I'm the goddamn Batman, perched atop a snow-covered hat shop and planning my next move. I could go try to find Black Mask--that bastard put a price on my head and now every two-bit criminal with a shtick is trying to gun me down--but it makes more sense to head to the Gotham National Bank. Deadshot's hanging out inside, and he has hostages he's going to start killing if I don't show up soon. Right as I leap from the rooftop and begin to glide, I'm alerted to a crime in progress nearby, so I swoop down to beat the living BAM! POW! out of the chatty thugs.
I get back up and start heading towards the hostages and--oh, there's a Riddler puzzle nearby. I stop to toss Batarangs at flashing lights, nearly forgetting about the hostages entirely. But it's fine, because I solved the puzzle, and I'm finally at the bank, and there's a cache of weapons nearby that I can destroy? Well, I mean, I might as well, right? They're right there.
Arkham Origins is defined not by its alterations to the near-perfect Arkham formula or improvements to the mechanics, but for its distractions. My boots want me to wander; my Batclaw begs me to explore. And so that's what you'll do, and you'll love it--but for reasons that range from a lifeless city to a full-to-bursting utility belt, you'll find that you love it conditionally.
One problem: this Gotham, as a location, is startlingly uninteresting. Its streets are packed with confused criminals and corrupt cops. There are no people to save or civilians to aid, just plans to thwart and supervillains to cuff. This is partially explained by the snow and a "citywide mandatory curfew," but A) really, guys? That's why folks aren't on the streets?, and B) that doesn't fully justify why the world lacks any personality. Despite being massive and sprawling, it still feels claustrophobic. It's beautiful and haunting, empty and dead, and lacking in any charm or character.
So, yes, the city is pretty lackluster, but probably won't care too much as you beat up everything in sight. The basic formula found in Rocksteady's games is preserved in Origins, creating a closed ecosystem where every single thing is fun to do. Getting a mission? Fun, because it involves interacting with fun characters with fun stories. Getting to the mission? Super fun, because the basic act of gliding around Gotham and swooping through alleys is incredible. Fighting the things you find? It's fun because... come on, you know how fun the combat in Arkham is. Bat's attacks and counterattacks fluidly debilitate foes like a whirling symphony of fists--he's Mozart when the battle begins. It was damn near perfect before, and it still is in Origins.
Much of this greatness can be attributed to the pieces that were already in place, but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of a 50-hit combo in Freeflow combat, or the feeling you get when you silently clear a room of enemies without being seen. Few games make you feel as capable as the Arkham franchise does, even with occasional framerate drops. This enthralling feeling of power is especially apparent in the new multiplayer mode, which allows two players to control the dynamic duo while six others battle it out as gun-toting gang members. It works slightly better than you'd expect, especially in the rare instances when you're able to play as either Bane or the Joker, but hardly feels like it'll keep you around for more than a few nights of competitive madness.
But then, those pesky conditions crop up again. You'll be experiencing your moment of ecstasy as a whirling dervish of destruction, until you head inside a building and notice the occasionally shoddy level design has you utterly lost. Partially, the problem here is Batman's comically (as in funny, not comic book-inspired) hefty utility belt full of tools. You'll be spraying Explosive Gel on walls, ripping down grates with the Batclaw, launching yourself into the air with the Grapnel Gun, throwing Batarangs at hapless thugs, dropping Smoke Bombs to escape gunfire, and hacking computers using the Cryptographic Sequencer; and that's just what you start with. The game incentivizes you to use your abilities with the inclusion of a leveling system and new "Dark Knight Challenges," which reward you with experience and skills for completing mini-challenges--but it's still a little overwhelming. You'll eventually get the hang of it, feeling like… well, feeling like Batman, but it takes a good long while to reach that level.
Which is a shame, because Warner Bros. had a great excuse to tone things down for Origins. You're donning the cowl of a much younger Dark Knight than previously found in the Arkham games, one who has only been spending money on metal boomerangs for a handful of years. It's an interesting twist and works well, and absolutely could've been used to create a more focused experience. This Bruce Wayne is a less experienced vigilante, creating an opportunity for Roger Craig Smith--Batman's new voice actor--to try something fresh. He doesn't. Instead, it's sort of a dry amalgamation of Christian Bale's "SWEAR TO ME!" and the classic Kevin Conroy take on the character.
Smith's Batman sounds like your friend who does a really good Batman voice. It's fine, but it never rises above the ranks of impersonation--and he certainly doesn't seem to take to the role as well as Troy Baker does to The Joker. Baker's mad clown is absolutely spectacular, and sounds similar enough to Mark Hamill's to be recognizable without feeling too derivative. It's downright impressive, and helps lift up the already surprising narrative, even if some opportunities for greatness in the story are totally botched when Origins tries to be too much.
And that's the biggest problem with Arkham Origins. Remember Batman Begins? Of course you do--it was phenomenal, and you saw it like twelve times. Right at the end of the movie, Batman and Gordon have a rooftop conversation about what this vigilante thing means for the future of Gotham’s criminal element. He uses a word to describe his fear: escalation. Arkham City was big, and in trying to match that size, Arkham Origins strains under the pressure, ending as an extremely fun, flawed journey into an empty Gotham.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 and tested on the Xbox 360.
Note: A recent patch has caused issues with the Xbox 360 version of the game, resulting in crashes. We'll update this review once the problems are addressed.