Until now, the Arkham games were meticulously crafted to make me feel as though I wasn’t just playing a game, but taking up a mantle. Through meticulously built Bat-gadgets, clever level design and stories that drew heavily from the Caped Crusader’s rich mythology, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City lived up to the mission of Bruce Wayne: Protect the people, and protect Gotham City. But after suffering through only a few hours of Batman: Arkham Origins’ tired missions, frustrating boss battles, insipid writing and undeniably noticeable bugs, I felt a growing sense of disgust. To hell with its citizens: I wanted to watch Gotham City burn.
Sadly, since Arkham Origins is a prequel and Gotham needs to exist for the rest of the series, that isn’t an option. Set only a few years into Batman’s mission to stop crime, the game shows the first time he faces off against a new breed of criminal in the form of eight super-powered assassins hired to kill him. It’s a compelling premise that’s quickly abandoned when the game makes a compulsory, unavoidable shift in focus towards Batman’s relationship with the Joker.
Arkham Origins intriguingly purports to tell the “origin” of Batman and the Joker’s relationship, but the game has no idea how to develop these characters: They puzzle over each other for a single scene before immediately dropping into familiar rhythms. Instead of developing their relationship, the game tries to pose questions. Did Batman create the Joker? Is he just a criminal or, as Batman says at some point in the game, “something different?” Do they hate each other, or do they need each other? Unfortunately, all of these questions are answered more capably by almost every popular Batman story from the last 25 years, and Arkham Origins adds nothing new to the conversation.
Arkham Origins’ struggle showing this relationship can be traced directly to its misunderstanding of Batman as a character. The Batman on display is supposed to be inexperienced and rougher around the edges, but instead comes across as an idiot thug. He solves every problem with pummeling—including the final sequence of the game, which feels less like righteous justice and more like a merciless beating. On top of this, Batman is one of the victims of the game’s truly awful dialogue, as he’s either spouting dry, painfully obvious exposition directly at the player—often repeating what the story told me moments earlier—or ending a criminal interrogation with one-liners that would embarrass Commando’s John Matrix.
I found myself punctuating most lines of dialogue in Arkham Origins with heavy sighs and the occasional disgusted groan. The dialogue strains to impress by being needlessly technical, referring to a blood stain as “DNA impact markings,” or filling Barbara Gordon’s brief cameo with technobabble rivaling that of any early 2000’s thriller about the dangers of the internet. Often lines are painfully obvious to the point of ridicule, such as when a corrupt cop beating a homeless man exclaims, “Man, I hate the homeless!” And any time it tries for depth, it ends up being meaningless and overly familiar; Deathstroke’s dialogue could be replaced with the lyrics to Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, and the final showdown between the Joker and Batman sounds like overhearing someone drunkenly trying to explain the plot of The Dark Knight in a bar (not content to borrow from that film thematically, the game’s story concludes with a scene lifted almost directly from it).
The worst of it comes when the writing’s attempt to get colorful collides painfully with the incredibly poor voice-over work that makes up most of the games’ performances. Henchmen talk and sound like New Jersey caricatures, as if Gotham’s underworld was made up entirely of Andrew “Dice” Clays, Joe Pescis and Buddy “Cake Boss” Valastros. The Penguin’s henchwoman Tracey speaks with a Cockney accent so thick and nonsensical that I’m forced to wonder if the developers have ever spoken to a British person, or even seen an episode of British television. Candy, Penguin’s other sidekick, is the only notable person of color in the game and her dialog is problematic at best. Tracey and Candy’s appearance adds nothing to the story; they exist only to as sexual props for the Penguin and to be ogled by the player. Frustratingly, their only purpose seems to be to reinforce the series’ problem with women.
Spared from this indignity are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who voiced Batman and the Joker in countless animated versions and both games in the Batman: Arkham series before Arkham Origins. In their place are Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker. Both set out to ape their predecessors, and while Smith stumbles occasionally, Baker’s recreation of Hamill’s Joker is fantastic. It’s doesn’t quite replace Hamill, whose voice has defined the character since 1992, but Baker stunned me by coming as close as he did.
The last main character left to examine is Gotham City itself, which is as poorly defined and sporadically characterized as its protector. Gotham retains the look and feel of Arkham City, which provides visual consistency until you remember that by the time of Arkham City Gotham is a rundown dystopia, with city blocks run into the ground by psychopaths and criminals. Turns out those maniacs didn’t do much damage, as Arkham Origins’ earlier Gotham is already full of rundown, filthy locations. Everything is leaking, broken, empty and destroyed.
This carnage defies logic. The Joker takes over an entire hotel, creating a demented funhouse and filling its halls with death traps and taking hostages, but somehow Batman, the GCPD and the citizens of the city didn’t notice until tonight? The Penguin’s tanker ship, the game’s first level, appears to be a paradox—it’s simultaneously sinking, floating, on fire and frozen. None of this makes any sense if you stop to think about it for a moment. I’m not clamoring for “realism” in my Batman game—please, bring on the crocodile men, the clayfaces and the immortal ninjas—but the game’s assumption that I wouldn’t stop to consider the reality of anything repeatedly shatters my suspension of disbelief.
