So, you want to make an award winning video game series, or as they call it in Ubisoft and EA: “a cash cow”? Well, look no further than this simple guide which can get you there in the smallest of steps. First of all you need an interesting and novel idea. Perhaps you are an assassin who jumps into hay bales, perhaps you have a chainsaw attached to a machine-gun. You’re Batman? No, I think that’s been done before… Oh, you want to make a GOOD Batman game? Well, then, proceed directly to Step 2! Step 2 is easy, by now you’ve made a successful and exciting video game which may have even won awards and has generated enough capital for you to make another game. For Game Two *huuurrk* The Revengeancing you just need to have a look at what people liked and didn’t like about the first game! Easy-peasy! They like the combat and the stealth, then give them MORE of it! They dislike the enclosed size of the map and difficulty in traveling around, well make the map bigger and give them the ability to extend their glides almost indefinitely! They think there are a little too many Riddler trophies? Well… Perhaps that’s not the best example… The point is, that making a second game is as simple as simply making MORE of Game One (with the wrinkles ironed out). But then one gets to game three. Game Three is the hard one, by this point people will start expecting good things from your games. They’ll want more of what they liked from the first two, but now will also want OTHER new things to excite them as well. From here, you’re pretty much on your own because the third game often seems to be something of a stumbling block for franchises (unless your Bethesda or Rockstar, who will literally NEVER fail at making a good game).
Unfortunately for the Arkham Origins, I would say that it really is very much an example of a series tripping over itself. Now, there are excuses which tend to be thrown about because of this, the primary one being that Arkham Origins was not developed by Rocksteady, the company behind both Asylum and City, but instead was made by Warner Bros. Montreal (hence why Arkham Knight is considered to be the final installment in the Arkham trilogy of four games). Unfortunately though, this does not really excuse the simple fact that Origins does not live up to the high standards of its predecessors. I should get my own excuses out of the way early and say that I did still enjoy Origins and think its almost certainly worth playing, because while I felt that a lot of it was NOT great, I still think that some of it was at least mildly entertaining. Anyway, onto the criticism!
My first issue with the game is actually the setting. Players of Arkham City will certainly recognise that the setting of Origins combines much of the setting of City with a few new districts, attached on the other end of a large bridge across the waters surrounding Gotham, set several years earlier when Batman is just getting started being Batman. My first problem with this is simple, does this not strike anyone as simply very lazy? Sure, I get the appeal of wanting to see the city before it got turned into the ransacked prison shanty-town of City but I also cannot get over the fact that by doing this they also really only had to go over much of the finer details. A touch-up here and there to make it slightly less run-down. But not on too large a scale of course, because its Gotham and so absolutely every part of it is a shambles anyway (which strikes me as a little unrealistic, even in a world with a superhero who dresses as a bat). As well as this, much of the setting might have been actually very lovingly designed, but because one spends most of one’s time either in detective vision or flying over the rooftops (or both) you don’t actually really get to see much other than one snow-covered rooftop after another. The similarities don’t really stop there either. It’s still winter, for some inexplicable reason it could not be another season! So they get to reuse much of the weather effects from City too! And then there’s the simple fact that Origins actually seems remarkably harder to traverse!
In its predecessor, there were always a few areas where one was not really supposed to fly around, but not to any noticeable degree (especially considering they confine it to the center of the prison). In Origins though, I was constantly noticing how my grappling hook would not latch onto the tops of some buildings (inevitably the ones which were a little taller than the others), even when there was a very distinct and obvious edge which would have suited it perfectly. The game was also rife with invisible walls, primarily surrounding the area on all sides, in case any player attempted to exit the boundaries of the game, at which point the game slams on the breaks and starts howling the “independent thought alarm”. But also, bizarrely in the middle of streets and closed areas too. Particularly I remember at one stage being trapped on one side of a chain, with one this iteration of Riddler trophies on the other side. Not a chain-link fence (the standard impenetrable wall in any game), but an actual and simple chain dangling between bollards. Batman would dive a whole metre above the chain into the invisible wall, just to force the player to grab the trophy with the grappling hook. It really left me feeling a little incredulous.
There was nowhere though that the difficulty with movement was as obvious as in trying to get across the bridge. In any other game, having a suspension bridge with a giant tower in the middle would scream “get to the top of here and have a wee look at what we’ve done!” In Origins though, the vast majority of it actually cannot be caught by the grappling hook, except for a few obvious wires, making climbing it impossible and leaving you slumming it with every other Tom, Dick and Harry.
Now that I have had time to really explore the setting as well, I cannot get over the gripe at how utterly ridiculous the city would be to traverse if one could not fly. The majority of roads do not really seem to connect to anything, there aren’t pavements, there’s a distinct lack of cars as well, and not to mention the various intertwining layers that would normally warrant some kind of intersection. Part of what makes a game really click and really engage people is if they can see how the denizens of the world could (and perhaps even do) go about their daily lives. In Gotham, I know its supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy, but frankly I imagine most people don’t leave their houses simply because they’d get lost on the way to the shops. I really hope that this is something which is cleared up a little for Arkham Knight, seeing as you have access to the Batmobile in the game, one hopes that the road system actually makes sense. I know its a ridiculous niggle, but its one that just would not leave me alone (I mean, in the police headquarters, one has to go ALL the way through several floors and though the holding cells to get to the infirmary, shouldn’t that have been rather more easily accessible?).
