WB Montreal’s first foray into the Batman series was its Wii U port of Arkham City, a serviceable if by-the-numbers conversion that exposed the studio to Rocksteady’s Magnum Opus. Having had a small sample of Rocksteady’s unbridled success, WB Montreal – understandably eager to prove they can hang with the best of them – presents its own take on the series with Batman: Arkham Origins.
The title itself is a misnomer; this is not an origin story in any compelling fashion. Rather, it rewinds chronological events to a period when Bruce Wayne is still Batman – and has been for a short time – but struggles to come terms with what he has committed himself to. The concept itself is interesting and brave of WB Montreal to explore; they deserve praise for presenting a less refined and assured Bruce that conveys more emotion than the previous two games, even if the full potential isn’t realised. It’s a necessary aide-mémoire that for all the gadgetry, one-liners and heroic kick-assery, Batman is still a person.
Specifically, the game focuses on Black Mask’s insistence on eradicating ‘The Bat’ from Gotham altogether. Eight super-villains are rounded up, with $50 million the reward to the successful bat-slayer. It’s a plot that’s as rudimentary as they come but over the course of the game evolves, introducing further Batman characters and themes along the way.
It’s unfortunate then that the character development fails to live up to its promise. Batman may be rage-filled in what is a darker direction for the series, but the lack of complexity in practically all of the characters, including Batman himself, makes for an insipid affair at times. It lacks the whimsical charm of Rocksteady’s efforts, understandably so given its more serious tone, but nothing is in place to provide a worthy alternative to that quirkiness. Arkham Origins had every chance to bring Batman to an audience more appreciative of undiluted and ‘adult’ Batman narratives. Instead, it’s apparent that the plot could have done with more time to mature.
Early portions of the game are paced nicely, introducing the player to many of the abilities at Batman’s disposal. Coming straight from a re-play of Arkham City just days before Arkham Origins’ release, I was fully attuned to what’s on offer, but those who haven’t played any of the previous games for a long time will once again be enthralled by just how stellar Batman games are mechanically.
Particular highlights of Arkham Origins are still in tense but highly satisfying stealth arenas where you pick off your foes silently and undetected. The fluidity of combat is as accomplished as ever, retaining that enviable balance where the player never feels over powered but is equally capable of clearing a room with style and authority. These are systems that reward versatility and precision, and are undoubtedly some of the most complete mechanics around.
It’s obvious that the almost flawless core structure have been largely preserved, with the fledgling studio opting to add its own idiosyncrasies in an attempt to freshen things as the story progresses. These trappings are more often than not to the detriment of the overall experience however. Some are mere replacements for prior gadgets – glue grenades replace freeze grenades for example – but others end up weakening the complexity of the combat.
To WB Montreal’s credit the addition of a couple new enemy types are welcome, increasing the potential variety of encounters and adding more layers to the combat, but they shoot themselves in the foot when the ‘shock gloves’ are discovered. These gloves, once charged, practically break everything that is inspired in Arkham Origins’ fighting, powering through all enemy defences. What starts out as a wonderful and rewarding return for Batman often descends into a button masher’s wet-dream to success. It has to be said that regardless of an encounter the ‘finishing move camera’ has been zoomed out, allowing for a much improved perspective of your last enemies demise.
It’s painful to admit, but Arkham Origins achieves greatness when it pretends to be Arkham City 2.0, something that is only exacerbated in the level design. Arkham Origins expands the open world to ‘New Gotham’ whilst bringing back the ‘Old Gotham’ of Arkham city. Again, WB Montreal can’t be too heavily criticised for wanting to bring new experiences to the table, but the new areas fail to match live up to Arkham City’s expertly crafted environments.
The beauty of ‘Old Gotham’ is that it’s small enough to traverse within minutes but large enough for the player to appreciate and revel in the effortless gliding from one end of the map to the other, with a strategically positioned chimney stack or tower open to grapnel off to maintain elevation. With New Gotham, much of that joyous traversal is hampered by some strange design choices, from many of the highest points of the map being inaccessible, to too many of the buildings in general being of similar height.
You’ll more often than not accelerate from one of many tall apartment blocks only to be stopped in your tracks by the neighbouring structure just metres in front of you. This particular issue would almost certainly be rectified should the peaks of New Gotham’s architecture be reachable, but unlike Old Arkham, the areas that aren’t available fail to be signposted accordingly with subtle but recognisable boundaries such as jagged spikes or barbed wire. The introduction of fast travel does somewhat compensate given the larger map, but it doesn’t exactly attempt to solve any of the traversal issues either.
Enigma challenges return but lack the ingenuity or diversity the series is renowned for; often extremely simple and require little more than a device hack or a well-steered batarang shot. The greatest enigma challenges were always those that called for clever environmental awareness, whether that be lining up a question mark or unravelling a cryptic statement placed within Gotham. Sadly these have all but disappeared; enigma challenges are now a much less rewarding deviation from the main plot.
It has to be said however that peripheral chatter between criminals is a notable high point as they question whether the bat is real or not, given he has yet to be revealed to the world. It provides a tangible sense of fear to criminals who, while armed to the teeth at times, still can’t break the shackles of paranoia that an omnipresent predator such as Batman enforces. It’s these small details that give Arkham Origins an oppressive atmosphere that harkens back to the Tim Burton Batman era.
There’s also an evolution of detective mode that allows players to replay crime scenes to accrue more evidence. There is real potential here, but it requires little actual detective work as the next clue is often highlighted almost instantly. It feels very much like a prototype mechanic that currently only exists for purposes of visual flair and intrigue. It nonetheless provides an interesting extension of detective mode that could be extrapolated upon for the next game in the series.
PC gamers are fortunate enough to have features such as PhysX and DX11 which add some palpable benefits. Whether its confetti circling a combat arena or more subtle bodyprint compressions in the snow of blizzard-blighted of Arkham City, realistic animation and object simulation give Arkham Origins a greater sense of believability. Even without these additional features however, Arkham Origins is a notable improvement in visual quality over Arkham City technically, though it artistically pales thanks to a subdued colour palette. With Arkham Origins a good step up from a technical perspective, it’s welcome that it actually runs better than Arkham City. Tessellation was essentially broken in Arkham City regardless of what GPU you had at your disposal, resulting in major stuttering and inexplicable plummets in frame rate. Arkham Origins suffers from none of these issues, providing a far more fluid experience with all the eye-candy engaged.
PC requirements are also very respectable considering the quality of the game’s visuals. A GTX 760 or Radeon 7950 will handily max out the game at 1080p in the 40-50fps range, with entry level options such as the 7850 providing similar numbers should you be willing to forego PhysX and opt for post-processing forms of antialiasing.
Arkham Origins is a complicated addition to the Batman series; at times every bit as good as its predecessors, others as average as a superhero movie tie-in. It’s at its best when it adheres to the proven winning combat and stealth formulae it has inherited, adding further variety and its own twists where necessary. More profound occasions to truly innovate and inspire – i.e. narrative and level design – are missed opportunities however, lacking the gumption or polish Rocksteady offers in their games with an apparent consummate ease. As a starting point for a fresh take on the Batman universe Arkham Origins is a robust foundation to build upon. It’ll be interesting to see what WB Montreal does with their sequel in a bid to step out of Rocksteady’s pointy-eared shadow altogether.