Batman: Arkham Origins

Microsoft Xbox 360†Review (also on Nintendo Wii-U, PC, Sony PlayStation 3)

Warner Montreal had big boots to fill. After Rocksteadyís handover of the much-loved and critically acclaimed Arkham series, following up with a prequel which kept fans happy after two successful titles was a daunting task. Should they stick with the tried and tested formula, or shake things up radically? It always looked as though the former approach was on the cards, as much had been made of Rocksteadyís handover of assets and development techniques to the newcomers, in order to retain the look and feel of the previous games. Given this developmental head start, though, we were hoping that their close relationship would have yielded more progression in the series; we certainly weren't expecting Batman: Arkham Origins to play it quite so safe.

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KAPOW!

A flashily edited presentation in the Batcave highlights the new challenge which a more youthful Batman faces, namely locating and dispatching eight hired assassins who have been offered fifty million dollars for killing the Bat on one wintery night. Black Mask is the ringleader, whilst Killer Croc, Bane, Deathstroke and a succession of minor villains make up the ďgotta beat Ďem allĒ roster of boss encounters.

These are troubling times, with control of Arkham being fought for in a gruelling battle between all manner of criminals. GCPD is riddled with corruption, whilst Captain Gordon appears to be the only source of integrity left in the department - and he wants to take down Batman as much as anyone. Itís been two years since Bruce Wayne donned the cape and tensions between him and his snarky butler Alfred are reaching a peak. Is Batman on a suicide mission or looking for redemption? The story is far darker and more brutal than in either of the previous games, with the knife-edge rating just tipping back into teen territory after some last minute editing.

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Batman's pirate joke didn't go down too well.

Much has been made of Kevin Conroy being replaced in the series as the voice of Batman, but Roger Craig Smith has stepped into his shoes admirably. The rest of the voice acting doesnít fare as well, in part due to the hammy, exposition-heavy dialogue. Mark Hamill has also left the Joker behind, and his successor doesnít quite capture the psychopathís insanity and manic laugh quite so well. In many respects itís indicative of the game as a whole: everything seems ever-so-slightly off kilter.

The free-flowing combat, so vital to the success of the Arkham series, seems to have been tweaked fractionally. Combos donít flow as well as they should, with too many encounters feeling both staccato and flat. For the most part they work though, and are as enjoyably brutal as before. The main caveat is the repetition; every area has the same groups of goons to clear before you get into the juicier opponents. New martial arts bad guys keep you on your toes with double counters whilst shielded police and Venom users pose an annoying challenge, but ultimately itís the same as before.

The biggest problem is the gadget balance. The new Remote Claw allows you to target two points and smash them together, such as a bad guy and a fire extinguisher, or two bad guys. Worse still, this remote operation makes a laughing stock of supposedly tough predator encounters by letting you string up multiple opponents in a room from a distance. And when you get the Shock Gloves later on in the game, youíre basically unblockable. Chuck into the mix the explosive gel, concussion detonator, glue grenade and Batclaw, and youíll find your arsenal will overwhelm practically anything the game throws at you. It doesnít really help that the enemy AI is completely predictable and will dutifully march over to any disturbance on a predator map and allow you to pick them off one at a time. Rocksteadyís world was never this mundane.

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THWACK!

The unfavourable comparisons donít end there. The vast, vibrant scope of Arkham City has been replaced with a soulless, grey sprawl. An unwelcome and unnecessary south island tacked onto the map ostensibly offers new environments but merely serves as a means of extending missions - flitting you back and forth between locations, defusing bombs here and smashing surveillance cameras there to complete the laziest of side missions. The wonder of gliding through the city, effortlessly firing your Batclaw to reach numerous available markers felt wholly natural in the previous game; here itís reduced to a chore as you struggle to discern differences between accessible rooftops and impassable buildings. Even the local radio chatter seems disinterested.

Conversely, the boss fights feel far too familiar. Eight assassins may be touted, but at least one of those early encounters is a complete joke. Itís as if quantity over quality was the deciding factor, and the result is an uneven mash-up that offers a haphazard mix of challenges (Deathstroke), mediocrity (Killer Croc) and utter pointlessness (Electrocutioner). The list really needed trimming, for the storyís sake if nothing else. The Most Wanted side missions throw up even more villains, such as Enigma and Anarky but theyíre just busywork designed to push you towards that 100% completion status without ever providing a decent challenge. The Mad Hatter story is a beautifully drawn, but ultimately shallow take on the Scarecrow episodes from the original game; thereís clearly a lot of talent on show in the art department, itís just a shame that itís wasted on such perfunctory gameplay.

The heavily promoted Detective Mode allows you to reconstruct crime scenes by reversing and fast-forwarding through events in order to find clues. Itís a nifty gimmick but, thanks to intrusive red arrows pointing out the location of each piece of evidence, remains just that. A shame, as there is real potential for expansion in this area - possibly not to Phoenix Wright levels of complexity, but enough to add much-needed variety between the brawls. New Game Plus makes a return, and a new permadeath mode has been introduced: I Am The Night. This gives you one life and no saves, and asks you to finish the entire story in one sitting.

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This week's guest star: Tyreese from The Walking Dead

Multiplayer is available for the first time and places you in one of four different 4v4 Invisible Predator maps as a henchman for either Joker or Bane. The aim is to whittle down the oppositionís pot of henchmen whilst also controlling key areas of the map, which then allow you to upgrade your henchman to one of the two super-villains. Unfortunately, the sub-par TPS controls and confusing map layouts - which suffer from the same signposting issues as the main game - mean that itís far less enjoyable than it should be. Redemption comes in the form of a lottery spin at the end of the battle which lets you take on the role of either Batman or Robin for the next round. Sneaking around the map and taking down enemies from each side is great fun, but does pose some balance issues if the henchmen players are not adept at covering all angles. Both heroes are ridiculously powerful in comparison, and it isnít uncommon for the dynamic duo to regularly win the bouts thanks to a combination of smoother controls, grapple claws and all those other wonderful toys. Still, itís heartening to see a move made into the online arena, one which has plenty of scope for improvement in DLC and future titles in the series.

If this had been the first title in the series a lot could be forgiven, but three games in weíre reminded of a quote from Michelangelo - the greater danger lies not in setting your aim too high and falling short, but in setting your aim too low and achieving your mark. There was scope to push the envelope further here, and it wasnít taken. Games appeal in different ways to different people but they should never be tedious, and Warner Montreal have been unable to recapture the spark and essence which made the previous titles such a delight to play. As a consequence, Arkham Origins suffers from monotony - one crime which even The Worldís Greatest Detective would find impossible to solve.

A new developer tasked with the tricky proposition of continuing a successful franchise, Warner Bros. Montreal's effort feels jaded, keeping the core of the Arkham gameplay in place but adding some unwelcome tweaks which serve to unbalance the delicately poised combat system. A pedestrian story and side missions with wasted opportunities to take risks mean that Batman: Arkham Origins is safe, familiar, and a reversal of the strong progression which Rocksteady were making in each iteration.

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