Batman: Arkham Origins review: same bat-time

No matter how precise the imitation, no one has ever gained the notoriety of da Vinci or Van Gogh by replicating their styles exactly. This is the problem WB Montreal and Splash Damage have been forced to face. Batman: Arkham Origins is a perfectly competent facsimile of Rocksteady's work, but it seems the new studio had trouble finding many ways to put its own mark on a series that has already been so well-defined.


Arkham Origins is particularly prone to this problem. The developers were so meticulous to color inside Rocksteady's lines that it doesn't really have its own identity. It's not entirely bereft of new ideas, and one notable aspect actually does improve on the other titles. Boss fights have undergone a huge facelift. The previous two Arkham games would too often fall back on hulking brutes for their boss fights, and failed to utilize the strengths of its expertly polished combat system. Arkham Origins uses its central conceit of assassins sent to kill the Bat to offer much more differentiated fights. Though the occasional brute battle rears its head, for the most part the assassins offer some much-needed variety. Deathstroke is a particularly great battle because the game wisely resists the urge to throw out distracting goons and allows it to breathe as a simple man-to-man bout.

The apparent ability to rethink and correct one of the most pronounced weaknesses of the Arkham series shows just how much potential these studios had. That makes it all the more disappointing when they fall back on old gimmicks. It even reuses the exact gameplay function of Mr. Freeze's ice power from Arkham City. Even if the explanation is slightly different, its function remains the same.

Origins' tendency to copy gadget mechanics is particularly baffling in a game that is ostensibly supposed to be about a leaner, greener Batman. Aside from the occasional cutscene that accents his rookie status, it constantly misses the opportunity to portray Batman as a less experienced crime-fighter. From a gameplay perspective, this makes sense. As the third game in the franchise, removing tools from the player would feel like a step back. But it just marks another way Origins could have stood out from its predecessors, and instead remains extremely familiar.

The story is impacted by this decision as well. Despite the title, this isn't so much a game about the origins of the "Bat Man," and only cursory steps are given to explain the origins of Arkham Asylum itself. This story revolves more around how he gained his fame among police and the criminal underworld, and his first encounters with some of his rogue's gallery. He already has the suit, the cave, and his absurd hyper-competence. He even uses the Batwing, a fully equipped jet with an auto-pilot function that would make DARPA jealous. If Batman: Year One is the standard-bearer for inexperienced Batman stories, this feels like it would be called Year Five or Six-ish.

The pacing seems a little off too. The narrative arc reaches a crescendo, and then continues for a few more hours. This might have been fine if it had packed some clever twist or subversion on what we already knew, but instead it just reinforces the themes and sets the pieces into place. Like many prequels, it seemed too intent on table-setting when it could have left some blanks for us to fill in with our imaginations.

I'd also be remiss not to mention the technical snags I experienced post-game. Though bugs were rare during the main campaign, venturing back into Gotham to take care of unfinished sidequests resulted in frequent freezes, forcing me to restart the game or even the console entirely. I've since given up on finishing those threads, at least until a patch fixes the problem.

Outside of the campaign, Origins does attempt to bring something entirely new to the table with an online multiplayer mode. The idea of Batman and Robin acting as a third party in the midst of a firefight gets credit for being unique, at least. But Batman's tools in the single-player are largely engineered to take advantage of predictable AI patterns. Human opponents, who know they're being hunted, bring down the dynamic duo and stymie their special moves far too easily. This mode seems destined to be forgotten, pushed aside with all the other somewhat clever but ultimately superfluous multiplayer modes we've seen in recent years.

The real shame of Batman: Arkham Origins is that those attempts at innovation are so clearly visible. The studios have obviously made an attempt to freshen up the series, and some changes like the boss battles are actually very successful. But those changes are fairly minor in the grander scope of the game as a whole, leaving Arkham Origins unable to escape from under its predecessors' shadows. [6]

This review is based on retail Xbox 360 code provided by the publisher. Batman: Arkham Origins is now available at retail on PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U for $59.99. It is also available for download on PlayStation Network and PC. The game is rated T.