Something has gone terribly wrong at Warner Bros. Games. The moment you begin playing Batman: Arkham Origins, you can’t help but question exactly how similar it is to Arkham City. To cut a long story very, very short, Arkham Origins feels like an expansion pack for City, only, the extra content is a few boss fights and side-quests. Warner Bros. Games promised a new combat system, but it feels identical; a doubly large world, but it feels the same; new gadgets, but use of them is through a series of hand-held prompts throughout the game.

There’s absolutely nothing new about Batman: Arkham Origins, and if in re-creating the same game from scratch, Warner Bros. Games spent two years and millions of dollars, I have to question what the hell the powers that be were thinking. This isn’t the next game in the series, it’s a mediocre expansion pack.

Fighting the Assassins as a series of boss fights is the highlight of the game.

Fighting the Assassins as a series of boss fights is the highlight of the game.

Starting with the good, Origins features some incredibly well orchestrated boss fights. Although learning that the game was going to be a predictable schlep across an uninspiring and empty, gamey world, knocking down bosses through a succession of linear paths, no other game since Metal Gear Solid has captured the rough-and-ready struggle that boss-fights should be. Each of the assassins sent to kill Batman are interesting, well written, and fight face-to-face, with a few exceptions. They’re a real, hardcore slug, and very difficult – especially if you’re paying attention to the convoluted tutorial prompts.

The convolution doesn’t stop there. Arkham Origins isn’t really an origins story, and neither is it particularly about Arkham. The story doesn’t make any attempt to establish itself as anything other than a series of boss fights, with some optional missions in between. Maybe I’m missing something, but in fairness to myself it’s neither particularly deep, nor is there a whole lot of exposition, other than ‘this object has X scenario preventing me from getting past, so I’d better run to Y area to grab Z item and then run back’ a bunch of times. That really sucks, because both Arkham Asylum and City had a whole lot of character. This really doesn’t, and in places it felt like an hand-held spin-off in the way that resources are tight and main story events are saved for the main platform game in the franchise, if that makes sense.

For justice!

For justice!

The combat has been sped-up, but that doesn’t change the fact that 99% of Arkham Origins is spent in the same old fights from the two previous games. The combat system was impressive all those years ago when Arkham Asylum was released, and other characters mixed it up in City, but really it’s old news here. Considering most of the game is spent fighting the same enemies, in the same way, as the other two games, there’s not a whole lot to get overly excited about, nothing really mixes it up.

I can’t help but feel as though this was a huge, huge design over-sight in Arkham Origins, and this is one of many problems that should have been discussed at a round-table somewhere, surely? Is fighting the same enemies from the prior two games over, and over again all that fun? Are linear levels and back-tracking when we’ve done it in the prior two games all that fun? Is the ability to only go one path or use one gadget per scenario, and telling us which, or where, all that fun? Any sane member of the development team would have raised questions, but for some reason it seems as though they’ve either been hushed up or ignored. Arkham City sold a lot of copies – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Graphics are nice enough, but they feel in places like a step down from City.

Graphics are nice enough, but they feel in places like a step down from City.

Batman is still a clunky chap, which will likely annoy PC purists, but I was playing on a 42″ TV with an Xbox pad, which is probably the best way to play these games. I still appreciate the little things, like the way Batman’s suit tears up throughout the game, and the way snow collects on his cape as he’s gliding around the city. What I don’t appreciate is all that money being spent on a large open world, when that large open world is simply filled with generic bad-guys. No life, no cars, no interactivity – nothing. This is something they should have learned about from Arkham City. The open world is a complete waste, and juxtaposes (not in a good way) the linearity and hand-holding of the missions within buildings.

There are a few cogs missing, the original voice cast to say the least. Hamill and Conroy are no more, replaced. The new cast do a pretty good job, but this doesn’t help the sensation that this sequel, or prequel, feels a little forced. With a bounty of $50 million on Batman’s head, he’s to undertake a counter-rampage in a single night. That’s about it, really – although there are twists and turns along the way.

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Stealth? No. No, not really.

