The relavitely new “Batman: Arkham” franchise is something of an anomloy in today’s video game climate. Normally when a game comes out it’s mere months, or in the case of Assassin’s Creed as of late, right after a new chapter comes out before you’re already hearing about the next installment arriving in a year’s time. Such things were not the case for the follow-up to 2011’s Batman: Arkham City. It was announced officially that a port was coming to Nintendo’s at the time new Wii U system a little over a year later in 2012 but with respect to what was coming next, there existed only rumors and whispers, one of which was that City’s follow-up would be a prequel story detailing Batman’s first encounter with his most famous nemesis, the Joker. This rumor would become fact as of early 2013 when Batman: Arkham Origins from the newly formed WB Games Montreal was officially slated to arrive in the Fall of 2013.
Fans were anxious to say the least that a new studio was taking over from series regular Rocksteady, especially seeing their only real major work up to that point was porting the already done Batman: Arkham City to the Wii U. To short change WB Games Montreal because of their collective work is criminal though, as you have to look at the individual work of those who formed the studio: Eric Holmes, Creative Director at WBGM was one of the minds behind the superb Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction; Executive Producer Ben Mattes worked on the criminally underrated Prince of Persia 2008 and the story was aided by Corey May who helped craft the story of Assassin’s Creed II, which in my opinion was one of the single best games this past console generation, if not all time.
So with all that history out-of-the-way, the only real questions to ask are: Is Batman: Arkham Origins any good? and is it worthy to exist alongside its siblings developed by Rocksteady? If you ask a lot of people, they may say no both of those questions with a pretty large amount of venom. For me at least, I would answer both with a very enthusiastic yes, though with a few minor grievances and caveats.
Set five years before the events of the ground breaking Batman: Arkham Asylum, Origins stars a Batman who is very much in the infancy of his crime-fighting career. It’s Christmas Eve in the middle of a terrible winter blizzard in Gotham City and Roman Sionis, otherwise known as Black Mask, has issued a bounty on the head of Batman that attracts the attention of a motley group of villains, including returning characters like Deadshot and Bane, as well as new comers such as Deathstroke. Of course a monkey wrench is thrown in this plot when a mysterious character known only as the Joker enters the scene with some sinister plans of his very own.
One of the complaints logged against Origins is that it sets up a plot that features a never before seen villain in the “Arkham” universe in Black Mask, as well as the above mentioned Deathstroke, who exit the plot fairly early in to once again focus on the Joker, who stole the show in both “Asylum” and “City”. Though I too was disappointed over this development at first, I quickly changed my opinion because the story being told was so good.
This game is designed as an origin for Batman, hence the title “Arkham: Origins”, but it’s also very much an origin for the Clown Prince of Crime too. Much like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, this Joker is just a mad dog just causing anarchy for, well, just because, but upon meeting Batman he’s awakened by his new purpose. Perhaps the best section of the game featuring the Joker is one where he’s playable that I won’t spoil here even though the game is over a year old; it just has to be played and experienced. His introduction into the game’s narrative is also one of my favorite in the entire “Arkham” series, using Christmas melodies to send shivers down the spines of the player.
That’s not to say that Batman himself doesn’t get his dues either. I very much liked playing a very dangerous yet inexperienced Batman who’s less restrained and more brutal. Probably the best part of the story is the developing relationship with Batman and Alfred, as at this point Bruce’s faithful guardian/servant is very much disapproving of his choice to have transformed himself into his costumed persona, often telling him to sit things out in favor of the police handling the situation, which Bruce will have no part of. My personal favorite part of the game, which is a carry over from “Arkham City” is the random conversations by the regular street thugs. In this time period Batman is still very much a myth and hearing their theories over what exactly he is: a vampire, a monster, or just a guy in a costume, is really funny.
Series mainstays Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are out as Batman and the Joker respectively, replaced by Roger Craig Smith and Troy “I’m LITERALLY in every video game ever” Baker. Both are great in the roles, and though Smith does venture into growly Christian Bale territory at times, he still fits the role very well. As good as the new Batman is though, Troy Baker does an exceptional job as the Joker, a daunting task seeing he’s taking over for the beloved Mark Hamill who retired the role after Batman: Arkham City. Baker could have easily tried to emulate Hamill before him, something I’m sure he could easily do, but he really makes the role his own and often makes the character scarier than he has ever been before.
People who have played “Asylum and “City” to death will feel right at home in picking up their controller to play “Origins”, and this is yet another area that fans are polarized over. A complaint is that “Origins” does little to evolve the established formula, but for me, this is a series very much in its infancy so I have yet to get tired of it, unlike something like Assassin’s Creed where I don’t think I’ll be able to pick up a new chapter for many, many years.
