[11 November 2013]
There’s a moment fairly early in Batman: Arkham Origins when you save a young woman from the Mad Hatter. Batman tells her in his deep and powerful voice, “The police are on their way, everything is going to be fine.” She just looks down and says, “No, no it’s not” and breaks down sobbing. It’s a haunting moment. You’ve done your job, you’ve beaten up the bad guy, but you didn’t save the woman, not completely. There’s nothing else you can do here, you can’t comfort her/ All you can do is walk away and leave her with her misery.
There are several moments like this in Arkham Origins, moments that expose the limits of Batman’s power. For all his gadgets and strength, all he can really do is punch guys, and sometimes that’s just not enough.
It’s Christmas Eve in Gotham City, the Black Mask has put a bounty on Batman’s head for one night only, and eight assassins have come to Gotham to claim it. The main story arc follows Batman as he tries to track down Black Mask and end the bounty, though naturally things get more complicated and out-of-control.
Unlike the previous games in this series, Arkham Origins isn’t hampered by its reverence for Batman. It doesn’t cast him as an infallible and unwavering (and thus uninteresting) hero. It is willing to challenge him, deconstruct him, and criticize him. He’s still as arrogant as ever, but whereas Arkham City wanted us to think the arrogance came from wisdom, Origins argues that it comes from overconfidence. When Batman first hears the name Joker, he doesn’t know what to make of it. Alfred suggests he “leave this one to the police,” but Batman insists: “This one is mine.” He’s so sure of himself, but we know better. We know the Joker won’t be caught. He can’t ever be caught. We know Batman is far out of his depth, running headfirst into chaos, and it’s a damn thrilling thing to watch unfold.
This is easily the best story of the Arkham series so far, helped along by some top-notch voice acting and a great score. There was much anxiousness online about the fact that Mark Hamill wouldn’t be voicing the Joker, but newcomer to the role Troy Baker does an impeccable imitation. What’s more impressive is that this Joker has a couple moments of introspection that require more nuance than just “crazy laughing,” and Baker is still able to pull it off. The score is equally impressive, mixing the gloomy brooding of The Dark Knight with the grandiosity of Arkham Asylum. It’s reminiscent of both but beholden to none. Batman goes through some pretty extreme highs and lows over the course of the game, and the score is there to back him up every step of the way.
Structurally, Origins is a kind of greatest hits, combining the best elements of the previous two games: the smart story of Arkham Asylum and the open world of Arkham City.
Gotham City is smaller than Arkham City, but it’s also denser and feels more alive. In addition to the story missions, you can investigate and solve murder cases, stop random “crimes in progress,” and deal with several minor villains who aren’t interested in the bounty. There’s a lot to do, and it can feel overwhelming, especially when a crime in progress pops up right as you’re about to start a story mission, but that’s the whole point. You’re one man against an entire city. It is overwhelming, but Batman is willing to bear that burden. The previous games ignored this essential crime-fighting characteristic, but it is a constant part of Origins. This simple change in setting makes everything you do feel more important.
Unfortunately, while Gotham is far more interesting than Arkham City, it’s also harder to navigate when gliding (which is your main form of transportation). Buildings don’t seem to be laid out with gliding in mind. It’s impossible to glide in a straight line since every time you grapple to a building you change directions slightly. It’s a minor annoyance, but it’s there every time you jump off a building, every time you grapple, every time you glide—all the time. You can avoid this by fast traveling, but first you have to unlock those fast travel points and even then fast traveling means avoiding the great atmosphere of the city. It’s genuinely fun to get distracted by crimes in progress, to be Batman the crime-fighter, if only your cape wasn’t such a crappy form of glider.
The combat remains relatively unchanged from the previous games, which would be disappointing if the combat wasn’t already so much fun. The Shock Gloves are the only new gadget, and they feel like a concession to gamers (like me) who just can’t get good at using gadgets in combat. The gloves encourage brute force over finesse, giving you a chance to rack up a high combo with simple punches and counters, but preventing you from ending things elegantly. They charge as you punch guys, and once fully charged, they do extra damage and earn triple the combo multiplier, but they also prevent you from performing ground takedowns, which can quickly kill your high combo. It’s a good tradeoff.
Ultimately, it’s the story and character development that elevate this game above its predecessors. They’re so good they raise the quality of everything else around them. The new setting gives the old gameplay a renewed importance. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were meant to house the worst of the worst. Those places are naturally dangerous so they’ll always be beyond saving. But Gotham is different, Gotham can be saved, so every minor villain you defeat and every random thug you knock out feels like taking a little step towards a safer world. Arkham Origins also makes Batman a far more interesting hero: a man defined by contradictions who is equal parts insane and brave. He still never backs away from a fight, but the game makes us aware of his limitations and the dangers around him.
For the first time in the series, there’s also a multiplayer mode. It may be tempting to dismiss the multiplayer of this largely single-player series (in fact, I had forgotten there was a multiplayer until I finished the story) but that would only be doing yourself a disservice. The Invisible Predator mode is a wonderful mix of multiplayer styles that effectively captures the chaos that is crime is Gotham.
You play on one of three sides: the Joker’s gang, Bane’s gang, or as a hero, either Batman or Robin. The gangs fight each other in a three-on-three team deathmatch, with every death draining a communal pool of respawns, but there are also capture points that give the controlling team more respawns. A gang wins by either controlling all the capture points or by just killing the other team a bunch of times. At some point in the match, Joker and Bane become playable characters for the first team member to touch them. They’re naturally super-powered, taking and giving an incredible amount of damage, and they can easily turn the tide of a close match. Seeing the super villain of the enemy team will strike fear into your heart, but running around with your super villain makes you feel just as powerful.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, Batman and Robin are stalking both gangs from above and below. Every time they take down a thug, it increases their intimidation meter. Every time they get killed by a thug, their intimidation meter decreases. If it fills completely the heroes win.
The gang warfare is fun enough on its own as a well-done if standard multiplayer mode, but adding the stalking heroes changes the tone and pace of the game completely. When playing as a hero, it’s all about intelligently setting up and executing takedowns. You have to be patient, and you have to be willing to run away since a death sets you back considerably. It’s a slower paced game of cat-and-mouse. When playing as a thug, the presence of a shadowy hero makes you paranoid. It’s terrifying when you have an opponent in your sights, and suddenly Batman swoops down and hangs him from the ceiling. If there was just one hero, it wouldn’t be as tense, but knowing that both Batman and Robin are out there means you never really feel safe even as you’re pumping lead into Bruce Wayne’s face. This is a well conceived, a well executed, and a thematically consistent multiplayer mode.
Arkham Origins is the first game in the series not developed by Rocksteady and that change in developer has brought so many improvements I don’t want to go back. Arkham Origins is, in every good way, the Batman Begins of the Arkham series: a fresh take on Batman that proves he can be more than just a fun power fantasy hero, that there’s a wealth of drama and depth just waiting to be wrung out of this character.