Whenever a video game franchise moves from one developer to another during its lifetime, there tends to be a few raised eyebrows. There are definite examples of licenses that have significantly improved following the move from one studio to another, such as the console games in the Skylanders series jumping from Toys for Bob over to Vicarious Visions, but Batman: Arkham Origins does not fall into this category. Despite having the groundwork laid down by Rocksteady Studios, it’s clear that Warner Bros. Games Montréal didn’t have the creative forces behind it to piece together another shining instalment in the series.
Taking place before the previous Arkham games, the scene opens at Blackgate Penitentiary where a novice Batman is responding to a breakout helmed by the crime lord Black Mask. Quickly revealed to be a plot to get Batman’s attention and lure him out into the open, the Caped Crusader learns of a bounty that Black Mask has offered to eight of Gotham’s deadliest assassins for the death of the fledgling hero. The plot of the previous game, Batman: Arkham City, was a bit convoluted, attempting to shoehorn too many of Batman’s villains into a single campaign, But Arkham Origins makes the previous game feel abridged in comparison. Between Black Mask, his eight assassins, Riddler, Penguin and various other Bat-villains including everyone’s favourite psychopathic clown, this Dickensian jumble attempts to juggle so many characters that it’s a miracle the game still manages to retain some semblance of a plot. It’s all just service designed to entice franchise fans, but it ends up creating an absolute mess of story.
Gameplay has remained largely unchanged, with combat consisting almost entirely of button mashing coupled with timed counter attacks, and exploration of Gotham City and its landmarks is still aided by Batman’s various gadgets. Our hero is already equipped with most of his key tools – such as Batarangs and the Batclaw – from the outset, but more equipment and upgrades become available as you progress through the adventure. Fighting thugs and completing missions will earn you experience points that then convert into skill points that can be spent to bulk up Batman’s arsenal. Between story missions, Riddler puzzles and random thugs looking for a tussle, experience points are plenty, making it remarkably easy to be the best Bat you can be.
In an attempt to put a stronger emphasis on Batman as a detective rather than simply as a guy who beats the snot out of thugs, Arkham Origins features several investigative crime scenes throughout the campaign. During these portions of play, your job is to look around the room and use the Wii U GamePad as a scanner. Making use of the GamePad’s gyroscope to navigate, you identify specific points in the crime scene, such as a bullet hole or a spot of blood, in order to recreate the crime and figure out exactly what happened. We saw hints of this in the earlier Arkham games, but Origins takes the concept and fleshes it out into a much more integral mechanic. The effect of finding clues and rebuilding a crime scene is fascinating at first, but as the game progresses and more crimes appear, the initial charm quickly wears off and it begins to feel like a repetitive device used to enhance otherwise unexciting story elements. Investigating crime scenes is a perfect example of a great idea that misses the mark; something that this game is full of.
When not using the GamePad’s screen and gyroscope to solve crimes, the controls are standard for the series. Batman’s motions and attacks are controlled with the left stick and lettered buttons respectively, with stealth, detective mode, and gadgets assigned to various shoulder buttons. Mastering the controls can be complicated at first, but once you’ve become accustomed to the way Batman moves everything begins to feel natural. Rather than being used to easily change your equipment and access upgrades — as it was in Arkham City — the GamePad’s touchscreen instead displays a mini-map at all times, a very unfortunate downgrade. There is also the option to play entirely off-television on the GamePad’s screen, providing a satisfying almost-portable experience that looks great even when scaled down.
Though the Arkham map will feel familiar to some players, it has been expanded and divided up into subsections to simplify navigation. Fast-travel is readily available via the Batjet, but you’ll still find yourself spending most of your time gliding through vast expanses of the city instead. It’s a convenient idea and a friendly gesture, but as most of your destinations are usually within walking distance of one another — and taking into account the long loading times involved — the ability to fast-travel isn’t nearly as expedient as it should be. Again, it’s a great idea poorly executed.
Challenge Maps make a return, giving players a reason to continue training and testing their skills beyond the campaign. The Challenges provide a variety of gameplay from action to stealth, but it all feels like an afterthought tacked on after the campaign. There is also an “accomplishments” system built into the game that can be set to automatically post to MiiVerse and brag for you, so the perfectionists out there will have their hands full completing challenges and making their friends feel inadequate. Everyone else will probably ignore most of these features, as they don’t really do anything to enhance the experience beyond bulk up a package that is already missing multiplayer elements available on other home consoles.
The same graphical style from the previous games has been retained, showing no signs of improvement and even recycling some basic environments. The settings look gritty and realistic, but there tends to be a bit of lag when loading between sections of the map, and the frame rate drops to a nauseating pace during cinematic sequences. The grandiose soundtrack has successfully made the jump over as well, but the same cannot be said about the voice acting. When a game is fully voice-acted in an attempt to make its characters come to life, it’s important that the characters reflect this. Many of the voices fit into their roles perfectly, but Batman – the main character who easily has the most dialogue throughout the game – sounds entirely disinterested in what is going on around him. Kevin Conroy’s departure from the series left a gaping hole that Roger Craig Smith’s flat delivery of the Dark Knight’s lines fails to fill.
Batman: Arkham Origins is the tricky type of game that isn’t innately bad, but it recycles so much from its predecessors and does absolutely nothing to improve upon them. The gameplay is uninspired, the graphics are a bit shaky, and the plot tries to do too much and ends up being too sloppy to make any real sense. The previous two Arkham games played like excellent stealth adventure titles in which you happened to take on the role of Batman; this one feels much more like a Batman game with stealth elements tacked on. When all is said and done, however, fans of the Dark Knight or superhero adventures could do much worse. If you haven’t played a game in the Arkham series yet, you’d be better off starting with the superior Arkham City; diehard fans are sure to get some surface-level enjoyment out of Batman’s latest outing, but disappointment is sure to set in when examined too closely.