Over the course of two games, the Batman: Arkham franchise has solidified itself as one of the most critically acclaimed properties of this generation. Both instalments have proven that with a lot of love for the source material, licensed titles don't have to be horribly rushed, soulless productions – but without developer Rocksteady at the helm of this newest chapter, does Batman: Arkham Origins wear its prestigious cape with pride?
Set two years after Bruce Wayne first dons his iconic Batsuit, this prequel is focused heavily on the initial meetings between the caped crusader and numerous super villains. If you've been keeping up with the game's promotional materials, then you'll know that the plot revolves around Black Mask, a mobster who puts a bounty of $50 million on Batman's head. This huge sum of money draws the attention of eight deadly assassins, and although these characters aren't quite as well known as mainstays like the Joker, they still prove to be interesting and diverse adversaries.
At first glance, the release's story seems like a simple but intriguing premise; a decent backdrop to the franchise's tried and tested mix of stealth and melee combat gameplay. But disappointingly, this seemingly straightforward narrative quickly gets twisted into something overly elaborate, and it becomes little more than an excuse to throw more recognisable villains into an increasingly convoluted plot.
When you stop and think about it, it's a bit of a shame. This was the perfect opportunity to create a more focused, but less grandiose tale about the gritty struggle between Batman and his hunters, but what we're left with is a title that tries to measure up to the previous games by hastily introducing copious bad guys, much to the detriment of the narrative. As a result, proceedings often feel rushed and off the pace at times, as characters are shuffled in and out of the limelight at an alarming rate.
Thankfully, the inconsistent pacing does level itself out nearer the end of the game, but by then, it's hard to shake the feeling that a lot of potential has been wasted. That said, many of the title's moment-to-moment scenarios make for an enjoyable ride – it's just that the overarching plot ultimately attempts to do too much with too little. This is highlighted by the fact that the game supposedly takes place over the course of a single night – and in this context, the series of events that occur seem even more ridiculous.
Despite everything, though, the release's dialogue is generally well written, and, for the most part, extremely well voice acted. Because of this, cutscenes are enjoyable and still manage to carry some impact, but it's here that doubts start to materialise regarding the game's overall level of polish, as frame rate issues cause some cinematics to stutter wildly. Performance can also take a nasty hit when auto-saving, which occurs after almost everything that you do. When you're out gliding through the streets of Gotham, these occasional hiccups don't cause many noticeable problems, but when the title starts dropping frames right at the beginning of a tense boss fight, or in between waves of enemies, it's difficult not to grit your teeth in anger.
Narrative disappointments and technical mishaps aside, fans will be happy to know that Origins' gameplay is as solid as ever. Batman: Arkham City flirted with the idea of giving you an open world to explore, providing a reasonably sized slice of Gotham to stalk. Here, the map is expansive and houses plenty of activities, and while they may equate to little more than hacking minigames and checklists of destructible objects, the option to tackle the odd side mission is welcome when you're hankering for a break from the tiring story.
Even without said activities, it's certainly fun to simply take to the snowy streets and rooftops as you encounter countless groups of thugs and put a stop to dynamic crimes, all while gaining experience and upgrading the Dark Knight's arsenal. Every now and then when you're busy grappling and gliding to your next location, you'll come across police radio chatter that describes a nearby happening which you can choose to investigate. It's usually the same few scenarios – a brawl between two rival gangs, a hostage situation, or a robbery – but these quick stints of action perhaps give us a promising glimpse of what a truly open world Batman title would be like.
Needless to say, swooping down on your opponents and engaging whole hordes of goons is just about as enjoyable as ever thanks to the rhythmic, satisfying combat – despite the fact that it hasn't changed much at all. Unravelling Batman's torrent of brutal punches and kicks while pulling off agile counters with a tap of a button still feels hugely empowering, and a couple of new offensive gadgets that you unlock over the course of the campaign help spice the system up just enough. Nevertheless, we can't help but think that the mechanics are slowly starting to lose their shine, and with the inevitable arrival of the series' next generation instalment, we're hoping to see some logical, but reinvigorating changes.
Stealth sections play out similarly, too. Locked in a room with armed grunts, you'll be tasked with taking them out in a secretive manner. Watching goons patrol the area as you sit on top of a gargoyle, you'll be waiting for the perfect moment to jump down and knock your prey unconscious before zip-lining back to your perch. Again, the formula is very much the same as in previous games, although it's worth mentioning that some of the new levels are very nicely designed, allowing for plenty of experimentation and variation when it comes to eliminating or simply terrifying your opponents.
Boss fights, however, aren't quite as consistently enjoyable as the gameplay that surrounds them. Several of Batman's deadly pursuers rely on physical combat, meaning that their respective battles are hectic, close-quarters brawls which are laced with quick time events. While these blisteringly fast exchanges are fantastic to watch, the act of countering their actions and then unleashing combo attacks to pound them into submission again and again can become very tedious – especially as the majority of bosses have overly large health bars. Things get worse when the difficulty is artificially notched up, as waves of lesser opponents flood the arena resulting in battles that are even more drawn-out and repetitive.
That's not to say that eventually overcoming these opponents isn't rewarding, though. Like with the previous games, the release absolutely nails the sense of being Batman, an almost super-human martial artist whose genius combines with a stern and often merciless attitude to create a character that's a joy to play as. Another of our hero's talents comes into play when examining crime scenes, a mechanic that brings a decent change of pace to smashing in the skulls of criminals. Putting together the pieces of an illegal act is a relatively linear process, but the protagonist's constant narration of the scenario and the neat, clever user interface help to capture the investigative tone of the system perfectly.
There is one place where you won't feel like the iconic vigilante, though, and that's in the title's multiplayer component. When a single player franchise adds in any sort of social aspect, there's always uproar, and Origins' attempt at competitive play is unfortunately a good example of why such a backlash has come to be expected. Here, players will be split into two teams of three, while two seemingly lucky users gets to suit up as a masked warrior. As a gang member, the action plays out as a clunky, uninspired third person shooter, while as a shadowy hero, gameplay is essentially a watered down version of the campaign's stealth sections, except glide kicks, melee attacks, and silent take-downs fail to trigger properly on a regular basis. The mode's premise is somewhat promising, but its execution is flawed and unpolished, and it results in a component that you may try once or twice before deciding that it just isn't worth playing ahead of the solo offering.
For bat-lovers, the Dark Knight's latest escapade swoops from the shadows with welcome familiarity, bringing with it an engaging, open world vision of Gotham City that holds promise for the future. Unfortunately, everything else that Batman: Arkham Origins does well has been done before, and with a better plot than what's on offer here. If you're itching to suit up and fight some crime for the first time, then it's probably best to zipline straight to the game's superior predecessors.