Batman: Arkham Origins:
Young Batman, Young Studio
By: Thomas Hall
Today, I ate something called a “Big-Ass Burger” at a roadhouse in Denton, TX. It consists of two patties, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce…the usual burger fare. What sets this burger apart, though, and possibly on an NSA watch-list, is the fact that it is nestled between two grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s right––the “buns” are grilled cheeses. The whole contraption is held together in much the same way as Tony Stark’s first Iron Man suit: by a lot of sweat, effort, something sticky, and a steak knife right through the middle. I was thrilled to tackle this plated medical bill, and my stomach rumbled all the while it was being made. It finally arrived; I spent several minutes ogling at it, cutting it, preparing to dislocate my jaw with it, but halfway through the burger, grease dripping off my fingers and down my face, I just kind of stopped. The mountain of carbs and charred cow bits was still impressive in its meaty scope, but there just wasn’t anything keeping me there. I called for a to-go box.
Batman: Arkham Origins is a lot like the Big-Ass Burger. The hype around it was incredible. Trailers lauding the mysterious seven assassins out for Batman’s head on Christmas Eve flew like wildfire around the interwebs. The musical score was promoted by Rolling Stone. A 60-second TV spot took us through an emotional garbage disposal, showing the progression of Bruce from devastated orphan to caped crusader. Every aspect about this prequel, from gameplay, to plot, to voice actors, was being compared to its predecessors, Arkham Asylum (2009) and Arkham City (2011). And why shouldn’t it be? It’s the third child in the series, and it’s by the same developer, and––wait, wait, it’s not by the same developer? Oh.
Amidst the hype tornado that Warner Bros. hosed all over my social media, I tried to stay as press-naïve as possible about Origins. Call me a narrative purist. An unintended side-effect of my media blackout was that I didn’t learn that WB Montreal had taken over Rocksteady’s Batman duties until I already had the game downloaded to my PC. Regardless, I wasn’t overly worried. Based on what I had seen and heard of the development, it looked at least on par with Arkham City, and that pleased me. To quote Thorin Oakenshield, “I’ve never been so wrong.”
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. I do that sometimes. Arkham Origins is by all means a good game. It opens with a cinematic bang, rocketing you out of the Batcave before you’ve even processed which special brand of trouble Gotham has gotten itself into this time. Every plot nugget is chucked at you through a combination of beautiful cutscenes and enjoyable Quicktime Events. The no-holds-bar introduction highlights the overall tone of the experience for me: fast. I feel like WB Montreal’s goal was to serve you a raw, young, hectic Batman, who has only been Batman-ing for two years, and on the whole, the studio accomplishes this portrayal of our friend Bruce delightfully. Villains are villainous, goons banter across radio coms about the weather and failed relationships, and combat is still fluid and satisfying. Those are the good points. It’s an exciting Batman game, with a twisty story and lots of obscure Rogues Gallery characters interacting with each other. Somehow, though, something doesn’t quite add up. For every check box that Origins ticks off the list, there is a corresponding letdown right on its heels. This explains why so many online reviews have been bland, or even downright critical.
First of all, Origins is barely an origins story. Batman meets a handful of characters, including the Joker and Captain (yes, Captain) Gordon, for the first time, but other than that, you could have substituted 90% of the content with Arkham City material, from several years in the future, and nothing would feel different. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy interacting with characters for the first time, because I did. Troy Baker’s Joker is superb. No hard feelings, Mark Hamill. The boss fights are varied, fresh, and vibrant. Deathstroke’s attempt on my life was my favorite martial-artist-against-martial-artist showdown in a long time. Even for that, though, the world feels…empty. There is precious little to discover in the environment, few character bios to read, and almost no point to collecting the Riddler’s doodads scattered throughout the world. (PLEASE, GIVE ME SOMETHING TO DO BESIDES COLLECTING THESE GLOWING GREEN THINGS. I HATE MYSELF, BUT I CAN’T STOP.)
Moving on, three of the seven assassins vying for your head feel like afterthoughts, with minimal to no involvement at all in the story. They’re just kind of tossed in for post-game fodder. I still haven’t met one of them, even though I’m almost 30 hours into the game, and long since finished with the campaign.
Origins introduces a volley of new gadgets to Batman’s arsenal, paradoxically ignoring the question of why he wouldn’t keep them around for Arkham City and Asylum. At first glance, the sticky grenade and remote claw are fun little additions, but tools like the shock gloves are blatantly overpowered, allowing you to plow through enemies’ defenses without hesitation. Origins encourages, no, lambasts you with prompts to activate the gloves during combat, but I refuse on principle. Look at how hardcore I am, guys. Detective mode is a nice change of pace, allowing you to work Batman/CSI magic on crime scenes, which I really appreciated.
Finally, and most importantly on my list of complaints, the game is missing a revisionary coat of polish that would really improve its public image (and playability). The framerate sometimes slows to a tranquilized state, Batman occasionally refuses to do a chin-up when you ask him to, and baddies will randomly beat the daylights out of you because the combat system didn’t register your directional commands. That’s so frustrating. I tell myself that it’s because Batman isn’t very good at being Batman yet because it’s a prequel, and that makes me feel a little better and a little less like it’s my fault for sucking.
I close my comments with the fact that Arkham Origins has an online mode. I’ll make its diagnosis short and sweet: yes, there is multiplayer. Yes, the character customization is extensive, and I felt my Sims addiction bubbling up like a nervous tic. Yes, you get to occasionally play as Batman, Robin, Bane, or the Joker, but most of the time, you are a thug with poor personal hygiene. Yes, there are about two-billion unlocks to unlock. Finally, no, the multiplayer isn’t very fun, but it’s not because I didn’t give it a fair shake. Playing as Batman in the competitive online modes is one of the least satisfying experiences as a superhero I have ever had, and that’s saying something, as I poured a lot of time into Superman 64. As the hero, you feel powerless. I accredit this to the fact that every player has the exact same “enhanced vision” mode as you do, and can see through walls to spot, say, a man in a bat costume, hanging from a gargoyle. I hate to invalidate the work that went into this section of the game, but the online component left a bad taste in my mouth that not even Bat-Mouthwash from Adam West’s utility belt could freshen up.
Batman: Arkham Origins is many things. It is a solid DC narrative; it is a frenetic brawler; it’s a gorgeous display of graphics, digital dental work, and voice acting. It is a good Batman game. When it comes right down to it, though, Origins is a Big-Ass Burger, that leaves me pretty full, but a little disappointed.