That absence of logic sticks out over and over. Batman, whose sole purpose is to combat organized crime, has a pleasant chat with a mob enforcer. Earlier in the game, having just used explosive gel to destroy walls, Batman attempts to get through plate glass by punching it. I don’t know what reaction the game hopes to get form me when, as I beat up thugs to move on, they shout sympathetic pleas like, “I got kids!” and “You don’t have to do this!” And I cannot count the number of times that Batman, a billionaire ninja with explosives, grappling hooks and incredible agility, is stopped in his tracks by his greatest enemy of all, a locked door.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time talking about the story, the dialogue, the characters and the world they inhabit and not as much remarking on the levels and play there’s a reason: They are completely unremarkable. Playing Arkham Origins means walking down variations on a hallway, dealing with a minor inconvenience (usually a grate to open, a wall to destroy or a lock which needs to be opened with Batman’s “cryptographic sequencer”) before hitting that aforementioned locked door. Then the area is flooded with enemies as I’m treated to the game’s “free form combat” until the door unlocks, letting me go down yet another hallway, which has another minor obstacle, and ends with more combat.
Arkham Origins is obsessed with fighting, and more often than not the reward for clearing out an arena is an extra squad of thugs rushing into that same arena. Without time or other ideas to flesh out portions of the game’s story, the developers decided to go the Killer Croc strategy of “throw a rock at him,” continuously testing my ability to solve problems with brute force. While thematically fitting for this brutish, angry version of Batman, it’s not what I call a fun time. Exhaustion piles up when, after clearing an area of thugs and watching a cut-scene or getting a new goal in the next room, the game wants me to go back the way I came, with every room filled with fresh new henchmen.
Arkham Origins makes clear why it leans so heavily on hand-to-hand fighting with its “invisible predator” style encounters. In Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, these were the coolest parts about being Batman. I would glide down to knock someone out, followed by grappling up to a gargoyle to watch his friends panic as I take another criminal out silently. All of these mechanics exist largely unchanged, but the layout of the areas in which you use them are cramped and awkward. With few exceptions I’d find myself with too few places to stalk from, or with too many enemies for stealth to be efficient. Instead I’d end up jumping from criminal to criminal, knocking them out with force. This section of the game is supposed to be a contrast to the rest of the fist-punching, instead it felt like a shoddy reminder that Arkham Origins is really only good at one thing.
Since the main story is centered around eight assassins coming to kill Batman in one night, I had hoped that the game would frame those characters as engaging boss encounters. Unfortunately almost half of the assassins aren’t even part of that story. Two are relegated to side missions, and one is cast aside as a joke. The remaining assassins either force you into more arena battles, sad shadows of the previous games’ Scarecrow sequences, or most irritatingly, a series of blisteringly difficult “quick time events.” Arkham Origins is the quick time events jackpot, putting them in every boss fight with abandon, and even in almost every small story beat. In one particularly ludicrous scene in the third act, the game’s “Press X” action is clearly meant to choke me up but instead got nothing but a chuckle.
I’m willing to grant that there are players who might not dislike the story as much as me, that there are people who won’t mind sitting through the levels in order to get to combat that they find pulse-pounding instead of tedious. But I can’t even recommend they play Arkham Origins since, at the time of this review, it was riddled with bugs big and small. The sound in the game would break in a myriad of ways—blaring cut-scenes while playing in-game audio at whisper levels or continuing to play a looping helicopter sound effect long after a helicopter had left the game. At one point I was thrust into a “silent predator” sequence but my “detective mode” (the series’ way of empowering Batman to see enemies through walls and draw attention to different situational advantages, crucial to predator sections) wouldn’t turn on. The only way to fix any of these problems was to re-start the game. Worst of all, though, were the momentary freezes that would occur, the worst of which was a permanent hang during an auto-save, leaving Batman suspended in mid-air above Gotham. Upon restarting my Xbox, the game had erased my save game entirely. Faced with replaying 5 hours of game that I hadn’t even enjoyed, I was tempted to give up and write Arkham Origins off right then and there.
It’s unfair to act as if there’s no good in Arkham Origins. New enemies who use martial arts and require Batman to counter a few extra times add some much needed variety to combat. The electro-gauntlets make combat easier and give me the sense of empowerment missing from the rest of the game. Several of the story cinematics are slick and exciting, especially the introduction of Deathstroke and the climax of the hotel battle with the Joker and Bane. And finally, a late portion of the game featuring Firefly and Gotham’s Founder’s Bridge provides a series of adventures as good as the worst sections of the two Arkham games that are actually good.
My big concern going into Arkham Origins was that, after scouring Arkham Asylum and Arkham City for every collectable, completing the stories multiple times, I’d be sick of the formula, and that this game would be more of the same. For “more of the same” to be this game’s failing, though, would mean it maintains a minimal level of competence that it can’t attain. Its high water mark is the low for those games, and it shows in every detail, every bug, every side mission. There’s a multiplayer mode which seems serviceable (the few times I could connect to a match) and plenty of side-quests with citizens in trouble to rescue. After finishing the main story, though, full of frustration, boredom and exasperated confusion, I’m hanging up the cape and cowl. The people of Gotham are on their own.
Casey Malone is a comedian, writer and game designer living in Somerville, MA. In his off time he’s fast at work on a patent for Shark Repellant Bat-Spray. Follow him on Twitter.