A lack of focus and attention to detail are what harms Arkham Origins. It isn't the combat - still as solid as ever, but without any real overhaul (electric shock gloves notwithstanding) - and it isn't the stealthy predator encounters, which are more difficult due to detective vision-blocking technology and an increased number of gun-toting criminals with infra-red goggles. It isn't the lack of innovation in game mechanics - the Call of Duty series has been the same game with a new coat of paint for years - or the lack of Mark Hamill voicing The Joker: it's the haphazard, unfocused plot, the oversized game world and the infuriatingly frequent game crashes that do the damage.
Arkham Origins deals with Batman early in his career, where the criminals are less outlandish and driven as opposed to the maniacal supervillains the character is most identified with. The crime lord Black Mask puts a $50 million price on Batman's head on Christmas Eve, drawing eight of the world's best assassins to Gotham to claim the bounty. And then that mostly gets forgotten about in an awkward plot twist, by which time the game has crashed on you more times than Internet Explorer.
The main plot brings Batman into contact with numerous supervillains, many fledgling and just starting out: The Penguin is a fast-rising arms dealer, while The Riddler goes by the pseudonym "Enigma". Each has their own side missions: the former has arms caches around the city that must be destroyed, while the latter has data packs and broadcast jammers that prevent the summoning of the Batwing, and must be collected and destroyed respectively to locate him. Whilst hunting Black Mask, Batman battles some of the mercenaries out to kill him. Initially this is enjoyable, and has an old-school beat-em-up feel to it: fights against Deathstroke and Firefly in particular are excellent, as is the challenge posed by Deadshot, which requires a mix of stealth and effective use of gadgetry to defeat him.
However, the plot goes awry when The Joker enters the fold, and without giving too much away, the original premise of the game becomes lost and virtually forgotten about at this point. A clumsy, poorly-knit together final act leaves you feeling confused as to what the point of including eight iconic Batman assassins was in the first place, and the swerve is nothing like finding yourself playing as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2: this is more by accident than by design.
There's plenty of room to explore, but the map feels unnecessarily large: batclawing your way around the city whilst getting into mass brawls with thugs is still satisfying, but not when it takes such a long time to get anywhere. The Batwing fast travel system is ruined by the fact using it means the game is most likely to crash, so you avoid it and glide and swoop around to get where you're going, adding unnecessary time to what could otherwise have been tense, pressure's-on missions.
There are highlights: the game looks great and the winter weather, if an easy tribute to The Dark Knight Rises, is a refreshing change of scenery to the gloomy noir of previous games. A greatly overhauled case file system for side missions is most welcome, and gives much-needed direction that is occasionally missing from the main mission. The sense of scale and chaos unleashed by a newly-emerging Joker is enthralling, particularly the seemingly impossible ethical decisions he forces Batman to make, and which echoes those of The Dark Knight film. Roger Craig Smith of Chris Redfield fame puts in a great performance as a younger, fiercer and believable Batman, but Troy Baker as Joker is more homage to Mark Hamill's performances than an original one of his own. That said, Hamill's Joker is so iconic that any actor would struggle to avoid his shadow, and Baker cannot be faulted for enthusiasm, nor is there any doubt about his sincerity: through him, The Joker means everything he says.
Despite its flaws, the story's attempt to explore or incorporate Batman's beginnings, his crusade against crime, his relationships with Alfred his butler and Commissioner Gordon - a Captain at this stage - is admirable, as is suggesting the notion that Batman himself is the reason that the supervillains are being drawn into the world in the first place.
Overall though, Origins suffers in the shadow of its predecessors. What lets the game down most is a lack of creativity: there were plans to have changes in the weather such as blizzard conditions, which would've added some much-needed diversity to the proceedings. Certainly, the proliferation of snipers patrolling the rooftops later in the game can become very frustrating, and changes in the weather could've added variety to these encounters. Some boss battles seem repetitive and others frustrating and poorly paced. When compared to the previous games in the series which were packed full of related trivia and felt like there was no wasted space, Origins feels kind of empty and oversized. Other problems abound such as glitched side missions failing to start or complete, while corrupted save files requiring a complete game restart are unforgivable.
Ultimately, Origins feels like an unfulfilled opportunity. It makes too many basic errors in sheer game stability to really get engrossed in the action and whilst it has an ambitious if convoluted plot, the gameplay is too rudimentary to elevate it to the status of its illustrious peers.