I’ll start this article by providing a quick warning: I love Batman. My obsession for the Caped Crusader has stuck with me throughout my childhood despite the traumatizing effects of George Clooney’s nipples in “Batman Forever.” The Dark Knight is one of my favorite topics of discussion and I’ve dressed up as Batman for Halloween multiple times, including this year.
So, it should come as no surprise that in 2009 I was thrilled by the now classic game Batman: Arkham Asylum. Confined to the island as the inmates take over the madhouse, the player both duels out heavy-hitting combos and sneaks through the darkness onto unsuspecting criminals. Aside from featuring an engaging story, the original voice actors and some of the best villains, it was the first time that any nerds like myself got to live out an all-time dream: being Batman. In addition to the fighting, we got to grapple and glide around the island, solve puzzles using the greatest detective’s skills and use all of his wonderful toys. Two years later, Arkham City expanded on most of the mechanics but brilliantly opened up the gameplay into an open world, giving us the choice to pursue the Joker, beat up street thugs or glide around.
Set in Gotham City two years into the Dark Knight’s career, this prequel’s first line in the opening cut scene gives the gamer the lame excuse that all citizens are implausibly honoring a citywide curfew because of snow. Because they have plenty of reason to stay locked away in their homes as criminals and corrupt cops roam around the city, the citizens’ abandoned cars the only remnant of any life in this metropolis.
The expression, “It’s my world and you’re just living in it,” is apt in explaining this series. In both of these games, Batman is the central focus of the game world, everyone else is either a villain or an important good guy and the only people on the streets are criminals looking for a fight. While this works fine for these first two installments due to story lines and our technical expectations, the recently released Arkham Origins clearing its world of ordinary people poses a serious problem. Every person on the streets is a criminal or cop to beat up or the very occasional cop to rescue. This is Batman’s world that all the characters are living in and everyone exists for him to either beat up or save. There is no one simply trying to get home from work or buying a late Christmas gift or taking an evening stroll. Buildings blow up, hostages are taken and the Joker is suitably insane but with this lack of life and energy in the city I’m supposed to be protecting I found myself shrugging and rushing through any of the emotional impact the storyline attempts to deliver.
Gotham City is quite a large place, much larger than both of the two Arkhams in the previous games, but as a consequence it is incredibly empty. While it’s fun to grapple and glide from rooftops as Batman (at least for me), there just isn’t much to do outside of the rather short main story, harking back to the lack of activity in the city. There’s even a bridge right in the middle of the city that takes about five minutes to cross. While awesome for the first few missions, navigating the city is simply dull. The side missions feel a bit repetitive, going so far as to feature mostly the same villains from the previous games, and the collectible trophies and “data packs” scattered around are only for the diehard completionist. Every few minutes a police scanner will alert you to a crime in progress but that, ultimately, is another group of criminals to beat up on. While a world mainly bereft of people except punching bags worked for the other games, this time around the world is noticeably lifeless because of its size, lacking actual impact as a city, which shows a huge oversight and lack of advancement and innovation from the designers.
While I’ve been extremely harsh on the game, it isn’t a bad game, in fact, what the other games have done well Origins continues. The combat is free-flow combo-based madness that, while you’re quickly countering punches and throwing batarangs, makes you truly exhilarated. Rather than button mashing, this combat system relies on quick reflexes and fast thinking perfectly suited to Batman. The stealth element is back as strong as ever and it’s still incredibly exciting to see Joker’s minions scream in terror as you sneak or fly in from behind. While the original voice actors, director and even designing studio are no longer involved, it’s hard to notice since Origins pulls off a style perfectly in line with the other games. The third installment succeeds overwhelmingly at matching the height of the giants, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, that preceded it but, in the end, Origins can’t quite step out of their shadow.
Ultimately, Origins has fallen into the same problem that has faced so many great game franchises in this last console generation: profit over innovation. While Asylum was an amazing concept (and the chance to be Batman) and City expanded it brilliantly (with an even more brilliant story), Origins offers a rushed experience and a world that’s bigger but empty and similar to what we’ve seen before. Like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, the Batman Arkham series is beginning to release the same game on schedule. Instead of giving the developers time to think of new ideas and concepts, the series is becoming content with a carbon copy of similar games with a new coat of paint and a younger protagonist armed with the knowledge that consumers will continue to buy it. Origins is a great game in its own right and for anyone who hasn’t played a Batman game, it’s not a bad place to start. But, unless you’re dying to replay the other games or can’t get enough Batman until the next “Man of Steel” comes out, this game isn’t really worth it.