Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? That is the question that Batman: Arkham Origins asks. The two previous Arkham games were possibly some of the best games of this console generation. They redefined the character license and created a new combat system that has been borrowed by everything from Assassin's Creed to Captain America: Super Soldier. Arkham Origins is the first game in the franchise not from Asylum creator Rocksteady Studios. WB Montreal, who was responsible for porting Arkham City to the Wii U, developed this title. Is it possible for a new studio to take over for the creators and keep the same magic?
Arkham Origins is set in Batman's second year of crimefighting. He's still a rookie and at odds with the police, and Gotham thinks of him as urban legend more than anything else. Gotham's underworld, however, has had more than enough of him. Black Mask, the current criminal kingpin, has given eight assassins a mission: Kill Batman before sunup on Christmas Eve. Whoever succeeds gets $50 million. Every two-bit thug in Gotham has made Christmas Eve his day to shine, including a new villain known as "The Joker."
In many ways, Origins is closer to a massive expansion pack for Arkham City than a full-fledged sequel. Origins is packed to the brim with content, but it plays almost exactly like Arkham City. The core mechanics have gone almost untouched, for all the good and bad that implies. Origins is set in a large chunk of the same area as Arkham City, so you'll explore a lot of the same areas, fight a lot of the same kind of enemies, and search for Riddler trophies (dubbed "Enigma Databoxes" here).
What stands out most is that it feels afraid to be different. Arkham City was finely tuned, and Origins almost feels like WB Montreal is poking around something it doesn't understand, afraid to touch too much out of fear that it'll stop working. It's gussied up in places, but it is as safe as a game can be. It doesn't make any serious mistakes, but that is because it doesn't stretch itself much. They work carefully in the framework of the existing game and don't throw out anything that would upset the balance too much. There are good improvements, but even some of the new features feel like rehashes of existing features.
For example, the gadgets are almost identical to the ones from Arkham City. The Remote Claw is the Line Launcher but with two changes. It can only be used in predesignated areas, and it can be used offensively by using. It's a fun gadget, but it feels like a very small hop from the Line Launcher. It's also the most interesting of the new gadgets. The other two are more lackluster. Concussion Grenades replace the REC Gun, and they inflict the same "dizzied" status but on a fuse and within an area. Perhaps the most obvious reused asset is the "new" Glue Grenade, which is functionally identical to Arkham City's Freeze Grenade, only with a slightly different color scheme. It can even create rafts in water for no reason other than that the Freeze Grenade could do that by freezing water. It's disappointing that they felt the need to pad out the gadget roster with a palette swap.
Even the one totally new item isn't really new. The Shock Gloves are theoretically the biggest change to the game and add a new dynamic to combat. When fighting, Batman stores kinetic energy in the gloves. Once he's stored enough, he can activate it to go into a temporary powered-up mode where he does more damage, builds his combo multiplier faster, and ignores special defenses like armor, shields and stun rods. These would be new to Arkham if not for the Wii U version of Arkham City, which gave Batman a new Battle Armored Tech (BAT) suit that functions identically to the Shock Gloves. Even this potentially new gadget is just carried over from City, if admittedly a later version of the game.
Origins does have some cool concepts. Combat has seen some nice improvements. There are new enemies, most of whom add interesting wrinkles to the combat. Martial artists are trained fighters who can respond to Batman's moves with counters and attacks. When fighting martial artists, you may have to counter multiple attacks in a row, counter two attacks at once, or even get into a counter-war with the foe. Venom thugs are between regular thugs and the Titan-infused monstrosities of previous games. They're bigger and stronger than the average foe and have the ability to go into Venom-fueled rages, requiring you to use a Takedown or Beatdown to defeat them. Combat is a lot more frantic and interesting than in the previous game, although the Shock Gloves are so powerful that they can trivialize a lot of fights that would otherwise be challenging. Fights are harder in Origins, and it seems to assume you finished the previous game before you hopped into the sequel.
The boss fights are also generally high-quality, with the Deathstroke fight being the standout. It's a simple one-on-one fight against a single opponent where every part of the combat system works and leads to a fast, frantic and fun fight. Bane returns as a boss who is similar to but significantly more interesting than his Arkham Asylum counterpart. Even the worst bosses are disappointing instead of bad. Lady Shiva's fight consists of a souped-up martial artist enemy and a few sidekicks, and Deadshot's fight is a copy of the Two-Face fight from Arkham City's Catwoman section. These skirmishes are still fun, but they're not as good as the others in the game. Most are still a step up from the lackluster boss fights in previous Arkham titles.
