Batman: Arkham Origins charts the first meeting of Batman and the Joker, but its formula is too rigidly similar to the other two games in the series to carry the franchise further.
A prequel to the justifiably lauded Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games, though not created by the same London-based outfit Rocksteady, this story is set in an early timeframe of Batman’s career, where he’s angrier, less refined and Gotham City still questions if he’s even real.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Black Mask puts a bounty out on Batman, to which a variety of A, B and C-list villains heed the call to bring him down. It’s an odd patchwork of a narrative that is loosely structured so players can explore side stories involving the Riddler, Mad Hatter and others at their own leisure, or simply pursue the main Joker plot to its conclusion and mop the rest up later.
The main factor working against Arkham Origins is that it’s almost a replica of City, an issue that is mainly noticeable in this Gotham setting being basically identical to the version in the last game, with a fair bit extra stuck on and decorative Christmas lights as a concession to the festive theme of the tale. If you’ve played a lot of Arkham City, it’s not very exciting to come back to the same place, only with less to do than you had before. In both Asylum and City, uncovering those two environments over time was intrinsic to the success of each game, a factor that seems to have been underestimated in recycling the same grimy buildings in Origins. Without the incentive to explore, a certain energy is lost here.
Yet by sticking so closely to what Rocksteady created for Batman, they’ve also made it fairly difficult to go off-course. Combat, gliding and stealth and all absolutely the same in Origins, and while this isn’t very exciting creatively, the combination of those elements is still appealing, especially the gorgeously animated, raw hand-to-hand brutality of the close quarters fighting. Some new ideas are tossed in, too – an upgraded detective mode, where players solve murders by digitally rewinding the course of a crime, is a brilliant addition that actually brings the investigative side of the Caped Crusader’s legacy to life in an improbably entertaining form. Plus, you can chat to Alfred in a streamlined, T-Rex-less Batcave in a welcome cosmetic touch between set pieces.
Story-wise, a lot of the same beats are emulated from the other games. The developers make several attempts to find heavy characterisation moments like the incredible hallucinatory Scarecrow sequences in Asylum, yet unfortunately don’t quite get there in quality or inventiveness.
It’s in this instance that we would like to see what this developer has to say about Batman that hasn’t been said before: the value of any new interpretation of the character by creators in every medium. There’s an obvious love for the source material from the developers, here, with subtly presented references to key comic book storyline, but ultimately nothing original is said about Batman or his rogue’s gallery, though the way the hero’s emerging dynamic with the Joker is explored is entirely compelling thanks to the quality of the new voice actors that take the place of Conroy and Hamill.
Arkham Origins only disappoints because, for a good stretch of time, some of the best game design around just happened to be synonymous with Batman and the rich universe that surrounds the character. What this thoroughly enjoyable stopgap title risks is bringing forward the saturation point for strong videogames featuring the Dark Knight – most players probably won’t even notice that the original developers haven’t made Arkham Origins, but what they’re likely to pick up on is the overly familiar experience of walking these same Gotham City streets, and that playing as Batman hasn’t fundamentally evolved since his last outing.
Yet with Rocksteady likely to announce its own sequel in the near future, one that for years now has been heavily rumoured to feature the Justice League and will see Kevin Conroy reprise the title role, it’s not like the series will run dry of ideas any time soon. Arkham Origins is simply an enjoyable, well-made tribute to Arkham City and Asylum that fans of both should ultimately be satisfied with.