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Batman: Arkham Origins was always going to come under intense scrutiny, as series’ creator Rocksteady allowed the franchise to leave the nest under the guidance of Warner Bros. Montreal. This is the studio's first full debut and it’s certainly got some large bat-shaped boots to fill in order to live up to the series’ rabid fans spiralling expectations.

 

Prequel to the Sequel

First things first, I'll set my stall out. I was among the majority who hailed Arkham Asylum as a masterpiece; it was an excellently stitched together game in the metroidvania mold that perfectly encapsulated that smooth arc of skills, unlocks and abilities in a way that few games ever do. By the time you’d got to the end of that title you truly felt like Batman, with every skill and utensil aiding you in one way or another with your incessant crackdown on crime. The asylum itself was a compact joy that encouraged discovery while never feeling too sprawling or chaotic, and the story was focused, exciting, and best of all, felt like an actual comic book.

While I was in the majority with my opinion on that title, sure, when it came to Batman: Arkham City I was firmly in the opposite camp. Something about it just didn’t entirely click with me, and it wasn’t until playing through Arkham Origins that I truly realised its faults.

As indicated in the title, Batman:Arkham Origins is a prequel to the previous titles, set five full years before the events of Arkham Asylum, during the midst of winter, Christmas Eve to be precise. The titular Batman has only been donning his crime-fighting garb for a couple of years and is still a relative minnow in the Gotham world, so to speak. It’s refreshing to get a look at the caped crusader before he was chums with Commissioner Gordon, before the Joker had made his name and before Edward Nigma had ever taken the Batman for a fool. Many people are still unwitting to the Bat’s existence, although they’d be hard-pressed to deny it by the end of this rip-roaring tale.

For years Batman has battled with muggers and street thugs, but Arkham Origins represents his step up to the big time, as he attempts to hunt down the nefarious Black Mask. The narrative itself is as straightforward as it comes, much to the game’s benefit rather than to the player’s chagrin. Black Mask runs a hugely successful underground criminal empire, but has noticed the rumblings of Batman’s upcoming emergence and puts a hefty $50million bounty on Batman’s head. Cue eight dangerous assassin’s queueing up to find the Batman and claim his life on a suitably blustery winter’s evening.

In truth the plot is really no more complex than Mario hopping and skipping his way through eight castles in search of Princess Peach, but the point is it doesn’t be any more than that. Arkham City’s story in comparison I found to be a sprawling mess of excuses to trudge from one location to another; an antidote here, a bomb there, or a gang of civilians need saving. It merely came across as a convoluted way to get you to haul yourself across innumerable locations and fighting countless villains, a storyline that was there for no reason other than to get you to move.

Arkham Origins does away with this unnecessary fluff, giving you solid momentum from start to finish. You know there’s eight assassins between you and Black Mask, and in delivering an action-packed comic book tale it takes some beating in my opinion.

I looked out into the thick darkness of night. I was sure I had been here before.

The city itself is much the same as that seen in Arkham City, although larger and incorporating a segment of traditional Gotham City. Hands down one of the weakest aspects of Arkham Origins is the city setting, it was pretty poor in Arkham City and it’s managed to be worse here. The atmosphere is fantastic and some of it looks great, but beyond the superficial there really is little to it. It feels like this was such a great opportunity to expand on Arkham City’s template, adding civilians, traffic and more to give a truly open-world environment; the much-maligned ‘living, breathing city’ if you like. The 'Christmas Eve', 'public safety warning', 'stay indoors' schtick is a paper-thin narrative to ensure they didn’t have to bother with any civilians. As it is it feels like a glorified collectathon hub, funneling you to the overworld’s dungeon-like interiors.

The Riddler’s secret packages are still enjoyable to find but the sheer wealth of them ensures than it can be quite a wearying experience by the end, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they’d be better off with half as many riddles that were twice as well thought out. Nevertheless the joy of flying round the city is still hard to resist, and many a time I’ve realised I’ve no clue where I’m heading, just enjoying the game’s movement mechanics.

