Batman: Arkham Origins Review: Lost in the shadows

Warner Bros. Montreal never had a chance. On one hand, the studio inherited quite an outstanding franchise from former developer Rocksteady. The Batman Arkham series redefined the action-adventure genre with excellent combat, brilliant narrative, and phenomenal design.

On the other hand, past successes have created almost an impossible standard for Warner Bros. Montreal to live up. Unfortunately, that's exactly how the game presents itself. Arkham Origins has the feel of a game that is trying to live up to its predecessors rather than surpass them. Rather than attempting to put their own stamp on the series, Warner Bros. Montreal has created a game that looks and plays almost identically to past entries in the Arkham series. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as we've already established those were great games, but there's very little innovation that makes this one a must-play. It's almost as if Arkham Origins is lost in the shadows of its elder brothers.

Designed as a prequel, Arkham Origins presents a younger Batman, just two years into his career as a crime fighter. He's younger, brutally raw, impulsive, and overly confident. As such, the story explores Batman's belief that he, alone, must rescue Gotham. As he soon learns, through encounters with eight of the world's best assassins brought in by Black Mask, he will sometimes have to rely on others for help. It's a decent plot that retreads themes already explored in The Dark Knight film.

In one night, Batman will square off against eight assassins — Killer Croc, The Electrocutioner, Deathstroke, Copperhead, Bane, Firefly, Deadshot, and Shiva — as they visit Gotham in attempt to claim the $50 million bounty on Batman's head. Throughout the night, you'll encounter other villains like Penguin and Anarky via various side missions. Seeing the origins of Batman's relationship with these villains unfold could be cool, if not for the rushed nature in which they are presented. The idea of fighting against eight iconic villains is better in theory than actual execution. If anything, they contribute more to the underlying story of Batman learning to rely on others.

Batman Arkham Origins

It's extremely unfortunate because these boss encounters are what you're working up to while playing through the game. All those encounters in the streets of Gotham help build to these pivotal moments. They teach you the basics of combat and boss encounters do a wonderful job of testing everything you learned. If anything, Arkham Origins does a great job of making you feel like you're really the Dark Knight, actually growing with the experience you gain.

Batman: Arkham Origins largely plays the same way as its predecessors. Combat is fast and fluid, relying on quick counters interspersed between the button mashing. The game does throw in some twists, like shielded cops that require you to perform a certain button combo in order to take them out, but combat remains largely the same as before.

As such, it suffers a bit from repetitiveness. Arkham Origins does little to reinvent the combat and does even less to polish that already established in past titles. Sure, a few new enemies and gadgets are introduced, but it's not enough to hold interest as you play through the story.

Arkham Origins does a good job of mixing up the more action-oriented combat with the stealth mechanics Batman is known for, but over the course of the story it becomes almost an annoyance to make your way through the repetitive rooms in an effort to get to the assassins. I want to fight Bane. I don't want to spend 30 minutes taking out his henchmen, especially when I did the same thing for the last boss.

For those of you who do enjoy that sort of thing, you'll be happy to know there's plenty around Gotham City for you to do. At random moments, you'll be notified about "Crimes in Progress" in your vicinity. You can choose to stop these acts and gain some extra XP or simply ignore them and continue on your way. Aside from these sporadic events, there are numerous side missions that see you disarming bombs placed around the city, collecting hidden data packs, destroying contraband stashed in various locations, and things of that nature.

Batman Arkham Origins

They are all designed to help you explore the beautiful Gotham City. Unfortunately, there's little actually in the city worth exploring. The city feels lifeless, bare of any civilians. I get that it's Christmas Eve, but there's little motivation behind stopping a Crime in Progress if there's no one there to save. Where are all of the good people in the city, the ones actually worth fighting this crime for?

Warner Bros. Montreal does throw in a few notable features, most notably the Fast Travel system. Throughout the city, Enigma has set up radio towers that jam the Batwing's controls. Traveling to these locations and disabling the radio towers will unlock Batwing destinations that you can travel to quickly and effortlessly (because gliding from rooftop to rooftop does get tedious).

Another feature worth mentioning is the Case File system. Batman is a detective after all, and this new system lets you analyze crime scenes by scrubbing through an augmented-reality reconstruction of an event and searching for evidence that will help Batman piece together the crime. Again, while interesting in theory, it falls flat in execution as you basically scrub through the scene and look for the highlighted clue.

Batman: Arkham Origins does introduce multiplayer for the first time in the series. I didn't spend too much time in this mode because, quite frankly, it seems like a tacked on addition. Most of the time, it feels like you're playing a bland third-person shooter. You are part of a three-man gang competing for territory control points against a rival gang.  The catch is that two other players are playing as Batman and Robin, who can use Predator mode to take out people on both sides. It's a clever concept for multiplayer, but I'd like to see it more fleshed out in the future. Having to constantly be aware of what's lurking in the shadow of your surroundings while still focusing on this shooter-type gameplay can be a real rush. However, there are still some kinks to work out, particularly with the basic combat when not in Predator mode.

Batman: Arkham Origins had a lot to live up to thanks to the critical success of Arkham City. It's not a bad game by any means, but the lack of new, innovative ideas and a plot that does little to address topics we haven't already explored make it seem like a shallow money grab.

[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]