Red Herb Review - Batman: Arkham Origins

“It may feel like the Basil Karlo interpretation of Arkham – giving itself away as a mere copycat when pressure is applied – but Origins is still adept at capturing that empowering sensation of being The Goddamn Batman.”

Rocksteady Games has created two of the most astounding superhero games I’ve ever played. Arkham Asylum was not just a brilliant adaptation – an amalgamation of Batman referenced from decades of comics, film, and television – but an inventively designed game that blended the best of the adventure genre with a combat system so airtight, a game could’ve been built around the mechanic by itself.

It was clear Arkham Asylum had raised the bar; not just for superhero games, but the action genre in its entirety. Then, in 2011, Arkham City grabbed that bar and hurled it on the goddamn moon. Rocksteady took everything that worked in the first title and somehow improved it. They blew open the experience by setting it in the sprawling, multi-layered Gotham. If the original was polished, the sequel was gleaming.

A critical and financial smash hit – loved, praised, and enjoyed into the ground. This is the behemoth that WB Games Montreal had the unenviable pleasure of following on stage. How could the formula, which expanded so greatly and so cleverly from Asylum to City, be improved upon? How could WB Games live up to the work Rocksteady laid forth? Well, they didn’t. Remember, that bar is still lodged into the face of the moon. But if you can view Arkham Origins less as a continuation and more as an expansion to the series, you may still find this as one caped crusade worth waging.

Year Two

Origins turns the clock back to the Batman’s second year as a career rib cracker. At this stage, he’s more seasoned in pummeling street thugs than taking down supervillains, and his methods still need some fine-tuning; he hasn’t found the right amount of pressure a man’s trachea can withstand nor does he accept any help beyond that of his butler Alfred.

It’s Christmas Eve and mafiaso sadist, Black Mask, looks to give Batman a crash course in a higher class of criminal. Eight deadly assassins are loosed in Gotham City, all after the Bat’s cowl. You encounter a cast of returning and new villains, but as with all ensembles too big for their own good, the game only affords each baddie a small segment in which they meet young Batman’s wrath.

The pattern can be summed up like this: a cutscene, a fight, and then said villain exits the narrative. Even Deathstroke, whom the marketing drums up to be this integral part of the plot, shows up, fights, and says sayonara. Worse yet, Origins presents the notion that Batman is meeting the bulk of his rogue’s gallery on this single night. Hopefully rivals like Bane and Killer Croc leave more of a lasting impression in the future than the twelve minutes of counter-attacks they visited upon Batman on Christmas Eve.

The story really comes together when the true nemesis is revealed. It’s no spoiler to tell you who really brings the villainy to the script: the Joker (played by Troy Baker, channeling Mark Hamill’s dementedly chaotic take on the character). Having these two opposing forces meet for the first time is this prequel’s greatest selling point. It’s fascinating to see not just Batman buckle under the strain of a legitimate madman but also witness the Joker’s sickly infatuation with a hero whose determination can easily be mistaken for insanity.

Underlined by Alfred’s nudging insistence that Bruce really is insane for donning the mask and bloodying up criminals with four-knuckled justice all night long, Origins’ reaches some high points in its character work despite the plot’s dips in pacing and logic.

The Widening Gyre

The fact that Origins plays so similarly to Arkham City is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, everything you come to expect from an Arkham game is in place – the addictive FreeFlow combat, the stealth encounters (with ways to creatively take down your foes), a bevy of collectibles, puzzles involving your utility belt of infinite toys. Though utterly anachronistic, your abilities and inventory are as they were in Arkham City.

You’re given a closed-in chunk of Gotham City to roam about, zipping and gliding from rooftop to rooftop. Between main objectives, listening in to a police scanner allows you to answer random distress calls (these always involve kicking in some heads). Playing up Batman’s detective repertoire, you’re also now able to investigate crime scenes, forming a case until you discover the right crook to throw a batarang at. How you get to that point is no deeper than scanning highlighted items using Detective Vision. They’re amusing distractions, but, ultimately, just distractions.

