Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the greatest video games of this generation; its sequel, Arkham City, took the game formula and gave players even more mechanics in an even larger virtual world with a better story. Gamers’ hopes were high for the third title in the series—Arkham Origins—a prequel set five years before the first game and featuring a less-experienced Batman. New developer Warner Bros. Montreal didn’t raise the bar, but this is still a spectacular game and a must-have for any serious player or Batman fan (considering that most people in the world are one or both, that translates into “everybody”).
Gone are the wit and whimsy of the first two games, which somehow managed to feel cartoony and fun (in all the right ways). The villains were scary, but their schemes were so outlandish and sprawling that they could hardly be taken seriously. In Arkham Origins, however, Batman isn’t taking on an army of genetically enhanced supersoldiers or a mad scientist who has built his own city-sized prison; he’s up against the Black Mask, one of the last old-school mobsters in Gotham City. Despite wearing a helmet in the shape of an ebony skull, Mask’s a classic gangster through and through: impeccably dressed, tough as nails, and undeniably cruel. The Black Mask has taken a hit out on Batman, giving nine deadly assassins a chance to do in our hero on a stormy Christmas Eve.
What follows is a series of fights that will push Batman to his limits, all interwoven with a mystery involving a new guy in town called the Joker, and a healthy dose of optional side missions for those wanting even more story and gameplay. Bruce Wayne has only worn the cowl for two years at the time this game takes place and is still growing into his assumed identity. He is more angry and brutal than in the previous editions; within the first few minutes, he pins one villain down and beats him mercilessly—an interrogation that takes a very large step over the line into torture.
Boss battles are far more personal and challenging. Fan-favorite supervillain Deathstroke—often considered one of Batman’s few equals when it comes to martial arts mastery and tactical brilliance—makes an appearance and proves to be among the game’s toughest encounters, requiring split-second timing and total situational awareness.
The game’s combat interactions also feel more challenging. During the series’s signature “predator” encounters, in which Batman hides in the shadows to eliminate overwhelming numbers of heavily armed enemies, the opposing force moves with more care than previously. Separating enemies one by one to take them down via stealth and guile becomes an exercise in patience that requires every tool Batman has at his disposal. These skirmishes are tremendously satisfying and, more so than the other entries, make gamers feel as if they are disappearing into the role.
The “vigilante” encounters—straight combat against crowds of varying sizes using hand-to-hand close quarters tactics and numerous gadgets—are artificially difficult in this installment, though. Controls feel stiff and unresponsive and lack the previous games’ precision. Plainly put, enemies fight unfairly—perhaps the developer is trying to drive home that this Batman has not earned his reputation as a dark and terrifying creature of the night just yet, so it’s far easier for enemies to take cheap shots.
The design of the world is welcome and will be familiar to comic book fans, with dark tones, dramatic lighting, and lots of high places from which to dive onto unsuspecting criminals. Unfortunately, Gotham City feels lonely and dead. Criminals and crooked cops are the only people on the streets, bringing a severe lack of character to the environment. The developers did think to add Christmas decorations at least, and new vertical areas bring an added sense of challenge to predator encounters that occur out in the open. It’s now more likely that there will be enemies directly above and below Batman; less linearity to the levels of most structures makes for more intense combat and more creative ways to play cat and mouse with enemies.
While the faults of Arkham Origins are numerous, the story is compelling, the characters are well acted, and it never gets old watching Batman sow the seeds of friendship with Jim Gordon and find an eternal nemesis in the Joker. The challenge mode allows for infinite replayability and makes for great library programming: have participants compete for the highest score in self-contained vigilante and predator encounters. An online multiplayer mode exists—two teams of thugs fight for territory while Batman and Robin work together to take them down—but it’s basic at best and feels tacked on.
Younger, less experienced gamers will want to play in easy mode to help curb some of the game’s at-times arbitrary challenges, but being Batman is a dream come true. The earlier series games were better, but it’s likely that once you play one, you’ll want to play them all.