Fearing that their beloved Caped Crusader has become an annual installment akin to military shooters, sports “simulators,” and franchises such as Need for Speed, Batman fans shuddered at the announcement of Batman: Arkham Origins. The announcement of Warner Brothers Montreal taking over the cowl in lieu of series developers Rocksteady Studios left a sour taste in already disgruntled fans. With very little on their side, Warner Brothers Montreal had a difficult task in punctuating the Arkham trilogy—come back next year to find out if the series has become a tetralogy. Has the Dark Knight become derivative?
I would argue no! While I groaned as I first stepped back out into the same Gotham I grapnel-accelerated through just a year ago, Arkham Origins surprised me with a level of charm that was lost in last year’s Arkham installment. To me, last year’s Arkham City, felt like a Batman Ball where every character was invited. The story was inhibited by the overwhelming hunger for more: more playable characters, more villains, more side missions, and more collectibles! At the end of the day, Arkham City became a tedious slog to the big shiny 100. While Arkham Origins continues with the trend of myriad missions and a revolving door of villains, the challenges faced by Batman are complimented by Origin’s story. The fledgling crime fighter has a fifty million dollar bounty placed on his head by Black Mask and is currently being hunted by eight assassins hoping to snuff out the Bat come Christmas morning. Did I forget to mention the overarching Christmas theme? The entire game takes place between Christmas Eve and Christmas day as the city of Gotham is being plagued by an impending snowstorm and even more dangerous hurricane of villainy.
The caveat to Black Mask’s ludicrous bounty is that the assassins must bring him Batman by Christmas Day—alive or dead. Being the voice of reason, Alfred tells Batman the best course of action is to simply stay home. New to the cowl and still grasping at the tenants that define Batman, Bruce Wayne is a temperamental and rash hero, just waiting to storm headfirst into danger. This concept is what truly set Arkham Origins apart for me; we truly watch Wayne evolve the malleable idea of Batman into a stone solid pillar of justice. The Batman of Origins is brutal and visceral, just barely keeping certain villains alive in his laundry list of scuffles. To compliment this concept of a young Batman, the boss fights of Origins (mostly) deviate from the cakewalks of the previous games. Villains like Deathstroke and Bane rightfully feel like the tougher adversaries there are—Kotaku’s guide to beating Deathstroke may be a bit absurd.
Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t quite lend itself to players believing that the Batman they’re piloting is inexperienced in comparison his Arkham Asylum and City days. Batman handles roughly the same as he did in previous games, and his slew of gadgets, save one or two new devices, are already at your disposal. If anything, the tutorial on how to use these gadgets is almost nonexistent as the game seems to assume that you’ve followed the franchise and would roll your eyes if you were forced to sit through a mandatory training session. While you may enable hints to buffet you with prompts on when to hit an enemy, when to counter, how to throw batarangs, etc., the game would do a great service to familiarize fans with Batman’s tool belt and abilities through an optional training segment without the shirt-tugging annoyances. Creating a prequel becomes a difficult task when leveling gameplay advancements with thematic continuity. One theory that fans have put forth is that Batman gives up his newer gadgets because they give him too much of an unfair advantage. You can either try and stomach that, or cough it up to retroactive continuity.
Aside from these grievances, and the unfortunately familiar setting, Gotham remains largely the same as its Arkham City counterpart, the only issue I had with Arkham Origins was the resounding lack of urgency put forth by Black Mask’s ensemble of assassins. A small handful of these assassins play into the direct story, yet the rest play into side missions that Batman must hunt out. Even if some of the assassins were fit for side missions, I would have preferred them to be actively hunting out Batman. With fifty million dollars on the line and one night to kill the Bat, I’d expect a little hustle from Black Mask’s hired muscle.
With reviewers ready to chock the series off as another Call of Duty-esque franchise, forced to repeat ad nauseam until we can no longer stomach annual installments, comprised of what seems like blatant copy and pasting, and rarely advancing game mechanics forward, I’m hardly surprised at the scurrilous remarks and poor reviews the game was met with. However, I wasn’t left with such a sour disposition towards the franchise. Instead, this is the game I wish we received instead of Arkham City. A young Batman that Alfred doubts, Commissioner Gordon doesn’t trust, and The Joker has yet to crack, is the exact protagonist the Arkham trilogy needed to keep its spirit alive. Batman is selfish, reckless, and the most organic he’s been in the entire series. In this installment, we no longer need a Scarecrow scene to show the unstable boy behind the cowl. Batman: Arkham Origins shows Bruce Wayne build the foundation for Batman and the ideology he stands so firmly to protect.