Before getting Arkham Origins I was most of the way through my fifth play-through of Arkham City. I love that game. Every time I was still discovering new things as the game was packed with Easter eggs and moments of "oh, that's how I get that Riddler trophy!"
Arkham Origins feels very different right from the start.
Sure, the similarities are there. Combat flows in much the same way but with some new combos and counters, although with much duller finishing moves. Gliding works the same way as since Arkham Asylum but you have the grapnel boost from the start (Although I’m not sure how they’ll retcon it, as it was still 'experimental' years later in Arkham City. Moving on...).
Even Gotham itself is the same. That's right! The map you’ll be flying over is the same one from Arkham City but with a whole extra island to the south. Of course none of the buildings are run down and the streets aren’t flooded but this element is very cool. Previous players can come into the game knowing roughly their way around the map, or you can use the Batwing to fast travel your way around the double-sized map.
But that nasty Riddler is still causing havoc. Of course he’s not technically The Riddler yet, just E. Nigma and he’s been scrambling radio towers all over Gotham, disrupting Batman’s detective mode and stopping the Batwing from being able to land. Disabling these towers is a bit like vantage points in Assassin’s Creed. Once they are disabled suddenly you’ll see a bunch of nodes that you’ll need to disable (hit with batarangs), and once you’ve destroyed them all you can go and get Nigma.
But you’ll have more to worry about than that. Black Mask, a sadistic mobster with a mask stuck to his face, has put out a bounty on Batman. Eight of the world’s best assassins have one night to kill Batman and net themselves a lot of money. These eight are the bosses you will encounter and their fights are much better than the ones from the previous game. You fight them as equal opponents who have skills similar to your own and require a lot of beating down.
Beyond the eight assassins, there are a number of supervillains up to no good in Gotham (At one point Batman growls “why tonight?” when he learns of yet another new crime). These crooks make up the “most wanted” campaigns. Nigma also has data packs hidden around the city. These are like the Riddler Trophies from Arkham City; some require standing on a pressure pad, others are just slightly hidden.
The Rogue’s gallery is much wider this time around even with repeats like (a much younger looking) Killer Croc and Penguin. You can also play as Deathstroke, if only in the challenge maps (there is a redeem code that comes with the game).
Of course, there are differences too.
Batman is angrier.
Of course this is a younger Batman, more hotheaded and determined to make a mark in his early days. He wants to run out and meet the assassins head on, as usual ignoring the pleas of Alfred. This is a Batman who has has never encountered Deathstroke or any other supervillain and never even heard of the Joker. He has heard of Bane though and sounds worried when he learns that that South American killer is in Gotham.
Batman is also fatter. Fatman, if you will.
Okay, maybe ‘bigger’ is a better word. I don’t mean the Batman is obese but that the design of all of the characters is chunkier; Batman’s boots look massive and his arms are thick. So are the thugs and the police and some of the villains. It’s a visual style that I found quite odd at first. Part of it is because of the armour that the designers have added and I suppose you could say that it’s cold outside so Batman rugged up.
It’s Christmas and Gotham is being hit by a huge snowstorm which rather helpfully keeps civilians and cars off the streets. The only people crazy enough to be out in the weather are thugs who have nothing better to do than stand knee-deep in snow all night.
The real difference with this game is that the creepiness is gone. Both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were creepy dark places with weird inhabitants. Scarecrow and Mad Hatter played as weird, terrifying supporting villains to an inhuman Joker. In Arkham Origins nothing seems closed in and none of the villains have that scary quality to them. There’s no sense of decay.
What replaces it is a hi-tech feel. The menus all look slicker and there is much more writing on the screen, showing you items in Detective mode or just relaying scores after a battle. This is a bad thing. In the menus a floating text box covers up icons and the score/XP info just clutters the screen (not to mention I keep thinking the sound it makes is a ringing phone from Mr Zsasz). The maps are more high tech too, with the ability to switch between levels on multi-level maps.
Annoyingly the maps are also pretty glitchy. You can allegedly tag items on the map to retrieve later, only I never had a single one actually show on the map after I tagged it. Alfred often talks in your ear about marking a location on a map, but when I went to look I couldn’t see it. Then I got lost in the Penguin’s lair trying to get to a map marker that was impossible to get to (I had to walk the long way around but nothing had told me that).
In terms of more major glitches, I had the game freeze sometimes. A couple of times Batman briefly got stuck in places, and the visual controls decided that they wanted to invert, ignoring the settings I’d saved. The worst though was after a battle with Deathstroke, when the game died just before the final cutscene.
Leveling up has changed. Instead of picking and choosing from unlocked upgrades, there is a clear tree to follow. Upgrade your combat armour in order to unlock the knife takedown, but if you want that batarang combo then you’ll need to upgrade ballistic armour too. I don’t mind this too much as it make Batman’s progression seem more intelligent. And this is a young Batman still learning the ropes.
This is clear as there are four different Batman roles that you fill by doing tasks. For example solving crimes and finding clues unlock new levels under “World’s Greatest Detective” while fighting achievements unlock levels in “Worst Nightmare”. At certain levels you unlock extra combos or abilities in the upgrade trees. It’s a nice way of showing Batman’s progress from mysterious stranger to legend.
There’s a bunch of cool new gadgets that will take veteran players a while to master, but you’ll soon be attaching bad guys to explosives and being the lethal unseen predator we all know and love.
The new crime scene tool is like that. It can recreate crime scenes showing you what took place and where the next clue might be found. It’s a step up from Arkham City’s scanner and tracking, but in general it feels like busy work with very little puzzle element to it. Crime scenes feature both as part of the main story and also as random scenes scattered around Gotham.
Like the previous games there are Easter eggs everywhere! I scoured the Batcave looking for them, which is how I found the Batmobile under repair. (There’ll eventually be a game where we drive it!) But exploration is still the heart of the game. Gotham is big and it’s lots of fun to dive off the roofs and soar over a snow clad city full of bad guys. Only this time they think you’re a myth right up until you punch them in the face.
Arkham Origins has a lot to live up to. I think it gets close but sadly not close enough. You still feel like Batman, but it’s missing... something. Perhaps Batman isn’t just a man with a bunch of extraordinary gadgets, maybe he needs that creepy weirdness as well.