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PLATFORM: XBox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC, WiiU
ESRB RATING: T
DEVELOPER: Warner Bros. Montreal
PUBLISHER: Warner Bros Interactive
[NOTE ON FINAL SCORE: While it’s ultimately not going to make a difference in my verbal assessment of the game, there have been numerous bugs and glitches with the game since release. While random glitches are not new, they don’t normally affect the big picture, but primary among them, which will affect this review, is a game-breaking bug that completely wipes out saves. Specifically, it wiped out my save file while I was on the second half of the final boss fight. Judging from numerous sites reporting, the save file corruption is a widespread issue with the 360 port, completely random, with no known fix on the way, and the review score has been docked half a point for it.]
Time hasn’t been terribly kind to Arkham City since its release, but I will always give it kudos for two things: One was having the balls to let the Joker die, with Bats visibly not handling it well, and the insane, eerie rendition of Only You during the credits driving the nail home with force; the other was the set up being absolutely perfect, with letting Gotham’s worst have a corner of the city, walling it off, and letting the whole thing go to ruin, and having Batman struggle with Hugo Strange’s ultimate plan of wiping the whole lot of them clean as a solution. Origins has neither of those, and in fact, as a prequel, far removes us from the fascinating place Arkham City leaves the Dark Knight, while doing absolutely nothing to advance its ideas. So, the question to consider when judging Origins is what exactly does it have to offer that Asylum/City didn’t? The answer is “frustratingly little.”
As gameplay, there’s not much to tell though that’s not necessarily a negative. Arkham Origins is basically copy/pasted from Arkham City, with only a couple of tweaks. A tip of the hat does have to be given for the fact that the vast majority of Batman’s wonderful toys are available the second you get control of the guy, and don’t have to be Metroided from around the city. Another must be given for the Remote Claw as a mechanic, allowing you to string two objects/grapple points to either smash them together, or create an instant zipline. A lot of the game’s devilish smirks come from Predator moments involving that thing, but otherwise, if you’ve played one of the prior, you’ve played this. Not that that’s a bad thing, considering the Arkham games still are as perfect a feel for being Batman as any game has ever delivered, though a moment of inspiration would at least take advantage of the Batman: Year Two setting, and allow the guy chances to fuck up or learn from mistakes. Because otherwise, it’s kind of a cakewalk. Fly here, go to building, beat a bunch of guys senseless, wait to hit Y/Triangle to counter, find shit for the Riddler when you’re not doing that. I will also grant, though, that this is the game that finally fixes the series’ lackadaisical approach to boss fights, delivering some imperfect, but fun twists on the normal combat while still making the threat of getting absolutely crushed during a very real thing.
So, no, it’s not the gameplay. The game’s problems all stem from concept, from the reasons. The known set up to the general public is that it’s Batman’s second year of crimefighting, and Black Mask puts out a multi-million dollar hit on him, attracting villains from all over to Gotham for the chance for fame and glory. It’s a weak set up, but one that could be mined, given that you set Batman up as an everyday crimefighter just getting his sea legs whose heroism keeps getting cockblocked by supervillains who want his head. This is, however, not actually where the game’s going. Minor spoilers I suppose, given that the promotional material for the game tries its good god damnedest to obscure him in favor of Black Mask, but when it comes down to it, Origins is, once again, a story about Batman and the Joker, and the sick moral love affair between the two. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. The villains who show up, sure, they want Batman dead, but aside from Deadshot, Copperhead, and a couple others, they don’t seem to be going for the gold very efficiently here. Firefly’s whole plan involves holding a bridge hostage, and that seems to be more for his love of pyromania than the need to draw out the Bat, and he’s one of the guys we’re supposed to fear from minute one.
Instead, what we get is a series of Most Wanted segments that play out like the same random mission structure we’ve come to expect, appetizers to the main event that is The Joker. The fact that, out of the dozens of viable options that have yet to be plundered for these games, we’re back to the Joker is annoying, but could be forgiven on its own provided we get a Joker worth exploring, who we actually care about defeating or antics we actually want to witness. What’s less forgivable is watching the game make the cardinal mistake that has been a legitimate, woeful danger since The Dark Knight happened: Making the Ledger’s Joker the one and only interpretation.
Allow me to yell this for the cheap seats, in case this didn’t get through in the last 5 years: Ledger’s Joker worked FOR THAT UNIVERSE. Mark Hamill’s version has always been the best in a moving medium because he always understood how to play the Joker, as a guy whose entire criminal repertoire has been a long-form art joke of trying to make an unflappable, humorless freak of nature laugh. It’s the part of The Killing Joke that makes the whole damn thing worthwhile: The fact that the Joker’s (presumably) final act of freedom gets the Bat to laugh.
Here, The Joker’s playing that same nebulous stream of anarchy at all costs, but it’s unjustified by the world around him, where the Joker converts a hotel’s ballroom into a creepy carnival, and uses cartoony explosives to bring down a skyscraper. Hell, the guy doesn’t even really have an audience for his antics since Origins‘ Gotham City has the population density of Silent Hill. Either way, we’ve seen this villain before, and the series that, in this timeline, still has a Bane powered by Venom, where electroshock gloves are a possibility and are a perfectly viable option to use as a defibrillator, and includes a trippy Alice In Wonderland segment for Jervis Tetch does not support him.
So, Origins plays out its story, slouching glumly towards the dynamic we’re all well aware of: Bats captures the Joker, but not at the expense of his one rule, but the Joker has his Mr. Glass moment of having found his true antagonistic calling. The tragically ironic part is we find this out in the game’s most inspired sequence: a 10 minute playable sequence of Harleen Quinzel interviewing the Joker for the first time, where you play through the Joker’s twisted brain, killing fellow criminals for shits and giggles, walking through the Ace Chemical factory as Red Hood, while Quinzel and present-day Joker play Lecter-Clarice in the background. THAT is a game I want to play, I know I’ll never get, and when its over, and we go back to Batman being a dick to Alfred (which happens depressingly often in this game, I might add) I completely mourn.
What it comes down to is that Origins is a wasted opportunity. Building a game on the foundation set by the previous titles is fine, especially a foundation as strong as Arkham Asylum, but there’s nothing that other moving versions of this character haven’t done, and haven’t done better. I like to measure iterations of Batman by the Legends of the Dark Knight episode of Batman: The Animated Series. If you wouldn’t be able to pick your version of Batman out of the lineup if you gave him his own segment, you’ve failed. Here, you feel the Nolan worship from the first second the game is powered on, and it never subsides to give this universe its own flavor or personality. It’s just relentlessly po-faced and dour, with no real respite, no feeling of heroic exhilaration. I think the game would even benefit if Batman was even MORE of a dick. Instead, he’s a Frankenstein cipher of the most overplayed aspects of this character and that’s a cardinal sin here. The Batman of the previous games at least got to see the guy having his morality questioned, or in a hellish situation. What it comes down to is that there is absolutely no excuse for a character like Batman to be absolutely faceless.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars