You know what game was actually pretty damned good? Batman: Arkham Origins.
You wouldn't know it by looking around online. While the game does have its supporters, a cursory tour of the Internet gives the impression that most Batman fans thought it was a disappointment.
Released last fall, Origins had a lot working against it. It was developed by Warner Bros. Montreal, a new "B Team" studio brought in to take over for series creators Rocksteady, which made it feel a bit like an off-year production. It didn't carry on the story of Arkham City but instead backed up to tell a prequel tale about Batman and The Joker. It didn't add a whole lot of new stuff to the punch/kick/sneak/explore formula. And it was missing some key talent from the last couple of games, specifically Batman/Joker actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill and Animated Series writer Paul Dini.
These days, most message boards related to the Arkham series are abuzz with excited chatter about Batman: Arkham Knight, the glossy sequel coming early next year. If Origins gets a mention in those conversations at all, it's often as a punching bag. Knight will be made by the series' "real" developer. Warner Bros. Montreal won't be involved at all. Many fans agree that this is a good thing.
A month or so ago I decided I'd finally give Origins a go. Aside from doing one preview of the game's interesting Batman vs. Crooks vs. Crooks multiplayer, I hadn't played it at all. All that talk of Arkham Knight had me hankering for some more Bat-action.
I grabbed it off of Steam, fired it up, and quickly found myself enjoying the hell out of it. The action was perhaps more repetitive, the levels—particularly the brawling levels—not quite as well-designed, but generally speaking, Origins is still the fun Batman stuff we got to do in the last few games.
I like the few additions, as well—sure, the crime-scene investigations are linear and don't really require much detective work, but they're better-done than in City or Asylum, are super cool-looking and they break up the pacing well. Some of the new enemies and gadgets added to stealth and combat scenarios shake things up in a nifty way. It looks phenomenal on PC and it runs well, too, something that could not be said of Arkham City.
For all our hand-wringing about voice actor Roger Craig Smith standing in for Kevin Conroy in the lead role, I actually found Craig Smith's performance to be entirely convincing about 98% of the time. He's Batman. It works.
Better, though, is Troy Baker, who takes over for Mark Hamill as The Joker. Hamill's are big shoes to fill, and it's easy to write Baker's performance off as "a tribute act." But what he's really doing is a good deal more professional and a hell of a lot more impressive: It's not a tribute, it's a pro-level imitation. He's filling in for a role that someone else already did, and he knows it. The fact that the guy who played Joel in The Last of Us is capable of doing the Joker—not his own Joker, but someone else's Joker—and making it this convincing… man. Let no one ever say that Troy Baker is not an exceptionally talented actor.
In fact, I'd say that the story of Arkham Origins is more focused and more effective than the story in Arkham City, for all the latter game's melodramatic shenanigans. Where City felt like a ridiculous hodgepodge of stories transparently designed to put Batman up against as many of his famous foes as possible, Origins deals with more substantial, if familiar, material.
Some spoilers for the first half of Arkham Origins follow.
While the marketing for Origins revolved around the idea of Black Mask putting this big one-night-only bounty out for Batman, the actual game quickly ditches that premise and moves headlong into Batman vs. Joker territory. It casts Batman into the distrusted vigilante of Batman: Year One, a still-young man who isn't quite clear on why he's doing what he's doing, and is still earning the trust of two men—Alfred Pennyworth and Jim Gordon—who would eventually become friends and allies.
All good stuff and handled well, despite being ground that's been covered so many times before. But where Arkham Origins really differentiates itself is in its handling of that first meeting between Batman and The Joker. The relationship between the two characters has always been a fascinating one, and Origins makes the audacious decision to explore that relationship from The Joker's perspective.
When Batman finally defeats Joker midway through the game, Joker has been thrown from a building and Batman pulls off one of his signature "grab and grapple" moves, saving both of them.
Joker can't believe it. "Why would you do that," he admonishes Batman after they land. "I'm the one who's trying to KILL YOU!"
Why did this guy save him? Who is this person? What is happening?
Batman quickly bags the Joker and has him remanded to Blackgate prison. Shortly thereafter, as part of his...uh...therapy...Joker sits down with Dr. Harleen Quinzel
(before she becomes Harley Quinn) and he seems genuinely shook by what he's just seen. We then get to play through this sequence:
"Have you ever had the feeling that your entire life has been building towards this one moment?" Joker asks. He speaks of Batman almost romantically, like the soulmate that he never thought he'd meet. Throughout the entire sequence, we're playing as the Joker as he explores his own psyche and comes face to face with his deep-seated need of Batman. The yang to his yin.
Okay, pause. That is some good shit, right there! This sequence appears in a game that so many people write off as a cynical money grab with no good new ideas? When I see Origins sitting at 74 on Metacritic, with critics calling the game a cash-in and saying that it has no reason to exist, I can't help but feel like they're giving a good game an unfair rap.
It's understandable; because games are often seen as iterative software and so many games are sequels, we critics can tend to think of them in those terms. The question stops being "Does this game succeed on its own merits?" and becomes "What does this latest iteration bring to the table?"
Granted, our own Bat-expert Evan Narcisse was considerably more kind in his review, saying that despite feeling more like other people's work than its own thing (fair), the game was generally good and certainly worth playing. And then, of course, the first commenter hopped in to let us know that the game was obviously a total cash-in.
Were the first two Arkham games really good? Yes. Will Arkham Knight be good? I don't know, but Rocksteady's track record indicates it will. Do either of those things preclude Arkham Origins from standing on its own merits? They do not.
If you're excited about Arkham Knight but have yet to give Origins a go, I recommend it. Not only will it satisfy your Bat-cravings for the time being, it's an entirely worthy game on its own.
Plus, you get some gloves that electrocute dudes when you punch them.