For a man who successfully fights crime by being one with the shadows, we have a feeling not even Batman himself would be comfortable living in the looming overcast of the masterful Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. Those are not only two of the greatest superhero games in existence, they’re also some of the best games to grace this console generation. So when developer Rocksteady passed on the cowl to WB Montreal, you have to imagine those folks were more than intimidated by the reputation and critical acclaim earned by their highly respected successor. Thankfully, these newcomers did a respectable job piecing together an action-packed outing, even if it doesn’t quite reach the illustrious heights of past installments.
Those of you that have played Arkham City should know exactly what to expect here as far as gameplay goes. We mean, exactly. Batman can grapple and glide around the open-world of Gotham City as he’d like; tracking Riddler collectables, stopping crimes in progress, destroying drug and arms supplies, and partaking in story missions. The city is separated into two equally-sized land masses connected by a lengthy suspension bridge. Half of this playable space is made of up the same districts featured in Arkham City, although this was before the area was quarantined off and turned into a prison. The familiarity can sometimes cause feelings of déjà vu, but of course there’s a new origin story of sorts to freshen things up.
The events of Arkham Origins take place years before those in Arkham Asylum, in a time when Batman hasn't yet been exposed to many of the series regular villains, nor had he been accepted by the city and its police force. As the Black Mask's crime syndicate has been suffering major blows thanks to the presence of Batman, he puts out a 50-million-dollar bounty on his head, leading eight assassins to the streets of Gotham with one thing on their mind...kill the bat. All of this beautiful chaos takes place on Christmas Eve, no less, making for a memorable setting. The story isn’t particularly deep, but it keeps numerous villains coming your way on a regular basis, and the cut-scenes that lead you from one predicament to another are stylish, and regularly bring the wow-factor. It’s undoubtedly a case of style over substance, with fan service and flash taking precedence, but we’re okay with it – these are games inspired by comic books, after all.
While the thought of surviving eight assassins may sound daunting, Batman’s repertoire of skull-fracturing moves makes combat as exhilarating as ever. Laying a beat-down on a sea of thugs with rhythmic aplomb, and racking up combos while be being rewarded with supermoves is highly satisfying; however, things can get a bit batty this time around. While the core mechanics function well, certain combinations occasionally prove unresponsive – most notably ground takedowns. Broken combos have also become more common thanks to Batman’s irregular interest in punching away from an enemy. If you can compensate for these inadequacies you’ll barely find issue, but be prepared for broken combos that don’t quite feel deserved.
Stealth still plays a major role in the formula, and outwitting a room full of pursuers can land a Joker-sized smile on your face. Grappling about the rafters, creeping through air ducts, and performing take-downs is all here and up to code. New gadgets and upgrades have been added to the mix to provide more options in the playing field. For instance, glue grenades can be thrown at targets to immobilize them and shock gloves can be activated upon landing enough punches - making it easier to defeat a large number of enemies. Another welcome inclusion to the formula finds Batman really putting his detective skills to good use. When entering a crime scene, you can scan evidence that will provide clues about the incident. As you gain enough information you're treated to a holographic recreation of what transpired, which can be rewound and fast-forwarded until Batman learns of the identity of the culprit. It's not particularly deep, though it fits nicely into the game, and could lead to bigger things in future installments.
For us, when open-world crime fighting started to feel same-y it was the story segments that reinvigorated our interest. These are mostly linear areas broken up between one of three gameplay styles – traversal by way of gadgets, stealth, or hand-to-hand combat – usually capped off with a boss battle. Black Mask, The Joker, and Bane are joined by the likes of lesser-known villains such as Firefly, Copperhead, and Electrocutioner. We’ll be entirely honest with you, we found the inclusion of these B-list baddies to be intriguing. Even though they didn’t pose the same menacing sense of danger as Batman’s greatest foes, the ambiguity is what spices up these encounters. The actual fights generally revolve around mastering a particular skill, and are mostly close-quarter, counter-to-punch affairs. Outside of one or two that are poorly designed – confined spaces with too many grunts clogging the works – they provide thrilling, often-challenging moments that are rewarded with exciting cut-scenes.
Another reward for effective combat comes in the form of XP, which allows Batman to unlock gadget upgrades. Some of these upgrades will offer you very little benefit along the way, while others - like targeting three enemies with batarangs at once - are practical and give you a better advantage in tough situations. There is a certain point where the presence of enemies with guns and riot shields will increase, causing you to develop a strategy before engaging a group of thugs, instead of dropping straight in and throwing around fists. This is when the upgrades become an integral part of success. Where a normal glue bomb would immobilize one enemy, the upgrade allows multiple to get stuck in the blast area. It's good fun to have the option to choose what to upgrade next depending on your own personal style of play.
New to the series is the online multiplayer mode that divides a room of eight players into three teams; three as Joker's henchmen, three as Bane's, and the two remaining players take control of Batman and Robin. As a henchman, you're goal is to annihilate the opposing gang while capturing areas of the map. The dynamic duo however, rely on their stealth skills as they silently take down enemies and fill an intimidation meter to win. This asymmetrical style of play sounds thrilling on paper - especially if thoughts of Splinter Cell's beloved Spy's vs. Mercs mode come to mind - but it's just poorly executed. That's not to say you won't be able to kill off a few hours here, though it won't shake the feeling that the mode was tacked on simply to bulk things up. And the thing is, it doesn't really need to be here - we would've been satisfied enough with the amount of play withdrawn from the single player campaign and combat challenges.
When we first heard the news that the next installment in the Arkham series was being developed in-house at WB, and learned that it would release at the tail end of the current console generation, it was safe to say we knew what to expect. This is a game that takes the existing framework of its predecessor and re-purposes it to accommodate a new story. While there are areas of the game affected by the shift between developers, the same core mechanics that we've grown to love are still here and satisfying. And when you mix in a story that keeps the stakes high, the action intense, and a barrage of villains constantly nipping at Batman's heels, you get another worthy entry in the series that should settle the needs of bat-fans until the Dark Knight returns next generation.
Arkham Origins feels a lot like Arkham City retooled with a new story and the inclusion of a few new gadgets – but that doesn’t really make it any less fun to play. Sure, revisiting locations from past installments can occasionally suck the freshness out of things, and the control response issues can get in the way, but we don't think fans of the series should let those shortcomings ruin what’s another solid Batman outing. One thing we will admit though, is that Batman’s next-gen appearance is most certainly going to need to bring ambitious new mechanics and ideas to the series – if we don’t get to drive the Batmobile around town, we’ll be crushed. Following the same exact formula another time out could devastatingly tarnish the brand. What's here is assuredly fun, but it's dangerously close to stretching itself too thin.