We knew it wasn't an easy task from the start. Taking over from Arkham creator Rocksteady to build another sequel to one of the best series this generation was pressure enough for Warner Bros. Montreal. The task to match the predecessors was damn-near herculean.
Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were milestone. Games to belong in every serious game collection. Games where every single component was of the highest quality - graphics, mechanics, story, voice acting, design - you name it. For a developer that only has the Wii U port of Arkham City under their belts it's a massive challenge to follow in the footsteps of Rocksteady Studios.
And let's be clear: we like Arkham Origins. But in the twin shadows of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, it's hard not to view the game as a disappointment. In many ways it underlines how brilliantly the original developers crafted the perfect Dark Knight experience.
Origins is a prequel, taking place five years before Arkham Asylum. Batman's younger, less experienced, more aggressive. Think Bale's seething anger rather than (original voice actor) Kevin Conroy's ultra cool and somewhat detached delivery.
The single player campaign is set during Christmas Eve, as Black Mask attempts to take over a Gotham underworld that's still unfamilar with the newer breed of supervillain at this point. To mask the takeover he releases prisoners from Black Gate to flood the streets, and puts a bounty on the head of the Bat - to which eight assassins respond.
Batman, lacking allies aside from his faithful butler Alfred, decides to enter Gotham alone to wage war on its criminal underbelly. On geographical size alone Origins is the biggest game in the Arkham series. The older part of Gotham, that come the events of Arkham City is transformed into a super-prison, is only half the game world.
There's now a bridge to the North that connects old Gotham with the new - and this area offers taller buildings and new architecture. The game world is very large and a fast travel system has been implemented where you get a ride from the Batwing. This is only possible once you've taken a jammer tower in that particular area. These in turn have been placed there by someone call Enigma, who you'll soon realise is a young version of The Riddler.
Crime scene investigations have also been expanded. By using his Detective Vision, Batman can sift through scenes for clues to reconstruct the course of events, rebuilding the crime like some titanic jigsaw. It sounds more expansive than it really is. In reality it's just about finding small objects and scanning them, but it helps set the mood.
Otherwise, it's mostly business as usual. Combat, as well as Predator mode are still in place - there hasn't been much tinkering with the formula. So then, where does Origins fail to live up to the franchise's extremely high standards?
Sadly, the answer is: almost everywhere. The game simply isn't as refined as the previous titles. The attention to detail isn't the same, and this permeates throughout the game.
The story is a fairly entertaining affair, but feels like a series of loosely related, disparate events rather than multiple sections of an overarching storyline. Things pick up later on in the game, just after Joker (voiced by the ever present Troy Baker) makes his debut, but it never matches the previous titles.
The hook of eight different assassins coming to challenge Batman is a fine one, but many are decidedly underused and boss battles are too dependent on scripting; for example on Deathstroke's, you're working towards activating numerous QTEs in which actual damage can be done.
Despite its increased size, Gotham seems less interesting than before. Arkham City made a point to slowly introduce the different neighbourhoods and concentrated the story in specific areas so you'd learn the layouts. In Origins they are a blur as you criss-cross the city from one objective to the next.
And that flags the traversal issues. What buildings you can climb up onto is arbitrary, and there's not any subtle colouring to emphasise them. The Batclaw's auto-aim isn't as refined as before, not marking some grabbable ledges that we can clearly see until we're right by them. It makes travel across the city less elegant.
The biggest issue though is the tweaked combat system. This was flawless before. Now counter timings are altered, lengthened, while pulling off specific attacks to strike special foes feels off. Maybe it's trying to reflect an inexperienced Batman, but it'll make an Arkham veteran feel clumsy. The changes are not for the better. Several times I've tried to trigger an Aerial Attack on heavies with shield by stunning them (B) and jumping into the air (A) to that them out from above only have my Batman stun them and then walk off in the opposite direction. The move where you dodge a knife attack also fails frequently. Added to this the game seems to enjoy throwing large groups consisting entirely of special enemies at you; with the combat alterations, it's frustrating.
This reads as a harsh review, but the basic building blocks are still in place. And it's a good game compared to others. However it pales when stacked against the previous two masterpieces. The Batman in Origins is seemingly a metaphor for his creators: less experienced, and making the odd mistake.
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