Arkham Origins is certainly a victim of 2013’s gaming climate. It’s probably the biggest hand-holder of the year. Batman recites almost every action, and tool tips endlessly appear on the game GUI and through Batman’s gadgets. Origins is one control pad away from total autonomy. It almost plays itself. Fighting is once again a matter of mashing X and countering with Y, apart from the boss fights which genuinely mix it up, and heading from A to B is a matter of clinging, swinging, and swooping your way around the roof-tops. Likewise, in buildings, missions are about using the same old tools – one of each job – through a series of linear corridors, ultimately, probably, heading back the way you came.

Of course there’s a narrative excuse for all this, but the story lacks character to the point where reasons feel like excuses to make you play a bunch of dragged out filler. ‘Master Wayne, you’ve to collect the thingymajig to bork the gobbledigook, of course!’ Oh, you mean the gobbledigook a 12 minute detour this way? Of course I do. Of course I need that object, because the game says I do.

Screen-shotting these slow-motion finishers was the most fun I had.

Screen-shotting these slow-motion finishers was the most fun I had.

If you want to waste time doing something else, there’s the addition of challenge rooms, where you can either hone your skills, or complete various tasks to gain the highest points, or the most OCD combo chains. The challenges were sort-of-standard for this generation, similar to Assassins Creed, and that’s never been something I’ve been into. Games have enough filler in them these days to contain actual, hands-down filler. That said, the challenges are good, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not, but that’s fine.

The map is a curious thing. It’s completely lifeless, which made sense in Arkham City. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here. What’s more, the two halves are split by a horrendously long bridge which I understand makes sense considering the lore of the game, and a fast-travel makes it easier, but it’s a chore to get past when you need to, and another one of those design decisions that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I assume that since it’s Christmas, everyone who isn’t an insane criminal is at home. At least, that’s their excuse (reason?) What’s more, there is so much that should be able to grapple, but inexplicably isn’t. Stop changing the rules.

MFW I realised what Arkham Origins was.

MFW I realised what Arkham Origins was.

Without going over-board with the gripes, I have to bring up another horrible design point. The ‘missions’ scattered throughout the map provided by Mad Hatter, Penguin, and Anarky are literally just a series of ‘go here and press x button’ missions sprawled about. This is the biggest crime in this kind of game, and it’s completely inexcusable, especially if you’re offering an optional challenge experience on top. They should have learnt from Saints Row 4: main missions are awesome, and side-missions are just a different kind of awesome. Not here.

The other addition is CSI Gotham, where Batman investigates and solves crimes, and it is questionable at best. At worst, simply terrible. You – the player – do nothing but click the right button when prompted, as Batman – a sort of high-budget Sherlock Holmes – talks about what he’s found using his gadgets. You do not have to think so much as watch tedious recreations in the vein of Remember Me, tracing a red line when it appears as you fast forward or rewind incredibly slowly through the entire murder scene, rendered via your gadgets. I do not know why these exist. They don’t set the mood, they feel completely out of place, and I can only imagine they served as an interesting tit-bit for PR one-liners. In practice, they’re sloppy, useless, and a waste of time.

Multiplayer is plagued by shooting mechanics not fit for this kind of game, and although they promised this wouldn’t be tacked on, it’s very much tacked on. It’s novel to do Batman-gamey-things with other players, and the sense that you could get attacked by another player, again, is novel because it’s something we’re not used to, but it’s still mechanically malnourished and it’s highly unlikely that anyone will really take it seriously. Combat feels clunkier and less refined than the single player, and multiplayer, whilst doing its best, proves that multiplayer just isn’t meant for these games.

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Batman: Arkham Origins will be of interest to gamers who are really, really into the Batman franchise. Those if you who enjoyed Asylum and City for what they were: beware. This features all of the same mechanics, and style, but lacks almost all of the charm and finesse. I’ve no idea why it took Warner Bros. Games so long to make, and their claims of rewriting many of the features, and expanding the game, are questionable at the very best. This is easily the weakest Batman game of the current generation, but in fairness to it, if you’re going to buy and play one game, sit on the couch one evening, and eat pizza, you’re probably going to have a good time with this. Those looking for an experience which improves upon the previous two games might, actually, end up pissed off that they’ve spent so much on something like a half-assed expansion pack, albeit with awesome boss battles.