Game Review: ‘Batman: Arkham Origins,’ Plus Collector’s Edition Extras

By October 31, 2013
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To be honest, I wasn’t exactly excited when it was announced that 2013 would bring a new Batman video game called Arkham Origins. That’s saying something, because in a lot of ways I feel like Batman’s in my bones: the 1989 film was the first movie I ever saw (at a drive-in theater when I was just under two years old), I have an extensive and growing collection of Batman comics, and the character really speaks to me on profound levels of moral understanding and on visceral levels of sheer, badass awesomeness. I was actually kind of worried, because the developers that created the highly-acclaimed first two games in the series (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City) were handing it off to a new development studio, and instead of the story going forward, we’d instead be going back to the beginning of Batman’s career. Prequel games can be weird, especially in this instance, because the presence of some of the elements of the experience shouldn’t be there yet, but a continuity of player familiarity has to be maintained, and so we have a new prequel game called Batman: Arkham Origins.

Development for the game apparently started just before the release of Arkham City in late 2011, and before Origins, the only game that had the upstart WB Games Montreal’s name on it was a Wii U port of City dubbed that game’s “Armored Edition.” It introduced new functionality in that system’s touchscreen GamePad, as well as a few other minor additions to the gameplay of what most critics and players agreed was the best superhero game ever released. Tackling an entirely new experience on multiple platforms is a bit of a different undertaking, though, and Origins largely rises to the challenge in most areas. Except, unfortunately, in important areas of the single player gameplay.

Developed by WB Games Montreal and published by WB Games, Arkham Origins takes place within the second year of Batman’s war on crime. He’s largely considered an urban myth, most criminals and citizens don’t believe he exists, and the city is in a far different place than the Gotham we’re largely accustomed to seeing. Corruption runs rampant through all of it’s institutions, and it’s only at this point that we begin to see the makings of the supercriminals that will come to define much of Batman’s time in Gotham. After failing to save the corrupt Commissioner Loeb from death at the hands of Black Mask, Batman learns that Mask has placed a bounty on Batman’s head. If one of the eight assassins hired can kill him before midnight on Christmas Eve, then they get a cool $50 million payout. The adventure takes Batman all over Gotham, from the corrupt halls of the Gotham Police Department, to the depths of the sewers. He has to find Black Mask and put an end to the craziness, but something’s already set in motion that will lead Batman to a very different enemy by night’s end: an enemy that will truly define him and his mission for the rest of his life.

Freeflow combat returns in Arkham Origins, though a greater emphasis is placed on timing to make players avoid button mashing. You mash, you get hit.

Freeflow combat returns in Arkham Origins, though a greater emphasis is placed on timing to make players avoid button mashing. You mash, you get hit.

Single Player Gameplay

Because the basis for the actual gameplay in Arkham Origins is the ingeniously devised freeflow combat, detective, and predator systems designed by Rocksteady Studios, it is impossible to call it bad. While some tweaks have been made to the freeflow combat system in order to try and increase your skill with a fight’s timing, the power and dynamism that you felt in Asylum and City is intact. The “refinements” that WB Montreal attempted to make on top of the foundation, though ambitious, seem a little misguided. One of the additions is a gadget Batman acquires about 3/4 of the way through the story: the Electrocutioner’s, uh, electric gloves.

When you charge them up in the middle of a freeflow combat fight, your hits can go through riot shields, armored enemies, and baton-wielders taking a great deal of the challenge of the more difficult combat encounters virtually out of the equation. The gloves seem to be reminiscent of a feature that WB Montreal introduced in the Arkham City Armored Edition for Wii U, operating much the same way as that game’s “B.A.T. Mode.” It kind of functions as an “easy button,” even when playing the game on the Hard difficulty, as I did.

The boss fight against Firefly is the stand-out moment of the single player experience, forcing you to think through different elements of your arsenal while also treating you to fantastically dynamic visuals as you grapple and trail his jetpack in mid-air on the Gotham Pioneers Bridge.

The boss fight against Firefly is the stand-out moment of the single player experience, forcing you to think through different elements of your arsenal while also treating you to fantastically dynamic visuals as you grapple and trail his jetpack in mid-air on the Gotham Pioneers Bridge.

One of the other problems with the freeflow system in Arkham Origins wasn’t the combat, but the level design. When in the middle of more than one tense encounter, elements of the game map would interfere with the camera, and cause me to get hit when I otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s frustrating and a rather glaring mistake, but thankfully these kinds of encounters were relatively minimal.

