If recent interpretations of the character are anything to go by, the young Batman was a pretty angry crime fighter. In the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, a seething Christian Bale literally spit some of his lines. In the new Arkham Origins – the third game in Warner Bros’ series – the Dark Knight chews out anyone and everyone he encounters, including his trusty butler Alfred. When his ever-loyal servant questions the inexperienced crime-fighter’s wisdom in pursuing a group of hardened assassins, Bats snaps at him about the effect he believes he’s having on thieves and murderers. “I’m the reason they think twice!” he yells before angrily storming off, effectively telling Alfred to shut the hell up. As if the exchange wasn’t icy enough, the chastised butler calls his boss up on the Batphone a few minutes later and apologizes for getting out of line.
It’s easy to take poor, old Alfred’s side in this particular spat. After all, he’s not the raging sociopath who can’t tell friend from foe. Sure, Batman is pretty cool with his martial arts and fancy gadgets, but in Arkham Origins – set within the first few years of his war on crime – he’s really not a nice guy. He’s downright unlikeable.
That unsettled relationship with the protagonist sets the tone for the game, which is the first in the series not built by U.K. developer Rocksteady. Instead, the task has fallen to Warner Bros. Montreal, which got its figurative feet wet with the franchise on last year’s Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, a Wii U port of the 2011 game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Rocksteady set the gaming world on fire with the original Arkham Asylum in 2009, with that title and its follow-up among the most acclaimed releases of this current console generation. The studio is now working on a top-secret project – possibly a new Batman game for next-generation consoles – leaving Warner Bros. Montreal with some big shoes to fill.
Fans of the franchise might step into this third game with a sense of doubt. Can the Canadian operation follow up on what was essentially a masterpiece? Can it not screw up what was pretty close to perfection? Happily, they certainly didn’t. Arkham Origins is a very good game that stands on its own and delivers the same excellent adventure, exceptionally timed fights, clever puzzle-solving, hauntingly beautiful graphics and characters as memorable its predecessors.
However, there are a few areas where it doesn’t quite match Rocksteady’s lofty achievements, writing being the most noticeable shortfall. The story begins as Black Mask, a gangster whose name suggests his costume, puts a hit out on Batman, the relatively new vigilante who has been crimping his business. Eight assassins come to Gotham City looking to cash in, on Christmas Eve no less.
The inevitable encounters, although filled with tension and pulse-pounding action, often devolve into clichéd dialogue, such as when a bo-staff wielding Deathstroke tells Batman, “So, we meet at last.” Later, when Batman is looking for his nemesis the Joker, a henchman barks “Go to hell,” to which he growls, “Wrong answer.” This sort of stilted back-and-forth is straight out of 1970s Clint Eastwood movies.
The plot also meanders around, with Batman haphazardly bouncing from one villainous encounter to another. While the previous two games also made a point of incorporating much of the Caped Crusader’s rogues’ gallery and sometimes stretched to connect them, the plot points that tie the baddies together here are even slimmer. How Bats goes from Black Mask to the Joker and then to Bane might require a replay to fully grasp.
Batman also doesn’t appear to be too bright, which is more likely the result of plot holes rather than his inexperience. At the conclusion of one battle with Bane, for example, he tags him with a tracer. When he later overhears a report that the villain has been killed, he visits the morgue to check the body and, upon discovering that it’s a fake, he finally turns to his tracking device. Wouldn’t the world’s greatest detective, even in his early days – or anyone with common sense for that matter – have tried the tracer first?
Fortunately, some great voice acting lifts the strained story and dialogue. Much was made by fans that long-time regulars Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill weren’t returning to their respective roles of Batman and Joker, but their replacements – Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker – do an amazing job filling in. Baker even pulls off Hamill’s trademark cackle, with both new actors sounding uncannily like their forerunners.
Still, their performances can’t entirely bring the story up to par for a Batman product. As a character who relies primarily on his smarts to get by, the writing just isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. In that sense, Arkham Origins doesn’t really feel like a good Batman yarn.
But the action is still great, with Warner Bros. Montreal opting to stick with Rocksteady’s proven formula. Combat is all about learning how to perfectly time Batman’s attacks and counters, with a variety of bad guys – from knife- and stun-baton wielding to machine-gun toting – providing a steady stream of challenging battles.
There are a few new gadgets this time around, with the remote claw, concussion blaster and electro-gloves the most notable. The claw lets Batman rope two enemies into each other or objects lying around while the blaster can stun a group of opponents. The gloves were my personal favourite; they add electrifying zaps to his punches, further turning him into a one-man army.
As in previous games, experience points are earned and spent on upgrades such as better combat armour or longer-ranged gadgets. Origins adds an element here in the form of the Dark Knight System, or extra challenges that, if completed, unlock special bonuses. Taking out a room full of enemies without being seen, or performing sliding takedowns, for example, can lead to an item power-up.
It is worth noting that the upgrade screens and menus themselves have taken a decided downturn in presentation. They’re inelegantly text heavy and a little confusing to navigate, which is a step down from the slick and smooth interfaces of Arkham City. It’s just another one of those little things that feels slightly off in this game.
Also new are expanded crime scenes, where Batman is supposed to stretch more of his renowned detective muscle. As in previous games, he examines clues with his detective vision, but here, he links them together into a sort of virtual time-lapse video. The player can rewind or fast-forward through scenes to figure out exactly what happened.
There are also two new types of thugs – the muscle-bound armoured enforcers and the lithe martial artists. The big goons require rapid-fire beatdowns while the spry opponents force well-timed counters. Along with the new gadgets, both add more variety to fights, but neither are all that tough.
Last among the new additions is a multiplayer mode, which is intriguing in its concept. Players form up as gang members in the employ of either Bane or the Joker, with typical third-person-shooter action ensuing. The two gangs battle it out for control over territory, but complicating the situation are a pair of additional players, who take on the roles of Batman and Robin.
While gang players are limited to standard shooter controls, the Dynamic Duo have an arsenal of gadgets and a full run of the board, meaning they can climb or grapple anywhere they like in their quest to slow down both gangs. Further upping the ante is the gang players’ ability to take control of their super villain (and super-charged) leaders halfway through a match.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to test the multiplayer prior to the game’s release because of a lack of online players. We’ll add in some further thoughts on this mode in the days ahead.
None of the new additions to the single-player game, with the exception of the electro-gloves, are particularly compelling and are, as in the case of the Dark Knight System, entirely optional. Fans of the series can still play Arkham Origins the same way they’ve played previous entries, and that’s perhaps the best, final word on the game. Warner Bros. Montreal has done a good job at delivering more of the same Batman goodness established by Rocksteady, even if it isn’t perfect.
In some ways, that’s fitting because – as a prequel set in his early career – neither is Batman at this point. Just as Origins represents a start for the Dark Knight, so too is the game a solid starting point for the new Montreal studio.