Batman: Arkham Origins has been out for about a month now, and I finally got around to finishing the story. Now, let me preface this post by saying that I do like the game. While it does feel a tad derivative at times, WB Montreal did a good job of taking a core structure and adding their own unique spin to it with new gadgets and combat mechanics. There are enough reviews of the game out there by now, though, and we don't really need another. Instead, I'd like to focus on some aspects of the game's story that left me a little miffed and confused. It probably goes without saying, but just to be safe, THIS POST CONTAINS MANY, MANY SPOILERS FOR THE GAME. If you don't wish to have the story spoiled for you, then stop reading. If you already know or don't care, though, then venture onward.
When I first heard about Arkham Origins I was pretty excited at the prospect of a bit of fresh air being breathed into the series. Not that the first two games were by any means bad or stale; in fact, I consider them to be two of the best games of what I suppose is technically now the last generation. Yet it is always interesting to see what happens when a series falls into new hands. When I heard that the premise of the game was going to revolve around Black Mask hiring a bunch of assassins to take out Batman, I got a bit giddy. I love when big franchises like this utilize some of their lesser-known characters, and Roman Sionis has always been one of my favorite Gotham baddies. The game starts out fairly strong. Black Mask leads a breakout at Blackgate Penitentiary and, with the help of Calendar Man (for God knows what reason), executes Commissioner Loeb. He then, in a move that seems somewhat unprovoked and slightly out-of-character for Sionis, offers some of the DC Universe's deadliest assassins a bounty of $50 million to kill Batman. Perhaps it is merely the way that the events are presented so abruptly that make them seem odd, but given that there is no exposition given as to what exactly Batman has done to hinder Sionis' operation, and considering that Batman has only been around for about two years at this point, it seems unlikely that Black Mask would offer so much money to get rid of one guy. I went along with it, though, as comic books (and even more so their adaptations) tend to take various liberties with the source material. In retrospect, this should have been a warning of things to come.
As the plot continues and Batman tries to track down Black Mask and his assassins, we begin to learn about a mysterious new criminal in town called The Joker. Now, I already knew that Joker was going to be in this game, it was in all of the advertisements. So, I figured, this was going to be a reference point to where the story takes place in the Batman chronology. We're going to get to see the first interaction between Batman and his arch-rival and maybe see how Joker plays a part in, or even derails, Black Mask's plans. He could prove to be a departure from hero and villain alike; a new, third type of entity, that plays by new rules and forces both sides to contend with something radically different. Unfortunately, that's not what happens.
In a twist that I feel is probably one of the worse decisions made by the development team, it turns out that the "Black Mask" that had hired all of the assassins and caused all of this trouble had really been Joker all along. Apparently, Joker kidnapped Sionis, disguised himself as Black Mask, and took over his entire organization over the course of, I don't know, a few days. This is almost an M. Night Shamylan quality plot twist in that it seems improbable and didn't really need to happen. There are dozens of ways they could have made the Joker a prominent villain in the story without resorting to "Surprise! This guy was really someone else all along!" It's almost like watching an episode of Scooby-Doo. But bizarre theatrics aside, this is indicative of a greater problem facing this series: the Joker does not have to be the villain of every damn Batman storyline. Don't get me wrong, I love the Joker. I find him to be one of the most interesting and well-developed villains of all time (right below Emperor Palpatine). But I don't need him to be in every Batman story. Plenty of the best Batman tales revolve around villains who are not the Joker (The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Knightfall, the list goes on). Hell, even The Dark Knight Returns, arguably the best Batman story-arc, only features a brief appearance by the Clown Prince of Crime, with the story largely focusing on Batman's age and stubbornness as the real threat. The Arkham games, however, seem to have fallen into the unfortunate rut of feeling the need to shoe-horn the Joker into being the center of every storyline. It needs to stop.
That point aside, from the plot twist onward the story feels rather unfocused and confusing. Joker becomes the villain for a bit, then he goes to jail. After that, despite losing the promise of the $50 million bounty and for reasons that are never adequately explained, Bane decides to stick around and hunt down Batman. We even discover that Bane has discovered Batman's true identity as Bruce Wayne. But wait! Before Bane can really do anything meaningful, Joker escapes from prison, seemingly within mere hours of being put there. So Joker becomes the villain again. Meanwhile, Bane continues to hang around. They stage some kind of test for Batman in the prison that is supposed to force Batman to compromise his values and which he, unsurprisingly, manages to find a way around. Then, in classic fashion, Bane gets underrepresented as the genius he is supposed to be and becomes an enormous, hulking behemoth for the final boss fight, which plays out a bit like a stupider version of the Mr. Freeze fight from Arkham City. Finally, there's a brief confrontation with Joker to wrap things up which is mostly there to reiterate Joker's newfound obsession with Batman. All-in-all it's a fairly unsatisfying ending which barely manages to tie together a few of the main plot points. That brings me to another point, though. While the main plot itself is a bit lacking, the real travesty of this game is the sheer number of plot holes and unfinished or underexplored storylines. Let me list off just a few more things that I take issue with.
