In 2009, expectations for Batman: Arkham Asylum were not high, since movie tie-in games have a pretty sketchy track record. Developer Rocksteady was also relatively unknown back then, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films had become landmark cinema, making them a hard act to follow even for celebrated game designers. But this determined gang delivered a faithful and entertaining romp (having the talented voice actors from the cartoons take on their roles didn’t hurt, either). Fast-forward to 2013, and an unrelated, newly formed studio is at the helm—and Batman and Joker have new voices. We also have potentially tacked-on multiplayer now. It sounds like cause for concern once again, and this time the worries are more justifiable, though not in the ways you might expect.
There’s a $50 million bounty on Batman’s head, which apparently doesn’t need to remain attached to his body.
The gameplay is largely unchanged. Batman still glides and grappling-hooks his way over the gritty, crime-infested streets of Gotham, overhearing conversations and finding collectibles. You still beat the snot out of hundreds of thugs using the same combo system. You get a smaller window to respond to an attack, so your combo chains are broken more often, which makes the truly interesting maneuvers less accessible. The more time you spend evading, the longer the fight takes. Toward the end of the main storyline, you will be fighting literally dozens of dudes at once, all with differing abilities and tactics. It can be downright grueling sometimes.
Speaking of the story, it’s also not as tight. Though you have a $50 million bounty on your head, and eight or so assassins are after it, you largely have the city to yourself, unless you decide to confront them. Four of them are optional, or you can deal with them after the main plot has concluded. On the other hand, defeating the assassins unlocks certain combat abilities. But other than that, they don’t actually try to hunt you down or lure you in. You don’t have to worry about innocents getting caught in the crossfire, because ordinary citizens are nonexistent. They’ve apparently barricaded themselves in after hearing about this $50M scavenger hunt, and there’s also something about martial law, but you don’t see any police or military personnel patrolling the streets.
One can’t help but wonder what might have been if developer Warner Brothers Montreal had not divided its efforts between single-player and multiplayer. The latter is a novel experience: Two teams of thugs must fight off Batman and Robin while fighting each other for territory. But the two hero characters are largely vertical attackers, so someone playing a gang member is getting attacked from all angles, making death frequent and frustrating.
Aside from multiplayer, the overall sense of déjà vu throughout Origins is so regular that the game feels more like a game-length flashback set within the previous installment, rather than a distinct experience. Granted, Origins is modeled after the very satisfying experience of the previous game, Arkham City, so it never strays into the outright regrettable. But it never fully emerges from that long shadow, either.