PC, X360, PS3
If there’s any topic across all of fiction that is absolutely sewn shut, it’s origin stories in the Batman Universe. There’s no living human unclear about who Batman or The Joker are. We’ve reached maximum saturation point. Babies are born and immediately handed a copy of Frank Miller’s Year One in exchange for their umbilical cord.
Thankfully, this prequel-follow up to the Batman: Arkham series largely avoids filling in Batman’s past by taking place two years into his career as Gotham’s protector. Sadly, the game scores near entire passages liberally from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in order to showcase The Joker’s backstory. Dialogue and themes are rehashed so extensively this feels more like loving fanfiction than a legitimate attempt to shed any new light on the character.
On Christmas Eve, at a point in time decades in the past while also still close enough to modern day to retain all of our technological advances, Batman intends to fend off an attack by eight assassins hired by lesser-known villain Black Mask. Batman’s identity remains a secret, and so he could easily stay home and wait until the air clears, but he rationalises doing so will only put innocent people in danger in an attempt to draw him out of hiding.
This is one of Arkham Origins biggest failings. It doesn’t provide a compelling sense of purpose or place. Batman’s justification that innocent people will be harmed is undermined by the game’s unwillingness to display more than a handful of innocent people throughout the entire run-time. There are no civilians other than the few who are taken hostage already. This story takes place in a fully inhabited Gotham City, which should be absolutely filled with random pedestrians and cars (even during the heavy Christmas snow). Instead it’s functionally the same as the later Arkham City, where the majority of inhabitants are hardened criminals needlessly staking out rooftops and street corners.
The dearth of world building extends to Gotham itself, which is seemingly made from recycled content from the previous game but is somehow smaller now with less for the player to do. A fast-travel system is introduced, but it seems unnecessary when the game world is so bunched together. Most of Origins takes place indoors, with gameplay cycling between the series’ famous hand-to-hand combat, predatory stealth sections and some arduous level traversal.
Combat isn’t necessarily enhanced by any of the new character-type additions, it’s instead just made slightly more complex. The stealth is a nearly-exact replica of previous games and it’s still a highlight of the entire experience to stake-out enemies, grab them and leave them hanging upside down from a wall-ornament. Making your way between these sections is starting to drag, with level design put together in a way where you clearly see your objective and are just tasked with using the correct item on the correct part of the map. You shoot a grappling hook on things you should pull down. You create a zipline in pre-determined areas. You don’t make your own path, you simply create the path designed for you.
This level traversal worked slightly differently in Arkham Asylum, where different equipment gated off areas of the map you would later return to rather than being the core way you get around. It wasn't just a way to give the player a key to unlock a door, but actually giving them an ability instead.