FBT dons the cowl and scowl in Batman, the wonder years.
Most of the complaints levelled against Origins was that it’s a lazy knock-off, and as a result I avoided it for years, then forgot about it like everyone else; quickly eclipsed by Arkham Knight, Origins disappeared into the night.
Set before Rocksteady’s trilogy, we’re Bats when he was just starting out, a lone caped crusader. Gordon thinks he's a nutjob, there’s no Robin, Batgirl, or Oracle and to criminals, he’s just an underworld rumour. But one local villain believes in the Bat; Black Mask has announced a bounty on Bats, and that draws a Rogues’ Gallery to Gotham.
A larger version of Arkham City pretending to be Gotham proper, we’re in free-roam Batmode here. Once an area is unlocked, Bats can call in the Batwing to fast-travel or return to the Batcave to analyse stuff, brood, and have cut-scenes with Alfred who would prefer the scowling bratman to enjoy some eggnog instead; it’s Xmas eve, can’t this wait until Boxing Day when everyone’s bored of their presents and there’s nothing on the telly?
To explain the lack of law-abiding folks, this time a snowstorm has forced everyone except Gotham’s criminal elements indoors. Dunno why thugs don’t feel the cold, but the constant snowfall isn’t hiding anything; this is Arkham City. It so closely follows that game’s style and look, from the buildings to the annoying mini-bosses, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you fired up AC by accident; it feels like a DLC that got out of control. Bats is still awesome, the city looks amazing and gliding about foiling crime is just as much fun.
The problem is we’re playing the same Bats from the Arkham series, as if Bruce just willed a complete Bats into existence; the one thing that Origins could use to distinguish itself, Bats’ inexperience, is almost completely missing. I’d hoped to see Bats be over-confident and get his batbutt handed to him, grow into his Cowl and emerge as the Dark Knight ready for Arkham, but he’s not outmatched or ever really outwitted; I wasn’t expecting this to be Bats’ first night on the prowl, although that would be awesome, but seeing Bruce become the Bat of the Arkham series would have made Origins more than just a retread - this isn’t an Origin story it's just another night on the tiles for the Bat we know.
It’s fair enough that O would follow the A approach, that Bats is essentially a brawler but it’s so similar to Arkham City that it feels a bit pointless – again, if Bats showed some inexperience, some limitations it could have become a desperate, against-the-odds scrap; everything we bat-love about the Arkham series should be in the levels-ups, uplifting us as we create The Batman, but it's all already present. Bats has the wonderful toys, is smugly ahead of everyone, is the dark knight as always. This should be him finding himself overwhelmed, the first time he's faced super-villains instead of street thugs but discovering serious opposition hardly seems to register.
Naturally, as Bats follows a trail to Black Mask, he encounters the assassins that are after his cowled head, but we don’t interact, get chased off, have mini-missions around the contenders to figure out their weaknesses - Bats' power was his intelligence, why isn't he doing the background? Limping off to create a weapon that gives him an edge in the re-match and becomes our arsenal? There’s no build up where we learn how to go toe-to-toe, or get nervous because we ignored the side mission that might have given us an edge.
Instead we just follow leads until an arena boss fight. The worst by far is an early one, Deathstroke. The idea is he’s an old hand, we’re a young gun. But rather than have him show us the ropes, toy with us, have Bats struggle to win, learn some humility, it’s just a frustrating block/parry battle which you win through repetition learning. They’re all like this, which really drains them of tension and interest.
Not that they’re very interesting to begin with, Origins has a distinctly b-list line-up when it comes to its villains. I’m not that big a Batfan, I don’t know my Deathstroke from my Deadshot but they all feel a bit low-rent. Killer Croc pops up, who Bats nonchalantly updates Alfred with “I just ran into a human shaped crocodile” but who the hell is the Electructioner? Copperhead? Shiva? If they’re not good enough for Chris Nolan I’m not interested. Although Bane appears, and Penguin with his mockney accent has a cameo, this time supported by Tracy, an example of how Americans think all Londoners talk; she introduces Bats as "A naughty geeza. Proper naughty,” It just doesn’t feel like the Rogues’ Gallery are bringing their A game.
Ironically then, the biggest letdown is the Joker putting in an appearance. What? Once we know the Joker’s in on this, Origins just falls flat - Rocksteady already did the definitive Bats v Joker game, and they did it in the same city. Worse, it's a rushed, confused attempt to explain the Joker’s obsession with Bats that should have been left well alone or delved into completely, not a rug-pull twist that overbalances everything; Joker’s been done, this should have followed Batman Begins (Bats does yell “where is HE!!!” at one point) and focused on Bats himself. The Joker just feels like a cheap way to give this some heft.
I’m sure there’s many out there who’ve never had the pleasure of Rocksteady’s trilogy and are looking for a place to start so would assume this is it - but it requires you to be totally on board with what the Rocksteady crew achieved to succeed; and then reveals nothing, which a prequel is supposed to do. It's pointless. As a companion to the Arkham trilogy, one we expect to expand that mythos, it’s an over-familiar, money-grubbing, safe game set in a city we’ve already fought for that feels like little more than a vanilla time-waster to keep the franchise alive. Meh.