The Double-A Team is a newish feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
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The team at Warner Bros Montreal inherited quite a bit when they made Batman: Arkham Origins. Sure, there’s the big stuff like the ingenious, game-unlocking realisation that Batman should be good in a melee fight but useless (or tactical) against guns. And there’s the idea that a game about Batman should showcase his detective skills as much as his ability to simply lamp people.
But there’s the small stuff, too, and the small stuff almost matters more. There’s that corkscrew unspooling of the bat-rope as it races towards a grapple point. There’s that walk. The unhurried, stoical Batman walk, the stately walk of a man who fears nothing in this world. I have only seen one person do this walk in real life – well, on cable TV, if that counts as real life – and it was noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker, strolling away from a nasty run-in with a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. I have never loved or feared him more. What a walk.
All these things, big and small, kind of make the case for Arkham Origins being, like the other Arkham games, a triple-A affair. I’m pretty sure it was Warners’ big hope one year, and it has a huge open world and a lot of luxurious detailing. It’s lavish and filled with stuff. It had Splash Damage on the multiplayer. All told, it must have cost a lot! But as Graeme Virtue pointed out a while back, if often seems that Origins has all but been forgotten. It was made by the Montreal team rather than Rocksteady, and it was not part of the main Arkham trilogy. A different developer. Different voice talent in key roles. A prequel story as the title suggests.
And yet! What you get from this is something quite special. Something special in a distinctly double-A way, as well. Arkham Origins has always struck me as being the equivalent of a one-shot comic book Batman story as opposed to one of those big multi-issue arcs that gets collected in glossy paperbacks. This is a Batman tale rather than a Batman epic. I love it for its rather restrained sense of scale.
I used to love the single issue comic stories as a kid. They offered a sort of day-to-day Batman, one that often focused on weirder, slightly less threatening super villains, like my all-time favourite, Calendar Man. (Before he was retconned as a Lector-alike, Calendar Man was just a goof who pulled off calendar-themed robberies. He often looked a bit like a Fortnite skin.) You’d see Batman just getting on with things in Gotham, and while Origins dutifully offers up a big idea – it’s Christmas and there’s a bounty on Batman’s head – for a lot of the time, he really is just getting on with things in Gotham. There is a headline villain waiting in the dark, but over the course of the first few missions Batman visits the prison, a rusty boat, the bank. And he can duck back to the Batcave whenever he wants to pootle around there. It really is a sort of day-in-the-life Batman simulator.
Or night-in-the-life. And that’s another huge thing that Origins inherits from the Rocksteady template: these games are so atmospheric and engrossing, I think, in part because they take place over a single night. Everything that happens unfolds in a really compressed period of time, and Batman wears the ravages of each flubbed battle on his increasingly battered armour.
Funnily enough, it’s this focus on one night – it’s Christmas at that! – that has allowed me to spend the last few years very slowly playing Arkham Origins. I have tended to race through the other Arkham games in a few greedy sessions, driven forward, I think, by that triple-A sense of a real event unfolding. Origins, however, I have picked at now and then, getting stuck on Deathstroke, for example, and then knocking it on the head for a few months. Returning once I feel the call of the bat again and fancy a bit of inverted takedown action, only to discover that no time has passed in this world. Deathstroke is still taunting me, but now I have the youtube videos to help me through it. Batman is still tattered but unbowed. And yes, it’s still Christmas.