The game still consists of the same excellent free-flow combat mixed with stealth and open-world exploration. The map itself uses a lot of recycled assets from “City”, so much that the Rocksteady team is still credited for their completed work, but there’s enough new areas to keep everything interesting and it’s interesting to see areas that were rundown in the future in their original, non-quarantined state. A welcome new feature is the Bat-Wing, a vehicle that you don’t get to pilot sadly but something you can use to fast-travel around Gotham once you’ve liberated a control tower from the clutches of a pre-Riddler Edward Nigma, who once again returns as a plot device to convince you to abandon your main objective and hunt question mark trophies.
“Origins” does feature some new wrinkles to the established gameplay that give it its own unique identity. The hand-to-hand sections put you on the edge of your seat even more than before with new combatants such as ninjas who require a series of counters to take down as well as members of Bane’s army who have to have their venom packs disabled first. Each almost lose some of their luster though due to the latest addition in Batman’s arsenal.
The two really new toys, some like the glue grenade don’t count as they’re replacements for the freeze grenade, are the remote grapple and the shock gloves. The remote grapple functions a lot like the line launcher in that you can create grapple points but it can also be used to attach enemies to gargoyles during stealth encounters, something that can take the difficulty out of them however you can only do so up to three times and heavier foes or ones with radar disruptors are immune to this so you still have to rely on your old tactics.
The shock gloves will be immediately familiar to those who played the Armored Edition on Wii U. You charge up your gauntlets through combat and when the gauge is full, you depress both analog sticks to enter charged mode. When in this mode, you can easily dispatch any enemies with little to no difficulty and it takes a lot of the fun out of the “Arkham” combat, especially with the “Origins” exclusive combatants. Of course, you don’t need to use them at all, which is what I tended to do unless I was at death’s door.
WB Games Montreal expanded the crime scene recreations into something more than hunting for one that one clue in a set square to follow a trail. You view a crime scene from start to finish and have to rewind and fast-forward the footage while Batman narrates the major points. It’s much more interactive and cinematic yet even with the new button functions it still very much feels like your hunting for that one special spot, and you still don’t feel you’re deducing anything on your own.
An area in which the “Arkham” series has really struggled is in the boss encounters and of the three main entries in the series, this game probably has the most well-rounded lot, though I was let down by the final encounter which is a near carbon copy of the excellent Mr. Freeze fight from “City”. The fight with Deathstoke is probably the best example of how an “Arkham” fight should be with the two squaring off in an intense hand-to-hand showdown and thankfully, now this may be considered is a spoiler, there is no fight with the Joker. Unfortunately some of the assassin’s, like the Electrocutioner and Lady Shiva do get pushed to the way side, in fact in my first play through I missed Shiva entirely.
Now it comes to the point where I have to discuss the biggest problem with this game, its overall performance. When it launched in October 2013, this game had major performance issues that froze the game to the point where the system had to be shut-off directly from the console and in some extreme cases, erased your saved progress, something I’m grateful never happened to me. Even a year after the fact playing the Wii U version I did experience moments where the game slowed down and I had to hard reset my console. This may be because this version was somewhat abandoned, something I’ll discuss in the next section.
WHAT’S NEW FOR Wii U
This game was made by those who handled bringing Batman: Arkham City to the Wii U and overall, I was a little disappointed that this game lost some of that ports functionality. The map is still on the tablet controller which is still the best way to play in my opinion and thankfully having to use the remote-control batarang on the tablet has been left out. One of my favorite things about the Wii U port of “City” was quick selecting the gadgets on the tablet, which is gone, as is the touch screen hacking mini-game. It allows the game to feel in-line with the PS3/Xbox 360 SKU’s but it also takes away everything that makes playing on the Wii U so unique.
This version of the game came without multiplayer and also at $10 less than elsewhere, something I never really bothered with anyway as I was only interested in the main game anyway. If multiplayer is your cup of tea, this version isn’t for you. As the months went on the add-on Season Pass content was also cancelled for the Wii U, so for those looking for the complete “Origins” experience in the form of the New Year’s themed DLC Cold, Cold, Heart, you won’t find it here. Overall if you have any other system to play this game on, consider the Wii U version something to pass on.
Batman: Arkham Origins may not do a lot to expand on what came before it, however the overall package is still a very well put together game that is worthy of the “Arkham” brand, technical hick-ups and all. The combat is still incredibly satisfying, the story will gripe you until the end and the recast Batman and Joker are worthy heirs to the role. My fear is that this game was received so negatively by fans that this studio won’t get a chance to really show what they can do with this license, but with Rocksteady leaving the franchise behind with the completion of Batman: Arkham Knight, I can’t think of anyone else better suited to carrying on their legacy than WB Games Montreal.