Batman: Arkham Origins Review: Batman’s Finest Adventure Yet
I’m going to rate this game based on how fun I found it. I’m not going to talk about the fact that it wasn’t made by the series creators, and now-legends, Rocksteady Studios. I’m not going to focus on how great or flawed the earlier Batman games are. I’m going to rate Batman: Arkham Origins, the newest entry in the brilliant Batman series, now made by Warner Bros. Games Montreal, as if I had never played a Batman game and didn’t know anything about it. This review is all about fun factor. Because surely that’s what a video game where we play a superhero should be about, right?
Batman: Arkham Origins is providing the most fun I’ve had from a game in a long while.
More than thirty hours into the experience, I’m still booting the game up and finding new things to do. This is, frankly, more than can be said for Rockstar’s brilliant GTA V, a game I adore but which, after finishing the story missions, I feel kinda bored with. In Batman: Arkham Origins there is a big juicy mound of content to enjoy: a solid twelve hour story campaign, a very large and well-designed open world, eight side missions which add to the overall campaign, and a difficulty-scaled plethora of random events which happen in the curfew-enforced, crime-ridden world. I’ve never played an open world game where I was so frequently distracted by other objectives in the game world. Also present are persistent background challenges which keep me coming back for more in an effort to reach that 100%. My first 30% completion playthrough counted in at about 24 hours- the span of time it took me to 100% Arkham City twice.
The fact that the game’s story mode is a solid 12 hours long is a huge boon to Origins. In the previous games you were looking at a six-hour campaign, tops. They weren’t just short- I found them often unfulfilling, with unclear and floppy plot arcs, very little development, and uninspired endings. Good dialogue was everywhere- but the high level story? Not great. Arkham Origins gripped me far more than the previous games, and pulled me into the world which I found fun to explore and adventure in. It feels like there are many more levels, many more developments in the story, a much more epic experience. Not to mention- the dialogue and plot writing on the whole is very good indeed. A couple of set pieces later on in Origins are better than any of the scenes in the earlier games.
Origins is a very different kind of experience- unlike City and Asylum, the game isn’t trying to simulate being Batman, but provide you with a compelling adventure and world where you play Batman. For some, this might not be boat-floating, but for me, it’s perfect.
Aside from the story and ethos, WBGM have made a plethora of small changes to the traditional Arkham-Saga gameplay, which for me have added up to huge effects in the overall experience. For example, as we’re playing Bruce Wayne many years before his other videogame outings, indeed only two whole years into his career as The Dark Knight, he’s not as confident a fighter. Where in Asylum and City, Bruce confidently strides the battlefield, and enemies are hesitant to attack; in Batman: Arkham Origins, Batman never leaves a martial art fighting stance in combat, and enemies are far quicker to attack him.
This leads to tougher combat: of all the small tweaks made to Rocksteady’s brilliantly innovative Free Flow Combat System, the main one in Origins is that enemies attack faster and they’re not as easy to counter. By the end of Asylum and City I was getting through most fights without taking a hit- but even now, thirty hours into Origins, I’m still messing up fights because I’m not keeping my head screwed on. When you keep your eyes open and your defenses up, you can get through fights without a scratch, but this doesn’t happen often. Many players seem to think this is due to clunky controls and glitchy inputs, but in reality, it’s due to Warner Bros. Games Montreal just deciding to make the game harder.
Which has added up to more fun, for me. We know that Batman made mistakes back then (just read Frank Miller’s Year One to see how badly Wayne’s first ever fight as The Bat goes) so this fits with the character and adds up to better gameplay. There’s more challenge, more at stake to lose your combo. Without the Combat Armour upgrades, Batman dies really fast on Hard difficulty.
The whole experience and upgrade system itself has essentially been overhauled: now you unlock Batman’s skills through a compelling tree system, rather than a pick-and-choose selection of upgrades. You can’t get the amazing, combat-winning upgrades until you’ve unlocked every smaller upgrade in his fighting arsenal, which leads to a truer sense of progression. And of course, the old experience system of fighting better and getting better XP has been given more detail: now for every encounter, you get a breakdown on your HUD telling you exactly how well or how badly a fight went, and what your “Grade” is. The higher your grade, the higher your experience bonus.
Just like Batman, we constantly get to see where we made mistakes and see where to improve our skills. I felt more immersed in the fighting system ever because of this. But as well as experience-based upgrades, Batman can get upgrades and costume rewards by completing the “Dark Knight System” challenges- a set of specific challenges which are “always on” in the background. They begin with easy asks, like to do a stealth encounter without being spotted, or to get a 20x unbroken combo in a fight. But by the end of the 15-tier challenges, you’re asked to do some pretty intense stuff. The point of the system is to make players engage more with the depth of gameplay, and this has certainly worked for me. I’m a better fighter than I ever was after trying to complete Worst Nightmare level 15- use 15 different gadgets and moves, and get a 50x unbroken combo without being hit in a fight. A challenge, I tell ya.
I was sucked into the game’s deep and more challenging combat system because of this. I lost hours just swooping around the city and beating on dudes.
The city itself I also love. This isn’t the cartoony carnival-lands of the previous Asylum games. Origins’ Gotham City is a big, realistic, noirish place. The whole visual tone of the game is more realistic: no massively overmuscular dudes, no eyepopping colour, no over-the-top designs. The colour scale is realistic browns and greys with dashes of neon, more akin to Nolan’s Batman Begins than Arkham City’s gallery of grotesque circus spots. Even the most iconic bits of Arkham City are redone here- and I actually prefer the Arkham Origins versions. I spent a good hour or two swinging around Old Gotham, loving it more than anything in City, without even realising that this was Rocksteady’s older level.
The only potentially unrealistic aspect is how quiet the city is- there are no civilians and no car presence. Just empty streets and criminals. This is, however, justified in the story: not only is this Christmas Eve, a typically quiet evening, but Gotham is also victim to the worst snow storm in decades and the worst crime sprees in decades. I’m totally cool with how quiet the city is.
My problem with the city itself is some occasional traversal errors and bugs. I feel that the level design of this Gotham City is some of the best we’ve ever seen in an open world game, definitely the best ever in a superhero game, but it’s true, the world can be buggy. Sometimes walls are unclimbable, or ungrappleable, or the B-man does the wrong stuff when you command him to do things.
Throughout the game there is a consistent, minor issues of clumsy balancing, bugs and glitches… But none of it, in my experience, was gamebreaking. By any means. Every time I had an issue I simply thought, “yeah but everything else I’m seeing and doing is awesome, there’s no need to worry about this too much”. So I turn away and continue Batmanning. This situation seems different for PC players. As I played on Xbox 360, I experienced barely any game-breaking bugs, past two crashes late in the experience. The game loads so quickly at every stage, even without a Hard Drive install, that loading it back up after a crash wasn’t bothersome. But on PC, the word on the street is that the game is seriously broken. Unfortunately, I can’t reflect that in this review, as I didn’t experience it.
Only a mere few years ago, we didn’t have a single brilliant superhero game, let alone a good Batman one. We owe a great deal to Rocksteady for reinventing how one approaches an interactive superhero experience, but it’s still early days for the series. This isn’t an Assassin’s Creed, a Battlefield, a Call of Duty. Having a Batman game like this is still a privilege, and it still hasn’t been bled dry, no matter how similar to the previous iterations it is or isn’t. And really, in playing a “super”hero game, where you’re offered the freedom to play how you want, with a good story and strong, well implemented mechanics… That’s all you really need, right?A simulation of how fun it could be to be a vigilante? That’s what Batman: Arkham Origins gives us, in a fantastically entertaining package.