Origins may not have much in the way of new things, but the combat is great, and the predator rooms are engaging and exciting. The story is interesting and presented well. The level design is solid and offers many interesting and memorable sequences. Had it not been for the length of the game, it could have easily have been an expansion pack DLC. Even the way it starts off feels like it expects players to have played the previous game, with many of the mechanics going unexplained or underexplained because you've used them through Arkham City.
There are some changes in the game's basic design, some of which are for the better and others that are for the worse. The fast travel system is a boon. You can climb radio towers that serve as mini Riddler Puzzles, and upon reaching the top, you can deactivate them to allow access to Batwing. You can fast-travel to any unlocked Batwing spot. It's a nice feature and helps cut down on unnecessary travel time. A more frustrating change is the new leveling system, which gates your abilities behind level-up trees and side-quests. It's frustrating that you can't buy basic combat upgrades without first investing in almost all of the hitpoint-increasing upgrades, and several cool combat abilities are gated behind side-quests. It gives the side-quests more value when you get cool things from them, but when combined with the gated leveling for regular abilities, it makes each level feel less impactful.
In addition to the main story mode, Origins also offers a competitive multiplayer mode, created by Brink developer Splash Damage. The competitive multiplayer mode, Invisible Predator, is an interesting idea. Bane and Joker each send out three groups of thugs to hold a specific area and kill each other. Whichever side can kill the other's reinforcement first wins. The wrinkle is that Batman and Robin are also on the map and can take down characters from both sides. If they take out enough enemies without being killed, they win the match. On the other hand, if the enemy kills them, they get a boost and can respawn when out of reinforcements. This means that a losing team can change the game by killing Batman or Robin. One team can also get the ability to summon their respective patron (Bane or Joker) to the field as a nearly unstoppable behemoth who can lay waste to the enemy team.
The multiplayer isn't a bad idea, but it lacks polish and the balance is way off. It can be fun when everything works, but the second it stops working, it becomes frustrating to realize the limitations. It's a lot more prone to disconnections ruining a match. If any team loses a member, it becomes functionally impossible for them to win. It's exceedingly difficult for Batman and Robin to do anything. The goons have so many advantages that winning involves luck as much as skill. If the enemy teams stay together, all you can do is pick off stragglers and hope that nets you enough points before one side kills the other. A lot of the stealth mechanics are built around AI mindsets. You can swing up to the gargoyles, but player-controlled characters constantly look at them and shoot you in the face. The shooting mechanics are bare-bones, and the gadgets are dull. Batman and Robin get all the interesting toys, unless you're playing as a thug boss. Even then, Bane outclasses Joker, and I noticed Bane's team winning almost every time he was on the field, while Joker's team was less lucky.
In general, Origins lacks the polish of its predecessor. The game looks great, but I noticed framerate issues popping up more often than in Arkham City, especially during the pre-rendered cut scenes that showed off the more dramatic moments. The frame rate was relatively steady during player interaction, which is important, but the drops were easily noticeable. There were also more minor bugs than I encountered in City, such as enemy AI stopping for a bit or enemies clipping through walls. The grappling gun is a hair more finicky than it is in City, and that can make traversing certain areas take a little longer. None of this is enough to be more than a minor problem, but it does stand out when comparing it directly to City.
I have to offer a lot of praise for the new voice actors. Roger Craig Smith takes over Kevin Conroy's Batman and does an admirable job. He sounds almost dead-on sometimes, although he occasionally lapses into a Christian Bale growl when he's angry. Troy Baker's Joker is phenomenal and steals the show every time he's on-screen. His monologue (about midway through) is possibly the game's strongest and most interesting moment, and it is in large part due to his work. All of the voice acting is quite good, and even the new actors do a great job.
Batman: Arkham Origins is more of the same, for all the good and bad that implies. It is effectively more of the same gameplay, in the same locations and against many of the same villains. There are some new twists, a handful of new enemies and some exciting new areas to explore, but the core gameplay remains almost untouched. It's well-made, fun to play, and familiar. If you enjoyed the previous Arkham games, you'll enjoy Origins. Just don't expect anything particularly new from this safe sequel.
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