Batman: Arkham Origins – A Case Of Mistaken Identity
When Warner Brothers Montreal present us with a third foray into the Batman: Arkham universe this Autumn, the developers will be bringing the Dark Knight into contact with a menagerie of villains old and new. Whether it’s in the quest to bring down eight infamous assassins including Deathstroke, Deadshot, Bane and Copperhead, or during the litter of side missions offered beyond the campaign which feature the likes of the Joker, Anarky and the Ridder, there’s no shortage of antagonists thanks to the development’s team scavenging of the DC universe for a hefty list of them.
“The cowl-shaped shadow of their predecessors”Nevertheless, in Batman: Arkham Origins Warner Brothers Montreal have encountered another enemy from Bat lore in their strive to match Rocksteady’s work: Hush. Best known for his role in an early 2000s comic-book story arc named after him, Hush is famed for having stolen the identity of Bruce Wayne and his attempts to wreak havoc as a result. It is not yet known whether this character will feature at all in this prequel adventure, but his influence on its development process remains significant all the same.
If we investigate the marketing campaign employed ahead of this ambitious title further, then that aforementioned concept of mistaken identity in fact appears to manifest itself physically. Try as they might, these past few months the Montreal team have struggled in vain to escape the cowl-shaped shadow of their predecessors, the villain-focused nature of their recent promotional material only serving to highlight the similarities between this project and Rocksteady’s lauded 2011 instalment Arkham City.
Such similarities would perhaps be forgivable were they to remain at this surface level. However, for WB Montreal the parallels to be drawn between their incarnation of the Caped Crusader and Rocksteady’s version are inherent in the project’s design, with the successful gameplay engine utilised in previous Arkham entries intact and largely unaltered here. That much-cited concept of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ works to a certain extent in the case of an accomplished combat and stealth engine such as this, but doesn’t excuse the fact that Rocksteady capably developed their engine between games while Montreal haven’t done so in such a notable manner.
“WB Montreal have simply provided an expanded redux of Arkham City”Even by referring to the period Rocksteady spent fine-tuning in preparation for their second Batman outing, another issue in terms of the current development team’s innovation becomes apparent. Whereas the transition between 2009’s Arkham Asylum and Rocksteady’s last effort enabled that team to drastically overhaul the open-world elements with an entirely new setting, this time around WB Montreal have simply provided an expanded redux of Arkham City. Sure, the electric fences employed to simultaneously house Arkham inmates and hide invisible game walls are gone, yet we’re still presented with a mere refinement of the previous game’s setting by moving to Gotham City, in contrast to the fully-fledged environmental transition witnessed before.
The recently announced casting decisions haven’t helped matters, either. It’s all well and dandy for the studio to attempt to differentiate from its predecessor by casting Roger Craig Smith as a younger incarnation of Gotham’s protector, but why the decision was made to renew the Joker’s term for their prequel is almost beyond comprehension. BioShock Infinite’s Troy Baker could potentially do wonders with the role, but in light of the acclaim with which Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Clown Prince was met and the dismay at his departure from the franchise, Baker’s attempts to put a fresh spin on the character could prove a losing battle from the outset. Much like so many other elements of the product, this is a character whose present incarnation is one with which players are already far too familiar. It would have been a logical decision in this case to forego a new appearance by the Joker entirely, especially with the Black Mask pitched as the central antagonist of the narrative.
Then again, artistic logic doesn’t seem to be at the heart of Warner Brothers’ thinking this time around. Certainly, there’s business logic in the publisher’s reasoning that a successful franchise such as this should be maintained in years to come. All the same, allowing Rocksteady to continue the series’ narrative on their own terms, regardless of time allowances or financial gain, would likely have caused little in the way of problems. Instead, by forming a studio simply tasked with building on what worked before, Warner Brothers may potentially have spawned a wealth of unforeseen issues.
Perhaps we haven’t seen the full picture – it’s entirely possible that Rocksteady wished to work on other non-licensed projects, leaving WB Montreal to hastily convene and assess the quickest possible way to continue the Arkham legacy. Nevertheless, there’s a foreboding sense of déjà vu plaguing the marketing campaign, gameplay and setting of Batman: Arkham Origins. Given the sense of mistaken identity that the Montreal studio seem to have evoked during their freshman project, it’s difficult not to wonder if there was once a chance that the Arkham franchise would be laid to rest after ‘only’ two stunning instalments, this statement from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight might have served as a more fitting mantra:
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”