When it comes to the dungeon-like interiors I mentioned above, this is where Arkham Origins excels over Arkham City in almost every way. The interiors are varied, challenging, beautiful and make smart use of all of your gadgets to find their secrets. Sneaking through Gotham City PD or aboard a sea-vessel that makes the Titanic look inviting is a joy, and presents the gamer with many more memorable moments that I won’t go into detail here. Of course Arkham City had great moments like the shark in the torture chamber, while Arkham Asylum was inundated with fantastic moments such as Croc-man in the sewer, but Arkham Origins more than holds its own with both of Rocksteady’s finest.

One criticism that can most definitely be levelled at Arkham Origins is a lack of innovation; if you were starting to tired of the Arkham mechanics at all during the last outing then this may be a struggle for you to push through to the end. It’s clearly been a tricky tightrope for the team at Warner Bros. Montreal to balance on, weighing up what people enjoyed so much about the first two titles with adding new elements. Any minor change to the successful formula would be leapt upon by fans, and this certainly ends up being the case in one or two situations.

Counter Productive

Nearly every single unlockable is the same as in Arkham City, there’s literally almost nothing new gadget wise to get excited about. The linear skill tree keeps some of the later upgrades hidden, but experienced players in the series will still know exactly what to expect along the way. This level of predictability can make the game feel a little staid and dull, but to counteract this Warner Bros. Montreal has introduced a wickedly simple and user-friendly advancement system that ensures you learn to get the most out of your fighting repertoire than either of the previous iterations in the series.

One of City’s downfalls in my opinion was the sheer wealth of options it threw at you so very early in the campaign; it was great news for the pro-choice crowd but there was also the growing sense that you were being inundated with more tools than you knew how to use. The drip-feed here is nigh-on perfect for introducing people to the series, and the increased aggressiveness of the AI positively forces you to get to grips with everything at your disposal. I am far far from a veteran expert of the Arkham series, and so when it came to previous iterations I rarely used the cloak stun, bat-grapple pull, the batarang or the explosive gel mid-combat, but here I found uses for all in fight after fight. The combat is still very much the same, relying heavily on counters a la Assassin’s Creed, notching up bigger combos for better moves and quicker reactions. It also has that added bonus of a Batman game that no matter how badly you scrape through a fight, you still make Chuck Norris look like Octodad, as smooth counters and slick gadget use truly make you feel like a superhero. There's nothing better than prowling the city's rooftops looking for your next unsuspecting prey before nosediving off the skyscraper, snowflakes rushing past you as you land on a bonehead's skull with a satisfying crack. 

Graphically the game looks as good as we've come to expect from the Arkham series, no more no less. Some hugely impressive looking and varied environments jar slightly awkwardly with the at times generic and bare city, but there's no denying the allure of Gotham City has been authentically recreated. Seeing the bat-signal projected into the sky above you still makes you feel like the ultimate badass, and no amount of developer shake-ups can change that.

On PC the game obviously comes into its own, the snow effects in particular look fantastic if you can crank them settings up. Batman: Arkham Origins has the fortunate advantage of actually running better than its predecessors, which should great news for those of you with slightly older rigs that may have been worried about the prequel's performance.

The Bat is Back

Clocking in at around ten hours or so for the main campaign, Arkham Origins isn’t the longest title around, but it would be a disservice to ignore all the other features available to you. Finding and doing everything in Gotham City may take you well past the 20-30 hour mark, and that’s not including the wealth of combat arenas and predator events that give the game fantastic longevity in the combat department. Some of the sidequests and missions are a touch on the repetitive side but when it comes down to it, it’s still a joy just playing as the Batman.

Arkham Origins may have a few niggling faults that fans of the series may feel detracts from the experience; it’s slightly buggier than we’ve come to expect and villains aren’t all top-drawer, but Warner Bros. Montreal can’t be knocked creating a great game out of a truly intimidating situation. Well worth a pop to tide you over until the inevitable ‘next-gen’ Batman unfurls its wings.