A Dark Knight in Gotham City
Gotham City is cold with the chill of winter and terrors stalk the night. The city is shrouded in a heavy cloak of darkness but the streets are cast orange in the glow of dirty streetlamps. Gangs of ne'er-do-wells roam, looking for trouble and carrying out the orders of their criminal mastermind leaders. They are bent on Batman’s destruction and a quick payday at his death.
It is the classic, almost expected, beginning of a good Batman story. Arkham Origins is more than the simplicity of its structure but it relies far too long all the same. Before coming into its own, Origins feels derivative, which is in fact true, as Warner Brothers Montreal has built the game upon the shoulders of Rocksteady’s Arkham City. Thankfully, being derivative of excellence is far from a bad thing and when Origins arrives, it delivers a solid Batman yarn with the same great gameplay fans have come to love.
Gotham Come to Life
I have always had a special fondness for Batman. Even as a little boy watching the animated series over my Saturday morning cereal, I would sit glassy-eyed, captured by something I had no words for. As I grew older and began reading the many stand-out graphic novels, I realized how tragically flawed Batman was. Brimming under the surface of every great storyline were elements of loss and rage and remorse; a series of thin red line characters who, in handling their own personal turmoil, accomplished great good or great evil at great cost. Gotham City was gothic and a place for monsters. It was suited for horror stories as much as superheroes, somewhere that no reader wanted to live but everyone wanted to witness.
Arkham Origins captures all of that atmosphere and more. It offers, without exaggeration, the best realization of Gotham City ever seen in a video game and perhaps outside of comic books. It builds upon the ideas of 2011’s Arkham City and delivers an explorable open world that is twice the size in scope and just as gorgeous and richly detailed. Fans will be delighted at just how many dirty streets and decrepit locales have been included. Those who have played the previous games might find it a little familiar, though, and a bit empty. Police radios chatter about citizens being warned to stay indoors, so scouring the streets results in finding criminals or nothing at all, save a few corrupt cops. It feels almost as if Warner Brother’s Gotham was one caught in a snow globe. It is a bit eerie, in truth, and maybe that makes sense.
To put it another way, Arkham Origins’ version of Gotham City reminded me much more of the one found in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This one night, Christmas Eve, is the natural evolution of the Mutant-ravaged city Miller portrayed at the start of his seminal work. Families are afraid to leave their houses. The homeless are all but missing, leaving their carts and burning barrels behind. All that’s left is the enemy and the brooding dark around.
More Than an Origin Story
Taking place only two years into his tenure as the Caped Crusader, this version of Batman is the most venomous we’ve yet seen. There is a certain brutality present here that did not exist in past games. Perhaps it is that Roger Craig Smith’s voice acting always sounds a touch more angry and hateful than Kevin Conroy’s ever did (though he still does an incredible job). But I think it has more to do with how much Batman seems to enjoy the punishment he doles out. It fits his character, the man who murder created, but it makes it all the more clear just how similar he is to those he hurts.
The story is entertaining and works well with the Batman canon but it feels unfocused compared to the tight narrative punches delivered by Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. The concept of a bounty being placed on Batman’s head - $50 million to the man who kills him before Christmas morning - is a good one and makes for a convenient excuse to gather members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. But before the end, the pulse has shifted and the concept loses some of its initial intensity.
The real story here, or should I saw narrative reward, is once again the interplay between the Batman and Joker. Having already based two games on this relationship, fans might be rightfully concerned about WB’s decision to rouse it. They shouldn’t be. What we are given is something fundamental: a better understanding, an interactive history that well supports Rocksteady’s work but also stands on its own as a solid, fun to play through Batman story.
Same great combat and mission structure, larger world, well evolving story
Slightly less polish, can feel very familiar