For the most part, all of the gadgets from Arkham City return to your utility belt, though in different guises. The Freeze Cluster Grenade, which could be used to freeze enemies in their tracks or create a raft of ice on a body of water, is now the “Glue Grenade,” functioning the exact same way except for the element being giant globs of glue instead of ice. The game introduces the remote claw, which allows you to traverse hard to reach areas, or even to bind to two enemies and knock them down, allowing you to swoop in and take them out. The disruptor is now a gun-shaped piece of ordinance instead of a remote with a button, and the game actually brings back the double and triple batarang from Arkham Asylum.

The game’s boss fights are largely fun and interesting. With some of the best boss fights in modern video game from the first two entries in this series, really the only way Origins would’ve been able to substantially change things would be in a downward direction, but they don’t do that. Fighting Deathstroke may be a little frustrating on your first pass, but once you get the timing and the cadences planned out, it becomes pretty fun. The best boss fight in the game, though? Firefly – hands down. Taking you through multiple stages and forcing you to hone both your timing and your gadget usage is easily the stand-out element of the single player experience simply because it seems to ask a bit more from you than the other encounters do, and it’s really fun to watch unfold.

Predator gameplay is largely unaltered. Except for the use of new gadgets and certain challenges encouraging you to play a predator room in a certain way, the dynamic is intact.

Though not appearing in the main story, original Robin Dick Grayson is playable in the game's surprisingly awesome multiplayer mode, a first for the series.

Though not appearing in the main story, original Robin Dick Grayson is playable in the game’s surprisingly awesome multiplayer mode, a first for the series.

Multiplayer Gameplay

One thing that really interested me about the release of Origins was its announced multiplayer mode, independently developed by British studio Splash Damage. How could the incredible single player experience translate into a multiplayer game? The answer is surprisingly well, and it definitely makes for a fun alternative to the main gameplay. It’s not without its limitations: for instance, you cannot play with any A.I. opponents locally on one console. This is online multiplayer only, but once you get past that, it’s pretty easy to get into it.

It works like this: a game lobby requires 8 players, who are randomly assigned to the session’s three different factions. Three of the players are assigned to Joker’s gang, three to Bane’s gang, and two become Batman and Robin. Since the chances are you’ll be playing as one of the gang members, your main object is to wipe the other gang out by depleting their reinforcements through kills, or by capturing their base stations. Inbetween games, you can use accrued XP to upgrade your weapons or devices, and each gang member is given a limited “enhanced vision,” which functions similarly to Batman’s detective vision, but with a shorter duration before needing a recharge. At some point in the game, a player will have the chance to play as the boss of their respective side. When Joker or Bane becomes available, you head back to your spawn point, run toward the closed door they’re knocking on, and open it to become the boss. Playing as Joker or Bane gives you greater health and more powerful weapons, easily taking out opposing gang members with one shot from Joker’s massive gun or one hit from Bane’s hulking arms.

If you get the luck of the draw and play either as Batman or Robin, then your objective is a bit simpler: stop both sides. Using predator takedowns, gadgets, and brute force, Batman and Robin’s objective is to increase their “intimidation meter” to the max, thus scaring everyone away and foiling the gang fight. You can use your unlimited Detective Vision, stealth, and smoke bombs to take out unsuspecting enemies. Taking out regular gang members will only increase your intimidation meter marginally. If you really want a solid chance at putting an end to the game, then you have to be able to get the drop on either Joker or Bane, which will dramatically increase intimidation and thus your chances of winning the match for the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.

I’ve found the multiplayer to be thoroughly enjoyable, and it definitely helps give Origins a bit of an overall boost.

Not so humble beginnings: Arkham Origins' story mode gives surprising insight into the beginning of "Arkhamverse" Joker's criminal career.

Not so humble beginnings: Arkham Origins‘ story mode gives surprising insight into the beginning of “Arkhamverse” Joker’s criminal career, only accentuated by Troy Baker’s fantastic vocal performance.

Design and Story

The visual and open world map design of Arkham Origins shows, perhaps more than it should, how much this game truly owes to its predecessor. While the game map of Gotham City in Origins is approximately 50% larger than that of Arkham City‘s, the first 50% basically is Arkham City‘s, and is referred to as “Old Gotham.” Because this game takes place about five years before the walled-off prison of Hugo Strange’s fantasies is incorporated, Old Gotham is cleaner, looks as if it’s been busier, and a lot of the previous game’s landmark’s make their return in the same places they were located in the previous game. Because this story takes place during Christmas time and during a particularly intense winter storm, there’s a lot more snow on everything.

The new districts of the city are great, with well-designed skylines and great Gotham atmosphere, even if it’s supposed to be “New Gotham.” It’s cleaner, yes, but it’s also got the same vibe of overarching danger as the rest of the city. The Gotham Royal Hotel, a pivotal locale after meeting the Joker for the first time, is awesome, and everything you’d expect a grand Gotham hotel to be, except for the fact that it’s under siege by the Harlequin of Hate.

