Batman protests when Commissioner Gordon suggests he might be a murderer. “That’s not how I do things,” he growls. But it is how he does things; he’s killed three or four people this very Christmas Eve, all because Warner Bros Games Montreal has given him a device that can suspend hoodlums from gargoyles placed just beyond the boundaries of the map. Combined with a Batarang to cut that rope, Batman has been plunging thugs into a bottomless abyss, or if we’re still clinging to the fantasy, a 100ft drop onto ice. Developmental carelessness has made Batman a killer.
Batman: Arkham Origins is Warner Bros Montreal’s prequel to Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum and City, set across a younger, less rundown northern Gotham island, which has been rebuilt from Rocksteady’s original City map, and a southern island that’s an entirely new creation. On a frosty Christmas Eve early in his crime-punching career, Batman is hunted by two of his more notorious enemies, Bane and Killer Croc, and six of DC’s most forgettable, namely Deadshot, Shiva, Firefly, Electrocutioner, Deathstroke and a sex-changed Copperhead. Bats also has his first encounters with The Riddler, The Joker and James Gordon.
The same carelessness that allows Batman to kill is everywhere in Origins. There are impassable boxes at waist height and rooftops you can’t grapple onto, with none of Rocksteady’s careful signposting via barbed wire or jagged spikes to warn you of their resistance to traversal. The Enigma challenges – proto-Riddler puzzles – are thoughtless throwaway busywork, relying on nothing more complex than Remote Batarang mazes and code-locked doors. Those locked doors, you’ll soon realise, are Origins’ solution to the notion that a linear path might be too dull; there are hundreds of hacking puzzles in the game, and nothing exposes the simplicity of a mechanic more than its overuse. Origins crams hundreds of Enigma collectables into its two islands, but each is acquired in mere seconds using methods you’ve already explored and exploited elsewhere. At no point are you asked to question your toolset or the game’s map, unlike in the best of the Riddler challenges in Asylum and City.
And who knew Rocksteady’s combat system was so fragile? A decimal point moved here, a fraction changed there, and the natural rhythm of City’s combat breaks down. Origins’ systems can’t be learned as City’s could, since the attack timings are inconsistent and the new enemies spoil City’s easy rhythms. Perhaps Origins’ developers sought to make combat more challenging by forcing you to contend with less predictable enemies, but that’s missing the point. Asylum and City’s combat was never hard – after all, you are Batman and you never lose. The question was only how good a Batman you could be.
But even mishandled, Origins’ combat system fights a decent fight. The game only becomes a bad one by comparison to its predecessors, and City is the cruellest possible mirror to hold up to Origins, exposing its deficiencies by contrast. The new south island, for example, is a lifeless, boring space. Meanwhile, the new tech tree forces its upgrades on you, stealing away options once open to a capable player. In City, a skilled Batman could choose combo bonuses over extra armour; here, armour always comes first and the vital weapon-dismantling takedown is an endgame unlock.
The writing rarely provides much justification for chasing the waypoint on your map (“A drone?” Batman asks. “Only The Penguin would have this technology.” It’s the first of many logical leaps). The voice cast has changed almost entirely for the worse, too, and the humour found throughout Rocksteady’s dark worlds is absent. The story mission locations are almost terminally linear and key story moments are wasted: a villain’s attack on the Batcave happens off-camera, while the end creeps up on you like, well, Batman. You’ll never see it coming until you’re dangling from a gargoyle watching the credits roll.
The art design is no better, making a poor case for any of DC’s most forgettable villains to become unforgettable, or for the styleless world to be worth exploring. And at the time of review, the game is buggy to the point that the AI routinely turns off, button prompts fail to appear and PC players have been forced to exploit one bug to bypass another.
Still, Origins is built on such strong foundations that the carelessness making Batman a killer can’t kill Batman. The parts that do work – Batman’s gadgets, the Invisible Predator stealth rooms, swooping and gliding with your cape – are all impeccable pieces of design lifted from Rocksteady’s original template. And we wouldn’t say Warner Bros Montreal has contributed nothing. One or two of Origins’ Predator challenge rooms are among the series’ best, and integrating the Predator and Combat challenges into the campaign only improves the game. Origins’ new Detective Mode is well designed, too, even if Batman does the bulk of the detective work while you follow aggressive prompts.
There’s a good game here, but that game was built and finished two years ago. Origins adds little to its mechanics and nothing to the mythology. The story of a raw and inelegant Batman in his early years is better told on the big screen and the printed page, rather than in a raw, inelegant game in a generation’s twilight years.
Batman: Arkham Origins is out now on 360, PC, PS3 and Wii U. PC version tested.