I know I just got through talking about the main story, but there's one more thing about the Joker's motivation that I just can't wrap my mind around. Right after we discover that Joker has really been Black Mask the whole time, the game makes it abundantly clear that Joker doesn't give two shits about Batman. He essentially tells Batman that he's got more important things to do than deal with him and drives away. It's not until later, when Batman saves his life, that Joker develops a fascination with the Bat. There's even a lengthy sequence where Joker explores his newfound feelings. With that in mind, what the hell was the reason behind taking out the bounty on Batman in the first place? The mercenary storyline seems to have relatively little to do with Joker's overall plan to terrorize the city, and actually almost makes less sense than if it had actually been Black Mask to take out the bounty in the first place.
Making his video game debut in this game, I felt that Anarky was one of the more interesting characters in the game. While his ideals fall in line with Batman's, it's his practices that set them at odds. There's a lot of story potential in two characters with similar beliefs but huge fundamental differences, which is why it's so disappointing that the Anarky side-story is wrapped up so quickly. Three short missions, a quick boss fight, and it's over. Sure, after the boss fight you can sit and listen to a tied up Anarky prattle off various beliefs and talk about how disappointed he is in Batman, but this is all information that could have been organically built into a much longer series of missions surrounding the character instead of having him hurl words at your face like he were trying to give you an intervention or something.
While a few of the assassins play big parts in the main plot, a few of them seem to be relatively forgotten. Electrocutioner is done away with almost immediately, as are Killer Croc and Deathstroke. Deadshot gets his own very short side quest, culminating in what can barely be described as a boss fight. Truthfully, I don't even know what happened to Shiva. Either her part is so inconsequential that I don't remember it or she's relegated to some side quest so obscure that I never came across it in the course of the main game. It's almost like the developers forgot about her. Ultimately, the Assassins plot line starts off strong, but kind of piddles out, leaving Bane as the only real important member of the group.
Alfred plays a rather large support role in the game. He fluctuates between giving Bruce support and scolding him for dangerous behavior. All in all I don't have too much problem with Alfred in the game, but there is one thing that bugs me. At the beginning of the game, Alfred is very confrontational and tries to play and almost dominant roll over Bruce. There is even a scene where Alfred straight up tells Bruce that he is acting irresponsibly and that the city doesn't need him. This is awesome. It's great to see different aspects of Alfred's character being developed. The problem comes later in the game when Alfred has a massive change of heart, recognizing Batman as the hero Gotham needs, with relatively little reason for doing so. Granted, it is just after Alfred is nearly killed by Bane, and near-death experiences often have great effects on peoples' personalities, but there is simply not enough justification given for why Alfred displays this change of heart. The scene essentially amounts to Alfred waking up from near death, merely an hour or so after having a huge fight with Bruce about his vigilante shenanigans, and going "Oh, I understand now. Well, off you go! Save the city and all that."
Other Side Characters
There are a few famous Batman characters that show up throughout the game, often as what I can only describe as a poor understanding of how cameos are supposed to work. The two main offenders here are Penguin and Barbara Gordon. Both character show up at pivotal moments in the main story and the game gives the impression that they are going to remain important characters throughout the plot. Sadly, what actually happens is that they show up, say some things, and then in some way bestow you with a list of macguffins to collect or destroy, and then disappear forever. Perhaps they show up at some point in the future, but after completing a rather large number of their arbitrary side-quest objectives the game has provided no evidence that they intend to show themselves again. A similar thing could be said about Calendar Man, who actually shows up very early in the story and seems like he's going to play large part in the plot. Hell, the opening cinematic even talks about his execution as a major event. However, after Loeb's execution he disappears, never to be seen again.
As I said in the beginning, the game is good, and if you liked the first two games you should definitely play it. However, don't expect the same level of polish displayed by Rocksteady's entries in the series. The biggest problem, I feel, is that the game started off based around utilizing characters from the Batman mythos that people don't care about as much. Unfortunately, rather than developing those characters and making the audience realize how awesome they are, the developers themselves seem to have stopped caring about those characters as well in favor of more recognizable faces like Joker and Bane. It's sad, really, because this game had a lot of potential to explore the less popular areas of the Batman universe, but ended up not having the heart to do so, leading to a story that often feels unfinished and hollow. Hopefully, if they decide to add another game to the series, they can bring back Paul Dini to try something a little different.