Troy Baker's Joker voice is one of the best things about Batman: Arkham Origins. But it's also a disturbingly reverent impersonation of Mark Hamill's take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Therein lies the conundrum of the latest video game featuring the Dark Knight.
On multiple levels, this game is about finding one's voice. Players inhabit a Bruce Wayne who's been Batman for two years, as he faces a crucible that will test his resolve as never before. The Christmas Eve drama starts with eight assassins out to collect a $50 million bounty on Batman's head---set by crime lords and gets complicated by a first run-in with future arch-foe The Joker.
The people making Origins are trying to establish their creative voice as well. The game has been made by a new studio who are following up two well-regarded games by originating studio Rocksteady.
Playing Origins feels like listening to a great cover band. As you glide, sneak and brawl your way through Gotham, you'll remember the rhythms that made you fall in love with this playable adaptation of Batman. But that same experience reminds you that this is a tribute act---often a convincing one---but still a tribute. And like any tribute, it's wise to worry when new interpreters try to put their own spin on the familiar.
There's a lot of new in Batman: Arkham Origins. New gadgets, new voice actors, new villains and, most significantly, new developers. New gadgets like the Remote Claw tether and Shock Gloves serve dual purposes throughout, with combat and traversal applications that let you vary up strategies. New enemy types---like burly, hit-sponge Enforcers and nimble Martial Artists who can counter your counters---also make for a nice change up from the last two Bat-games. Indeed, for the most part, the infusion of new gameplay elements meshes well with the established ones that have won hundreds of thousands of fans for Batman's most recent video game outings. But sometimes, the new stuff feels like so much nervous fiddling.
Take the Crime Scene Investigations. When Batman comes upon the site of a murder, players will need to scan for multiple pieces of evidence that will eventually congeal into a virtualized version of what happened. But all you're really doing is looking for glowing indicators in Detective Vision. There's no real sifting through possibilities, no red herrings to lead you astray. It's just turn the camera and click on the red thing. What would Harvey Harris say?
Then there's the Dark Knight System, which is a bit of a split offering. It's sort of like the synchronization tiers that the Assassin's Creed series added as it annualized, a subset of challenges that task you with fulfilling the role of The Dark Knight in a specific way. So, you'll have to do stuff like take out two enemies in one slide or finish a stealth encounter without ever being seen. The system isn't invasive and acts as a set of passive objectives that unlock XP points as you clear them. There's also a related scoring system that feels like an attempt to make players care about how they fight and sneak in Origins. I never cared about that stuff in previous Bat-games, though, and while adding this tweak here doesn't seriously hurt anything, it mostly feels like distracting clutter. Every fight judges your performance and grades you, so instead of the world being immersive, you're constantly being reminded of the game-iness of the whole thing.
However, boss battles are one significant area where Origins feels like it's better than its predecessors. The Bane showdowns---yeah, there's more than one---are less of a goad-charge-dodge-attack endurance affair than in previous games. You feel like you're actually fighting and out-thinking the 'roided-out mercenary rather than reacting to his brute force. The fight with Firefly is a nice departure, too, changing up camera angles to top to side and creating a larger playfield for the flying pyromaniac to torment Batman. The reliance on quick-response prompts hasn't gone away but at least it's embedded in duels that show some varying approaches.
The fast-travel feature is yet another thing emblematic of the changes that WB Montreal is implementing to the Bat-Arkham game recipe. You need to unlock the travel points in each section of the map by hacking security consoles. Where hacking puzzle sequences were more or less elements unto themselves in previous games, here they're more embedded into the gameworld. So, it's "defeat one node, fight the guys guarding another, solve the traversal conundrum making the last node impossible to reach." It's a lot of busywork and it'd be worth it if it unlocked a cool story beat or impressive cutscene. But after all that effort, all you're getting mostly is a way to get around faster. Other subquests open up, too, like the option to track down and destroy the relay network that Enigma (a pre-question-mark Riddler) uses to collect blackmail information. But that, too, is tertiary, just more busywork that adds nothing to narrative momentum. You don't have to do any of it, of course, since it's pinned to an auxiliary but still helpful procedure. But the alternative is much slower travel across the map.
