Well, this is a new one. In my now seven (!) years writing for GamingExcellence, I don't think I have ever played a game that had all the pieces in place for a great time like Arkham Origins does, and still came away feeling ambivalent about the whole experience. Given how incredible the two previous Arkham games were at putting players convincingly in the shoes of Batman, it almost seems unfair to judge Arkham Origins based not on it's considerable merits, but on how it stacks up and fails to improve on some of the best games of the last decade.
I think part of the problem stems from corporate meddling and the desire to get a new product out in time for the holiday season. The developer of the first two titles, Rocksteady, has sat this one out to give Warner Bros. Montreal a crack at the bat (rimshot). While many of the best parts such as combat, stealth, and exploration make the leap to this new installment unhindered, this new title has a rushed and soulless feel. The story isn't as interesting and is loaded with inconsistencies, there's a ton of bugs that I never encountered in past titles, and what little is new here actually breaks the delicate balance of the combat system. It's just missing that "wow" factor that was there before.
Before we get deeper into the mechanics, you should know that at the very least, Arkham Origins is sparing us the actual Batman origin story that we've seen a bajillion and a half times between movies, TV shows, comic books, other video games, crumpled pieces of handwritten paper on the subway, and so on. These origins take place around two years after Bruce Wayne first donned his cape and cowl. There are rumblings abound in Gotham City that a new enemy known as the Joker is making the rounds in Gotham. Batman is forced to investigate the doings of another new villain, a mobster in a pin-stripe suit in a black mask, appropriately named Black Mask after he hires a handful of powerful assassins to take out the Bat. The story starts slow and dull, but once some more familiar villains start showing up, things pick up considerably. Spoiler, we see the origins of Batman and The Joker's "friendship" here, and it's by far the best part of the main story, and their interplay is still not stale after 70 odd years. Other villains like the Mad Hatter, The Riddler, Penguin, Bane, and Deathstroke amongst many others get their screen time here too.
The meat and potatoes of the Arkham series has always been the combat, and it returns here in full force. The prompt heavy combat rewards quick reflexes and careful observation of your enemies' telegraphed attacks. A nice variety of enemies keeps things fresh throughout the game, and mixing and matching your gadgets and punches to get combos in the dozens of hits remains as addictive as ever. Unfortunately, the camera doesn't play ball as well as it did in Arkham City, especially in cramped environments. I found the camera hovered too high up or too close in several occasions, making it harder to keep your combos going. It's a minor thing, and combat is still really fun. However, the newest addition to Batman's stable of gadgets, the shock gloves, are far too overpowered. You charge up the gloves by punching your enemies, but once you can activate them, Batman can punch through riot shields and armored enemies, turning the finely tuned combat system into a button masher. I found myself avoiding them for the most part because I didn't find it fun to just mash the punch button to win.
The stealth portions return in this installment as well, and are just as fun and challenging as ever as well. If you've played the other games in the series, you know what to expect here. You'll stick to the high ground on gargoyles up high, air ducts down low, and generally terrifying your enemies into oblivion as you take them out one by one. Using your detective vision to see enemies through walls is as big a help as it ever was too. I found almost no differences between being a predator here and in past games, so it's equal parts rehashed and polished, just like the combat.
The two previous titles rewarded going off the beaten path with ample levels of fan service and neat treasures from the DC and Batman vaults. There's still plenty to explore and do here, but it's far more lifeless. There's far less incentive to do the side quests other than checking off a checklist of objectives, and I found myself not bother after a while. Most of the sidequests boil down to going all over the map and destroying items. Despite taking place in a metropolis on Christmas Eve, there are no civilians or cars to be found anywhere. The only people you'll encounter are thugs waiting to take a batarang to the face. The map itself also feels smaller than Arkham City, and whole chunks are recycled from the last game too. The map is divided by a very long bridge that becomes a chore to cross over and over again. Thankfully, there's a new fast travel system that uses a similar system to Far Cry 3 that has you taking out enemies and solving puzzles to unlock fast travel points on the map. You can also fast travel to the Batcave at any time to access challenge maps and get advice from Batman's trusty butler, Alfred.
It's odd that despite being a prequel to the last two titles, Batman has the full compliment of gadgets from those games, including some new ones. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but the progression system that rewards efficiency in stealth and combat with upgrades and new gadgets remains as addictive as ever. In another nice touch, whenever you complete a stealth or combat encounter, the game will show you all your stats for that encounter in the top left corner of the screen and assign you a grade. It's a subtly addictive way to encourage the player to improve and provide feedback as to where they went right and wrong as they play.
Aside from the lifeless Gotham City, there are other issues with the game, some minor, others potentially game breaking. I encountered a slew of bugs in my playthrough on the Xbox 360 version of the game, ranging from the audio cutting out during transitionary cutscenes to cutscenes failing to trigger and outright crash bugs; the latter two always requiring a full restart of the game. The most egregious bug I encountered was when the mission objective refused to update when I completed a story mission, leaving me to find the next objective on my own. Fortunately, I was paying attention as to where to go next, but if you found this bug and didn't realize it, you could find yourself wandering for hours before giving up and restarting the game entirely. Well, if online FAQs weren't a thing, anyway. Patching the game post release didn't fix the issue with the waypoint, but it did seem to lessen the number of crashes at least.
There's a new multiplayer mode in this installment as well, but like most tacked on multiplayer, you'll probably give it a few spins before forgetting about it forever. The concept is that 8 players go at it at a time. Three thugs on Bane's side, and three on the Joker's. Those six players will shoot at each other and complete team objectives while the other two players will randomly take on the roles of Batman and Robin on a rotating basis. The shooting mechanics are nothing to write home about, and the lack of larger teams and amount of maps lessens the mode's longevity. Having the more powerful heroes thrown into the shooter mix is a great idea, and it'd be great to see it further fleshed out.
Despite its problems, Arkham Origins certainly looks and sounds great. Models are exquisitely detailed and animated. The empty Gotham City looks great, with fantastic weather effects like wind and snow. The environments are packed with subtle details, and I never encountered any sort of frame rate issues in the 360 version. While Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill didn't return to voice Batman and the Joker in this game, I was surprised at how little I missed them. The younger, brasher Batman certainly sounds the part, and Troy Baker's turn as the Joker is a complete dead ringer for Hamill's iconic performances as the Joker. Considering Baker has also voiced Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite and Joel in The Last of Us, it seems like he's supplanted Nolan North as the most sought after voice actor in video games, and for good reason; the guy oozes talent.
In the end, the point of a review is always to tell you if the game is worth your time and money. A hardcore Batman fan who's played a ton of the past two games and doesn't mind playing a slightly worse and blander version of those two games, go nuts, you'll enjoy it. I sure did despite its flaws. People who are wondering what all the Arkham hubbub is about would be better served playing the older and better titles first. Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game that just has a same-bat-time, same-bat-channel kind of feel.