The game suffers other issues that tend to plague games of this nature in that the vast majority of the equipment is reused with almost nothing new. There is now some kind of stun grenade which doesn’t actually stun people and so was the least used thing in my arsenal, but at least they made up for that with the distance line-launcher which allows you to string up guards from gargoyles from a distance in a rather comical and deeply satisfying manner. On the other hand, everything else is something we’ve seen before or worse, something with a different name but with exactly the same properties. Because there is no Mr. Freeze in this game there’s no excuse for Batman to get the freeze grenades of the last games, so instead he now gets “glue grenades” which do exactly the same thing, right down to the ability to create a raft of glue for collecting those Riddler trophies.
Speaking of gadgets, I suppose that in general one can definitely get into Origins if one is particularly enamored with the gameplay of the Arkham series. So it has the same combination of truly excellent stealth missions (which have and always will be my favourite part of the game) and the fast, intuitive and impressive combat. There seemed to be a greater focus on the latter this time around though, so there were more and more encounters with thugs (which populate literally every corner of what is supposedly a normal city) increasing gradually in threat. As before they have the same mix of using guns, knives, pipes, projectiles, shields and all the other things which have to be dealt with in different ways, plus they now have finally actually found a way of doing the super-massive solider-type that don’t just blindly charge at you (which was very nice). On the other hand because of the ease with which Batman can plow through them (and with which you can build a combo when you are truly in the zone) as the game gets on it starts simply throwing more and more of them at you until it gets to a state where you can’t so much as try to get half-way through hitting one baddie before another one is already hitting you.
I did notice some issues, not constant but at least consistent, in that Batman seems to have trouble blocking these days because he is always too busy. So the developers clearly saw that things were getting a bit over-the-top and they still had a third of the game to go, so they give you the shock gauntlets, which make every single one of your attacks give double combo points, extra damage and be unblockable. “Oh” said I, “This is EASY now!” Unfortunately it becomes a mite too easy and also becomes something one relies on a little too heavily for the larger fights. It’s still pretty fun watching Batman absolutely scythe through legions of enemies, but there’s no getting around that it is pretty overpowered. And also for some reason Batman didn’t continue to make use of it in the other games, but whatever…
The story of the game is something I probably should be all over, but I’ve felt that since City was a little bit of a cluster-fuck when it came to the story and this seems to continue here. The main starting point of the game is that you have some of the deadliest assassins in the world after you (sent by Black Mask) but this somehow takes a bit of a back seat around half-way through the game as the Joker reappears (and yes I think that’s probably the least spoilery spoiler I’ve ever said).
On one hand I actually really liked seeing the development of the Joker and Batman’s relationship, as well as Batman and Jim Gordon and a few other things (such as the hint at Harley Quinn’s beginning of her descent into madness). I also was rather impressed by some of the notes and themes which the game seemed to keep coming back to, primarily why Batman actually should be allowed any leeway in his vigilante actions as he operates outside of the law (where they allow the players to draw their own conclusions). On the other hand I have to admit that one of the most common complaints is also the most justified in that the cast of villains is remarkably lacklustre. Bane seems to have made a slight change to more of the movie/Tom Hardy-esque Bane but is still one of the more interesting ones. The rest of the cast of villains are people like Copperhead, Firefly, Bird and Deadshot who I had never heard of before and for good reason: not one of them was interesting.
Equally, the boss fights themselves also ran a similar range of from good to bad. Some were practically direct copies from previous games (such as one where you have to use a variety of sneaky takedowns to finish off a boss) but the rest were actually pretty novel. Some were very enjoyable, or at least palatable, but also at least two of them were simply an exercise in frustration which seemed to rely more on trial and error to win (or even luck at one stage) rather than any skill. In particular the first fight with Bane where he rage charges you but you have to avoid him was just so completely annoying because of the difficulty one had in dodging him.
One final gripe about the game is that it also feels like they tried to make a move towards making it a little more cinematic, which is sometimes not the worst thing, but definitely took away from the experience here. It mainly means an increase in the number of quick-time events and there were also sequences of the game which probably are supposed to look like Batman is under your control but actually he is just performing a series of predetermined actions for your viewing pleasure.
On the whole, I think Origins is probably something which you can skip and not lose any sleep over. While overall fun, enjoyable and with some surprisingly interesting and thought-provoking themes, there was also too much that felt simply copied and pasted from previous games with far too little new to really draw you into the experience. Towards the end of it I was just getting a little bored and disinterested and simply had a very hard time engaging with anything that was going on.