But this deeper interconnectedness feels good in other portions of the game. The Most Wanted missions are threaded tangents that form a sort of mini-campaign away from the main plotline. They're standard open-world side missions, like tracking down and destroying Penguin's weapon caches, defusing Anarky's scattered bombs and foiling Mad Hatter's kidnapping. But, whether it's the psychedelic sidescrolling of Mad Hatter's mindscape or the philosophical orneriness of Anarky's speeches, they're presented in ways that experiment. Yes, finishing a Most Wanted campaign unlocks even more gadgets but---combined with the tougher Crimes in Progress pop-up encounters in the open world---they all congeal to make the game feel like Bruce Wayne's final exam in Batmanology.
Speaking of Batmanology, Origins' story will ring familiar for longtime fans. It's a mix-and-match buffet of Significant Bat-Moments, with Barbara Gordon hero worship, Alfred pleading with Bruce to stop his crusade and the earning of Jim Gordon's trust all nestled in the Story mode. If you've absorbed seminal Bat-lore like The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One and the previous Arkham games, many scenes and plot threads---psycho-criminals supplanting mobsters, for example--- will ping off of your memories. There's also WB Montreal's take on a fateful first meeting between Batman and Joker, where each comes away realizing that their lives are going to be much different because of each other.
Some of the proceedings reek of formulaic thinking, though. Oh, look, it's another sequence where Batman's stumbling around hallucinating because he's been drugged. Oh, look, more guilt-ridden visions. Oh, look, Batman being terse and dismissive of allies. It doesn't matter that this is a prequel and that these moments may be chronologically justifiable. They may meant to be homage but feel like required assignments on a Batman 101 syllabus.
Baker's Joker is an amazing if occasionally strained Hamill impersonation. You can almost see him clenching his jaw to get the killer clown's cadence just so. To his credit, Roger Craig Smith doesn't try to ape the legendary Kevin Conroy with his Bat-voice. His Bruce and Batman are essentially the same, a medium-rumble growl that occasionally breaks into shouts. It's a safe Bat-voice but I found myself wishing for more enough emotional inflection in Smith's performance.
It needs to be said that there's a ton of stuff to do in Origins. When the credits rolled on my Story Mode playthrough, my completion percentage stood at 21%, after about 10-12 hours of playtime. It'll take some digging to root out all the characters lurking around Gotham as some of the assassins are buried in side missions. For example, I went through the entire story mode without encountering Deadshot or Lady Shiva, even though I know that they're in the game.
Origins makes me think about what I want out of a Batman game. The answer has always been a deeper, interactive understanding of what it's like to be Batman. But Rocksteady's efforts had it easy. The first one oozed atmosphere and established Batman as a stealthy opponent, fearsome combatant and observant detective. Arkham City showed us the scope of his crusade, giving us a whole chunk of Gotham to prowl and adventure through. This one? It has the burden of showing you how it all started.
Maybe the name of this latest Bat-game bothered you. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were places, locales that the games bearing their names brought to life in expert fashion. Arkham Origins doesn't have the same clear-cut messaging and it has the unfortunate ring of prequelitis, that disease that makes serial entertainment go backwards when it can't figure out how to go forward. But, in its latter third, Origins does illustrate why there needs to be an asylum for the new breed of criminal. There had been thugs and mobsters before but not sheer insanity.
Origins is an incremental installment, not a transformative one. It doesn't have the massive leaps forward that differentiated City from Asylum. It's almost understandable since WB Montreal have been tasked with harmonizing along to someone else's lead vocals. Right here, right now, the result is good enough. But the very success of the Batman video game franchise could prove to be its biggest limitation. And decisions to ever so slightly vary the template could be a slowly contracting deathtrap that not even the Caped Crusader can escape.
Note: Arkham Origins also includes an asymmetrical multiplayer mode which I haven't yet had a chance to try. Look for an update to this review once I've been able to log some time online.