Rocksteady raised the bar for comic book hero games with its 2009 release Batman: Arkham Asylum and the 2011 follow-up, Batman: Arkham City. Now, in 2013, WB Montreal takes over the reigns for the third game in the franchise. But how did the transition fare? Fairly well, as it turns out. WB Montreal took Rocksteady’s formula, added an ingredient or two of their own, but otherwise left things intact. The third entry builds on what has come before, and adheres strongly to the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some may be upset at the lack of innovation, and that does hold back Batman: Arkham Origins from being as great as its predecessors. Despite the limited implementation of new features, WB Montreal has crafted a worthy entry into the Arkham franchise, and playing a familiar game with a new story isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The story takes place over one night, the night in question being Christmas Eve. Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask, has put out a bounty on Batman’s head, offering a fifty million dollar reward to the assassin who brings the Bat down. Eight assassins respond to the call, among them notable villains from the comics such as Deathstroke, Bane, and Firefly. Gotham City is already under the impending threat of an approaching winter storm, and the assassins’ arrival makes the city officials to declare a city wide curfew for its residents. Needless to say, this leaves the streets open for assorted criminals to prowl about, and sets the stage for Batman’s face offs with the hired killers. Amidst all of this chaos rises the most familiar of the Caped Crusader’s foes- Joker, who threatens Gotham with fiery destruction.
The story is fairly well done, with its plot taking inspiration from the comic book series Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One, the stories Batman: The Man Who Laughs and Batman: Turning Points from Ed Brubaker (as well as Greg Rucka and Chuck Dixon), and Jeph Loeb’s terrific The Long Halloween. While Paul Dini penned the stories for the previous two installments of the franchise, this time around that duty fell to writers Dooma Wendschuh (Assassin’s Creed) and Corey May (also from the Assassin’s Creed franchise) with input from DC Comics scribe Geoff Johns. The story has a couple of twists and turns, and one very interesting sequence between Joker and a certain intern psychologist at Blackgate Prison. Bringing it to life are solid graphics depicting a snow-swept Gotham decorated for the holidays, with nice details like holiday lights adorning apartment windows and Christmas trees in building lobbies. The curfew implemented by the story’s plot does make for a desolate Gotham, and I can understand some people’s disappointment in this, as we’ve played a deserted Gotham already in Arkham City. For myself, this worked in the game’s favor, highlighting Batman’s loneliness in his undertaking to rid the streets of crime.
The voice acting also goes a long way in bringing Arkham Origins’ tale to life. Many bemoaned the fact that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil would not be reprising their roles of Batman and Joker respectively, but they need not have feared, for their replacements do a fine job. Roger Craig Smith makes for a fine Batman, imbuing him with just the right amount of rage and recklessness. Upstaging him though is Troy Baker’s performance as Joker, who portrays the iconic madman with chilling effect, delivering lines laced with macabre humor and undeniable menace. Most of the other voice acting is up to the task as well, with Tara Strong returning again as Harleen Quinzel/ Harley Quinn and Nolan North reprising his role as Penguin from Arkham City.
Gameplay is largely unchanged from the previous Arkham titles. The free flow combat is as fun as ever, and the controls generally respond well, with only occasional lapses here and there (This was oddly more noticeable after I finished the main story line, where certain prompts such as interrogation of surrendering criminals refused to appear.). Moving about the city is a breeze, using a combination of climbing, gliding, and using a grapnel to reach high places. The prompts that appear during combat generally give you enough time to implement them, though the camera can get a little uncooperative in larger scale fights. It’s not enough to cripple gameplay, but the camera can lead to the odd cheap death in spots. This is really noticeable during the boss fight with Deathstroke and the fight with Bane in the latter sections of the game. One feature WB Montreal has added is that of fast travel via the Batwing. To open these up you’ll have to first take out a comm tower in a section of the city to allow you to fast travel there. It’s a nice time saver, rather than grappling and gliding your way over the large stretches of city blocks on your way to the next objective.
Leveling up has also been tweaked somewhat, with new moves being unlocked via a skill tree instead of a grid as before. One play through won’t unlock everything, but there’s always a reason to replay with New Game Plus and the I Am the Night mode, where it’s game over if Batman dies. The story can take you anywhere from 10-12 hours to play, though some can buzz through in around 8 hours. There’s plenty to do besides the main story, with multiple side missions, crime scenes to investigate, crimes in progress to halt, and finding all of Enigma’s datapacks. Then there’s the return of the familiar challenge rooms, where you can engage waves of foes in arena like combat or take them out one by one in Predator rooms. As before, you can modify challenge rooms by imposing certain restrictions, leaving you hours to spend in this mode alone.
A multiplayer mode has also been added for the first time in franchise history, though it’s largely forgettable and it’s understandable if you chose to avoid it. Developed separately from WB Montreal by Splash Damage (the folks behind the disappointing shooter Brink), multiplayer has gamers stepping into the shoes of a thug in either Bane or Joker’s gang, with a random player chosen to play as Batman and one to play as Robin. You can tell a slight dip in quality in the graphics, and there is noticeable slow down in the frame rate. The camera isn’t a big help either, as it doesn’t always present a good view of your surroundings. All in all, this was poorly implemented, and would have been better off left out. Still, some may find a bit of fun here, especially if you’re playing with friends. As a solo player jumping in, you need to wait for eight others to join the lobby, which makes a quick match anything but.
While the title Arkham Origins is a bit misleading (the game takes place two years after Bruce has donned the cowl as Batman, and Arkham Asylum itself is only mentioned in a voice over during the credits), this is a solid entry into the franchise, with an engaging story and the fun yet familiar gameplay we’ve come to expect from the series. It’s not perfect, as some notable glitches have been reported (among them falling through the world ) and while I hit some (like prompts for interrogation or silent takedown not appearing after I finished the main story) there was nothing game breaking that I encountered. The issues with the camera and some unbalanced sections do hold it back from attaining the same level as its predecessors, but this is still a great game worthy of your time. You may feel a slight sense of deja vu while playing this, but in this case, that’s not such a bad thing, especially since the game continues the franchise’s ability of making you feel like Batman. WB Montreal may not be Rocksteady, but they’ve stepped up to give us another title worthy of the Dark Knight.
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