If you asked me to rank the Batman Arkham games, you would have to clear your schedule for two days. Going into intricate detail of why one is ranked above the other, my answers may surprise you.
As many will lead you to believe, the Arkhamverse is not just Rocksteady’s genre-defining trilogy. In total there are seven games that make up this universe, not to mention the tie-in comic series and the animated film, Assault on Arkham.
With series pioneers, Rocksteady, taking a step back from their creation, WB Montréal were tasked with crafting a fitting addition to the newest batfamily.
With different developers, different writers, a different cast and different expectations, Batman Arkham Origins was under pressure from the get-go.
Origins may have been implemented to bridge the development gap between Arkham City and Arkham Knight, but it was more than that.
The Long Christmas
Set on Christmas Eve, two years into Bruce Wayne’s reign as the Dark Knight, Origins’ reception was as cold as Mr Freeze shopping at Iceland.
The initial scepticism was not dispelled by critics. With the game receiving mixed reviews, with main criticism levelled at the lack of evolution in it’s gameplay. However, what many tend to overlook is that the story was favourably received.
The story was the genesis of, what we came to know as, Batman’s rogues’ gallery. While several of the villains in Origins had already popped up in Asylum and City, this prequel served as an interactive comic book origin story for these characters.
With great credit to the writers of Origins, they crafted another layer to an already flushed out universe. And I will maintain that if you were to play the Arkham games in the order you are supposed to i.e. Origins to Asylum to City etc. Origins builds the Arkhamverse in a stronger way than Asylum did.
As you jettison out of the Batwing, you are already thrust with the information that crime lord Black Mask has hired eight assassins to end your bat-career, to the sum of $50million. After tackling Killer Croc, who is portrayed more as a rational creature than his cannibalistic nature in later games, villains such as Deathstroke, Deadshot and Bane are introduced.
Each assassin has their own schemes to claim the, frankly overzealous, bounty on Batman’s head. While Deadshot, Lady Shiva and Electrocutioner were either comically overlooked or reduced to side missions, the way WB Montréal wove the others into Batman’s fiction is truly brilliant.
One of the defining aspects of the story was Bane. For me Bane stands out above all the other characters. After playing through Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, to me, Bane felt closer to the walking hunk of meat from Batman and Robin than his menacing presence in The Dark Knight Rises.
And this is where Origins shines!
You can feel the universe growing into what we see in Rocksteady’s games. As one of the eight assassins, we finally see Bane’s famous tactical intellect come to the fore. He utilises the varying situations to his advantage, mainly focusing around Batman’s determination to bring in the Joker. And at points I felt that we may even see the famous “I will simply… BREAK YOU” scene.
It certainly adds context to the Bane we see in later instalments and explains Bane’s obsession with old big ears.
Out with old in with the new
Some fans were… disappointed, to say the least, with the decision not to use Batman veteran voice actors, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Instead opting for a younger sounding cast with Roger Craig-Smith to voice the Dark Knight and Troy Baker as the grinning Clown Prince of Crime.
As Alfred so eloquently put it “You’re a young man with a trust fund and too much anger.” The gruffness and anger Craig-Smith brought to the young Wayne is befitting where the character is, in this point of the story arc.
Up to the start of Origins, it seems Batman has gone up against your typical corruption or crime bosses. He has already had run-ins with Penguin and Black Mask. As referenced by the developers, the story mixes aspects of the Batman: Year One and Legends of The Dark Knight graphic novels and comics. These stories also told the evolution of the Batman universe, over his relationships with allies and new villains.
His methods are unrefined and uses brute force to accomplish his mission. He learns to lean on his allies more and not always go alone. The mentality of the character is laid bare during your climb to the top of the Gotham Royal Hotel. “I don’t need any allies,” Batman barks at Alfred as he pursues Joker.
Speaking of Joker. We must applaud Troy Baker’s performance. While Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker, Baker’s portrayal of a younger version of the character adds another dimension. Even though he’s quite clearly insane, (the Joker, not Baker… although?), Joker seems more hellbent on taking over Black Mask’s empire as he seems to want Batman out of the way.
The exploration into the relationship between the two rivals is expertly written. Batman’s misinterpretations of the Joker’s motives and Joker’s confusion as to Batman’s methods are why they are two sides of the same coin. Order and chaos. This all comes to a head after Batman saves Joker from plummeting to his death, from the top of the hotel.
“Why? Why? Why would you do that? News flash! I’m the one who’s trying to kill you?” the flabbergasted words from Baker’s Joker as they land. This leads to Joker developing his fascination with Batman and this is brilliantly portrayed in his “therapy” session at Blackgate. He talks about meeting someone “really, really special,” and while he is trying to manipulate Dr Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, that obsession is starting to boil to the surface. Again, giving to the Joker we see terrorizing Gotham through the years.
The main criticism of Arkham Origins, upon release, was how it was basically a carbon copy of Arkham City with its gameplay. It was more stagnation than innovation as mechanically it added nothing new to the acclaimed combat, traversal or environmental interaction.
One new addition that was well integrated into the game was the new crime scene investigation mechanic. Using Wayne Tech, Batman could scan areas for clues and virtually recreate the scene. Visually cool, it was too easy to decipher each event. With bright red arrows highlighting where to scan, hardly befitting the world’s greatest detective. This mechanic made one final, fleeting, appearance in Arkham Knight and while refined, it was woefully underused.
So, what was introduced that no-one was crying out for? Multiplayer, of course.
Set within a very basic third person shooter mode, Arkham’s signature stealth gameplay came onto the online scene. Dropped into a random draw, two players per match could play as either Batman or Robin. While it was unique at points, the online died a quick death and only three years later the servers were shut down.
Where does it rank?
Fans are, mostly, in agreement that Arkham City is the pinnacle of Batman games. In all departments the game stands above the rest as the definitive Dark Knight experience. Narratively it spun together better than a funnel spider’s web. The plot of twists, uneasy alliances and tense moments is one of the high points of the entire video game industry. Advancements in gameplay from Asylum and being plunged into a beautiful, slightly contradictory, grotty mass prison Arkham City, gave players much more freedom to interact with the world without losing the urgency that the campaign induced.
Arkham Asylum had probably the best atmosphere of any Arkham game. Trapped on the prison’s island, at points the decrepit, almost haunted, halls of the asylum sometimes evoke the emotion of terror.
All the while, Arkham Knight had its moments, with some memorable set pieces and amazing ambition in the world design. After finishing the story and the endless Riddler challenges, I still jump back into the game to experience Batman as how I imagined it would be after watching the Animated Series and reading the comics.
Despite the lukewarm reception and lack of individuality, Batman Arkham Origins took everything we loved about Arkham City and introduced subtle nuances that influenced how we saw the other games. We are all taught about setting the scene and that is what Origins does brilliantly. It’s easy to say, but had Origins come out before Asylum and City it could have been held in higher regard.
With Arkham City taking the top spot, Origins ranks a very close third right behind Asylum. While most have dismissed it as the ugly duckling, purely based on developers alone, Origins deserves its place amongst the elite of Batman games.