When it comes back to the reused map elements, WB Montreal did a great job in giving the old map a fresh new coat of paint, and there’s a noticeable graphical upgrade overall, but the novelty of half of the game map wears off when the experience starts to feel so overridingly familiar. One of the more frustrating elements for me was the fact that some buildings you’d have expected to be in better shape five years before Arkham City in some ways look worse, with the Church and Solomon Wayne Courthouse particularly coming to mind. Wasn’t there ever a time when the church was just a church? Why is a courthouse named after Bruce Wayne’s grandfather “abandoned” in a busy-looking part of the city?

Speaking of an abandoned city, Gotham is really empty. Now, this doesn’t bother me as much as I’ve seen it bother other people who’ve played the game, but when looking at Arkham City the emptiness made sense. It was a walled off super prison with only a handful of political prisoners to save. Origins opens the game up to an entirely new set of districts in Gotham, but largely there are only criminals to be found on the streets. The game has an in-story excuse of a “city-wide” curfew caused by the inclement weather, but I’m more apt to blame the emptiness of Gotham more on current-gen hardware limitations more than anything else. Maybe by the time the franchise rolls onto the PS4 and Xbox One, we’ll get a more populated and vibrant Gotham.

GCPD Captain James Gordon and his 15-year old daughter Barbara appear in the story, foreshadowing two of Batman's most important alliances in the years to come.

GCPD Captain James Gordon and his 15-year old daughter Barbara appear in the story, foreshadowing two of Batman’s most important alliances in the years to come.

The story itself is pretty awesome. I was nervous about the fact that Asylum and City writer Paul Dini had no involvement at all in Origins, but writers Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Assassin’s Creed fame do a respectable job of creating a narrative that feels inspired by some of the best modern “early years” Batman comics, particularly Year One and The Long Halloween. Batman’s in conflict with the police department, criminals don’t know what to make of him, and the relationship between Batman and the Joker is given a very satisfying early look, particularly in one scene where you get to briefly play as the Joker. Several previous Arkham alums return to voice their old characters, and help add to the authenticity of the experience. Nolan North returns as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, not quite master of Gotham’s underworld, but still quite the bastard in his own right.

Wally Wingert returns to the role of the Riddler, who’s not yet known by that moniker and seems to have a vigilante mission of his own when he first “meets” Batman. Wingert’s Edward Nygma (or Nashton) is easily one of the standout characters of the entire series, and I’m glad to see that trend continue (even though I felt that there was virtually no payoff to the quest of getting all of the Enigma collectibles littered around the city). Martin Jarvis returns to the role of Alfred with the same, defining dry humor and wit, and Tom Kane even surprises by returning to briefly voice Quincy Sharp, future warden of Arkham Asylum and mayor of Gotham that spearheaded the Arkham City project.

Some old DC Animated Universe favorites also return to their previous characters, most notably Robert Costanzo as Detective Harvey Bullock. Don’t highlight within the brackets if you don’t wish to be spoiled, but [CCH Pounder shockingly returns as Suicide Squad handler Amanda Waller in a post-credits sequence], perhaps hinting at a future installment in the franchise.

The voice choices for both Batman and the Joker represent two very different elements to the story and truthfulness to the Arkham timeline. Roger Craig Smith delivers a great performance as Batman, particularly as the story progresses, but the properties of his voice for the character are very different to that of Kevin Conroy’s. Conversely, Troy Baker’s outstanding performance as the Joker makes his casting very obvious, since he’s obviously channeling Mark Hamill’s iteration of the character to provide a younger look at the Arkham Joker. I’m just curious, though – why would the developers and casting director cast such a close mimic of one role and a relative departure for another? You’d think they’d apply one of those philosophies to both roles equally. Either way, the voice acting in the game is top-notch all-around, and though the returning actors and characters are great, this is largely due to the performances of Smith and Baker.

The single player campaign brings you into conflict with a lot of established Batman characters like Bane, and broader DCU characters like Copperhead and Deathstroke (pictured).

The single player campaign brings you into conflict with a lot of established Batman characters like Bane, and broader DCU characters like Copperhead and Deathstroke (pictured).

