for Wii U).
The same cannot be said for Batman’s new multiplayer mode, which was developed by Splash Damage. Serving as an endeavor not a single Bat fan expected nor wanted, multiplayer pits two teams of thugs against each other, while tossing in the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin for good measure. The heroes can win the match by steadily dispatching enemies unseen and undamaged, while the warring factions of Joker and Bane henchmen try to whittle each other’s reinforcements down as fast as possible, or kill the Bat and Boy Wonder if the opportunity arises. Joker and Bane's thugs can be replaced by their bosses if they’re lucky, but avoiding online play won't ruin the experience.
Multiplayer's gunplay feels rickety and the mode is so threadbare that players are more likely to enjoy Gotham City Impostors. This makes the Wii U version looks all the better for its lower price and multiplayer-free Batman adventure. The inclusion of multiplayer is indicative of the point Alfred was trying to make earlier in the game: Why bother risking your life at all? Combined with other issues in the single-player campaign, this makes Origins feel less like an honorable vigilante in pursuit of justice and more like a committee wondering how much more they can squeeze from our hero's trust fund.
Batman: Arkham Origins is a welcome extension of one of my favorite franchises this generation of consoles. Exploring labyrinthine lairs and gliding over the unsuspecting heads of rooftop thugs still make the player feel like Batman through and through and what WB Montreal lacks in experience, they make up for in smooth emulation of Rocksteady’s tested gameplay mechanics. Even if the story isn’t as entertaining or believable, even if the villains feel like B-team bottom-of-the-barrel fodder for Batman’s continuing crusade against darkness, Arkham Origins still succeeds in empowering players and making them feel like the greatest detective in the world.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on PS3 version. Xbox 360 version tested. Also available on PC and Wii U.