The Most Wanted list fares better, giving you a series of objectives that bring you closer to nabbing Gotham’s prime crime-doers. Missions can range from disarming Anarky’s bombs under a time limit or breaking up Black Mask’s drug ring by destroying his product. Goals break down into fetch quests, absolutely, but hunting down foes is too Batman-y of a pastime to pass up. Plus, you’re awarded gadget upgrades you wouldn’t find otherwise.

The other edge of the sword, however, is when an extreme case of “Been There, Done That” settles in. In keeping exact measurements with the formula Rocksteady created, Arkham Origins is wholly too predictable. Too many of Arkham City’s beats are repeated (including chunks of the setting). Hell, even some of the puzzles to secure riddler trophies (called datapacks here) are ripped straight from the last game. It makes the game feel like an expansion turned into a full release late in its making.

Worse, Arkham Origins lacks the obsessive polish of its predecessors. FreeFlow combat, graciously left largely unchanged, now feels off; less cohesive. The camera puts up more of a fight than it used to, upping the likelihood a counter icon is too far off-screen for me respond to before Batman’s seeing lights. During stealth encounters, the AI seems to lapse in and out between “coherent” and “concussed.” While gliding across the cityscape, it wasn’t uncommon for my framerate to dive to intolerable lows. The lack of a final coat gives the package this rushed quality not usually associated with the series (before now).

Shadow Vigilante

Challenge Maps make a triumphant return. The campaign’s technical woes aren’t quite as endemic within this mode, which comprises of Combat and Predator challenges. Fighting for a high score while stringing together a massive combo illustrates why the Combat challenges are so popular, and mastering the shadows in Predator is still the best way to hone your stealth skills. After the campaign is through, this is where I spend the majority of my playtime, and I’m glad to see that hasn’t changed with this release.

Complementing all modes is the Dark Knight System. With it, you’re given specific feats to accomplish that up your ranking in Combat, Stealth, and Gadgetry. It’s actually a pretty clever way of training players how to become a proficient crime fighter, utilizing all the tools of the trade. Honestly, a lot of Origins’ contributions to the franchise can die with this game, but the Dark Knight System would be a welcome mainstay that curbs newcomers and sharpens vets.

No Man’s Land

At the main menu, you’ll notice an option called “Online.” It’s in your best interest to stay the hell away from this mode.

Looking at the core ingredients of the Arkham franchise – innovative combat, fluid stealth, free roaming – it’s beyond my wildest imagination how, when seeking to create a multiplayer mode for it, your development team concocts a competitive third-person shooter. That’s not remotely the multiplayer mode I’d ever want from a Batman game, but here we, folks.

Three factions are at play in Arkham Origins online; Joker’s crew, Bane’s cronies, and the heroes; Batman and Robin. On either lot of thugs, you’re gunning down opposition with Gears of Wars-esque controls and capturing bases. As a caped vigilante, you’re basically predator in the jungle, sitting atop lamps, waiting until you can sneak up on an enemy or just knock their heads in before somebody guns you down. It’s fantastically uninteresting and no amount of customizables – Batman Beyond suit or not – will make me revisit such agony upon myself again.

Feat of Clay

It’s hard for me to outright condemn this effort. It hems too closely to the formula laid out before it to ever be labeled as “bad.” Even under another developer, Rocksteady’s DNA courses through this game. Beating hordes of goons and stalking your prey from the shadows is still wickedly fun. WB Games committed to an impressive imitation of Rocksteady’s style; from the UI to the modern gothic design of Gotham. It may feel like the Basil Karlo interpretation of Arkham – giving itself away as a mere copycat when pressure is applied – but Origins is still adept at capturing that empowering sensation of being The Goddamn Batman.

If you were expecting the same advance in concept made between the first and second games, you’re not going to find it here. Think of it as an expansion, not an evolution. If, however, you’re at peace with an incremental update to Arkham City that weaves a decent story, and you’re not one to sweat a few loose screws, this is a safe recommendation.

The detective in me suspects this might have been an experiment on Warner Bros. Interactive’s part to annualize the series. If this is about what we should expect on Rocksteady’s off years, I’ll be the first to say it: That’s quite all right, guys. We’re willing to wait for Rocksteady.

Available On: PC, PS3 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360

Modes: Single-player/Multiplayer Versus

Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montreal; Spash Damage [multiplayer]

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

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