Overall

Batman: Arkham Origins is kind of an odd experience. There are some elements that at times can make it feel like a glorified expansion to Arkham City, and others where it briefly finds its own voice long enough for you to stop comparing it to its predecessor. That being said, it’s a ton of fun either way, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the mind-blowing experience that Asylum and City have spoiled us with before. Is it worth playing? Yes, absolutely. It’s still a lot better than many other games that you could be playing, and the true feathers in this game’s cap are its story and the addition of multiplayer. Those two elements alone warrant giving it a try. Replay value is also built into these games with the numerous side missions and collectibles you can pick up throughout the city, though the collectibles emphasis is decidedly more muted than it was the last time around.

If you don’t mind the fact that Origins doesn’t break ground like the previous two games did, but still want a fun Batman experience, then you should definitely give it a try. I’m glad that I played it and can continue to since I’m a diehard, but even if you don’t hold onto a copy as long as I do, I think you’ll find Arkham Origins worth checking out. I suppose that technically you could call it a “low” point in the series, but when it comes to the Arkham games, a low point is still pretty damn high. 

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My collector's edition of Batman: Arkham Origins.

My collector’s edition of Batman: Arkham Origins.

Collector’s Edition Extras

Now, you want to know the real way that the folks at DC and WB Games get the big Bat freaks to shell out? Collector’s Editions. I definitely shelled out for it for two reasons: 1) I’m a sucker, and 2) this one had some pretty awesome material. Here’s the full list of included items found in the pretty massive box:

  • Exclusive Arkham Origins premium statue of the Joker featuring LED effects produced by TriForce,  measuring approx. 9″ x 13″ x 11.5″
  • 80-page, full-color hardcover art book measuring approx. 7.5″ x 10.75″ x .5″ 4
  • Two small bagged pieces of “GCPD evidence:” a gambling chip from Penguin’s ship The Final Offer, and a sharp tooth from a “possible missing person.”
  • GCPD Batman Wanted Poster
  • Batwing Prototype Schematic
  • Anarky logo stencil
  • Glow-In-The-Dark map of Gotham City
  • Wayne Family Photo
  • Assassin’s Intel Dossier, which includes files on the 8 assassins as well as Black Mask’s contract for the hit on Batman
  • 1st Appearance Batman Skin: DLC Code to download Batman’s costume as seen in Detective Comics #27 from 1939
  • Necessary Evil: Super Villains of DC Comics full-length documentary (DVD on Xbox 360 version, Blu-ray on PS3 version)

The Necessary Evil documentary is a nice inclusion, particularly because it may not be worthy of a standalone purchase. It’s fun to get to hear from comic book creators, actors, and other personalities giving their perspective on the villains of the DCU, but even the narration by Christopher Lee may not be worth a $20 standalone purchase. A good watch, but I doubt you’d see it more than once. The hardcover art book is a great addition though, because not only does it include concept art for every facet of the game’s design, but it also includes specialized commentary from the other creative minds behind the game. It’s also actually quite large, which is great.

The “GCPD evidence” is a nice novelty, but beyond that this set includes a lot of paper. My favorite is probably the Batman wanted “poster” (which unfortunately is about the size of a piece of printer paper, as is everything else), but the “assassin’s intel dossier” is pretty cool and descriptive on all of the game’s antagonists. Inside is a “handwritten” note from Black Mask saying that you’ve made the cut to be an assassin, as well as the actual contract they sign, and GCPD intel files on all eight of the people vying for the $50 million prize and Batman’s head.

The true standout of this set, though, is it’s centerpiece: the statue.

A look at the included statue with the LED effects on, in light and in the dark.

A look at the included statue with the LED effects on, in light and in the dark.

I really like this thing. The LED effects by TriForce really need to be seen to be believed, because the TV’s behind the Joker all look like they’re showing true, blurry analog images. I thought I even saw some static, but my eyes must’ve been playing tricks on me. Each screen behind Joker shows one of the assassins, with money in a briefcase next to him and several flyers littering the floor. The detail on the actual Joker part of the statue was better than I expected, though the paint job looks a little oddly applied (which is to be expected in a mass-produced plastic product from China, I suppose). Either way it’s an impressive statue, and considering that the full Collector’s Edition retails for $120, $60 for the game and $60 for the statue might not sound bad to a lot of people that consider themselves enthusiasts for collector’s items like this.

All in all, the Arkham Origins CE is more robust than those released for the last two games (which yes, I also bought), and with enough cool stuff plus enough paper material to make your living space/office/cave look like a precinct of the GCPD, I think it’s pretty cool. Whether that makes it worth $120 for you I can’t say, but I’m largely pretty happy with the included items. Although, maybe a download code for the soundtrack could’ve made it in. What’s one more piece of paper…? 8.5/10

For more coverage of the Batman: Arkham game series, check out our reviews of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, the Arkham Origins mobile game, and our exclusive interview with the voice of Batman in Arkham Origins, Roger Craig Smith.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.