Review: Batman - Arkham Origins / Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montreal / Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment / Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U / Release Date: Out Now
In 2009, developers Rocksteady revolutionised the superhero gaming genre with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a taut, reverent love letter to the Dark Knight and his world. That game's sequel, Arkham City opened up the floor to an open-world Gotham City and an even larger roster of heroes and villains. With Rocksteady handing over the reins to Warner Brothers for this prequel, could Arkham Origins keep up the high standards set by its predecessors, or has the magic left, along with stars Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill?
The Batman of Arkham Origins is a younger, more brusque detective than we've seen in previous iterations (although videogame Batman has always seemed like an angrier, nastier bastard), his perma-furious chin covered in stubble, his Batsuit a massive set of armour plates. Looking at the back of his head is like watching Christian Bale's bull neck in Batman Begins. The game may be set at Christmas time, but there's no festive cheer to be had for everyone's favourite grumpy vigilante. To be fair, he does have a lot on his plate here.
Sinister crime boss Black Mask has heaped a massive bounty upon the Bat's head, and a whole host of assassins have come to claim the prize – among others, Deathstroke, Deadshot and Bane. Then there's the likes of the Penguin, Mad Hatter and the Riddler to deal with, before we even get started on the fact that there's a brand new villain on the loose. Anyone special? Oh, just some chap calling himself 'the Joker'. So much for a quiet Christmas with Alfred and the bats.
At first glance, not much seems to have changed since Arkham City. In fact, it all feels very familiar. Opening with a riot in Blackgate Prison (looking suspiciously similar to Arkham here) before heading out to a pre-asylum Gotham City (which, it must be said, doesn't look all that different either) it would appear that the new management are planning on playing things very much within their comfort zone. Remember that feeling you got as you walked the Joker into Arkham? Or as Bruce Wayne was captured by Hugo Strange and led into Arkham City for the first time? There's none of that here. Aside from a couple of nifty few gadgets, a fully explorable Batcave and new enemy types, there's no sense of innovation or experimentation.
However, what we're left with is the best combat system since Jackie Chan: Stuntmaster, and a rogues gallery that remains impressive no matter how many times you have to beat up the same old villains and their goons. Boss battles have been improved again, becoming a much more tactile experience than we've seen in previous games. Origins opens with Batman unleashing an almighty beatdown upon Killer Croc before setting you loose upon the rest of Gotham's criminal underworld. The story is smart and engaging, the voice acting surprisingly decent, given the departure of the now-iconic Conroy and Hamill. The Christmas setting is a lovely touch, with goons bedecked in Christmas hats, the tinsel and gaudy baubles sitting ill at ease with the city's gargoyles and gothic architecture. With spooky Christmas carols and festive tunes murmuring away in the background, it's like a retooled Batman Returns (prior to Arkham Asylum, the best Batman videogame ever made – and still a lot of fun on the SNES). It makes one feel very sorry for poor Alfred, spending Christmas Eve alone in the Batcave, with broody Bruce barely able to wish him a happy Christmas. And a 'thank you' every now and then wouldn't hurt, either.
In addition to the challenge rooms and Story Plus mode, Arkham Origins sees the introduction of a perfunctory online mode. This sees players split into two teams – Joker's gang vs Bane's gang – with two lucky players taking on the roles of Batman and Robin. The gangs try to wipe one another out, while our heroes pick off the villains as and when they can. It's functional enough, although the novelty is bound to wear off as quickly as that of the disappointing Gotham City Impostors. Expect a swathe of DLC and unlockable costumes to follow, including playable Deathstroke rooms and all-new Batsuits. The absolute best thing about Arkham Origins: the addition of the Adam West Batsuit. Beating the absolute snot out of a room full of heavily armed thugs is made infinitely more entertaining by having your angry, stubbly Batman dressed like the mighty Adam West as he does so. Sadly, the 'biff', 'pow' and 'sock' is not included.
There's no hiding from the fact that Batman: Arkham Origins is a disappointment. It's repetitive, derivative and unwilling to take risks. There's still no driving the Batmobile or Batwing. It feels more like a set of add-on missions or DLC than a prequel in its own right, like a longer version of Harley Quinn's Revenge. That said, it is tremendously addictive fun, full of action, Easter Eggs and incredibly satisfying super-heroics. Stepping into the boots of the Bat remains as exciting as ever – it's just a shame that there's not a little more originality to his Origins.