The mobile edition of Batman: Arkham Origins – developed by NetherRealm Studios, who also developed Mortal Kombat, Injustice: Gods Among Us, the Injustice mobile game and Batman: Arkham City Lockdown – is an over-the-shoulder brawler meant to whet the appetite of players eager for the console games' release. The mobile edition has the same plot setup as the main game: it is still early in Batman's career, but the Black Mask is already tired of dealing with the vigilante. Mask decides to offer a large sum of money to anyone who can kill the Bat, attracting the attention of a small group of assassins including Deadshot, Deathstroke, and Bane. In Arkham Origins, the player takes control of Batman and goes toe-to-toe with these assassins, but not before beating up every thug, convict and smuggler in the city.
The game employs the now familiar “free-to-play” model, being itself a free download but offering micro-transactions to players who would like to exchange real money for things like character boosts, extra experience points or alternate versions of Batman's suit. The Bat-suits will easily be the most tempting for fans of Batman comics and there's plenty to chose from including versions from “The Long Halloween,” The New 52, and even Batman Beyond. If a player creates or logs into a WBID account they can get the “Red Son” version of Batman as a free bonus. There are other cross-game bonuses to be had for registering the console version of Arkham Origins to the same WBID.
The game uses a map of Gotham City as a hub. Its split into four districts and you'll have to clear all of the essential missions and defeat that district's boss – one of the assassins – before unlocking missions in another, but you can always return to previous districts to repeat or retry missions. Players spend stamina to attempt each mission, which refills over time or can be refilled instantly by spending one Waynetech Point(the equivalent of 20 cents). Most of the core missions are simple brawls with a group thugs or False Facers, but some side missions are trickier. There are daily missions, timed challenges, and “most wanted” missions (which can be repeated for a higher rating) that usually have a special circumstance added to them. Batman might start off poisoned or enemies may be more aggressive than usual, for example. The rewards for completing these side missions are greater than the rewards for completing the main missions.
The games actual combat is a bit uneven. Players tap the screen to perform basic attacks, tapping rapidly to perform combos which can be capped off, when prompted, with timed screen-swipes. Batman can switch between assault stance, to do more damage, and guarded stance, to boost his defense and damage reduction.
There are also special moves that can be unlocked and leveled up throughout the game, such as a crippling batarang throw or a health boost, that need to be recharged after use during combat. Batman can also block oncoming attacks, reducing their damage, but there is no option to dodge attacks entirely. Enemies will use similar attacks, perform combos to stun Batman and sometimes become enraged and unleash brutal special attacks of their own.
Players will face off against many, many throw away henchmen. The early battles can be won simply by staying in assault stance and tapping an enemy to death, but by the time Batman reaches the second district the enemies have gotten a bit tougher. To master the game's combat, players will have to frequently switch back and forth between assault stance and guarded stance – a transition that the game handles smoothly – to maximize damage dealt, minimize damage taken, and make the most of Batman's special attacks when they become available. At its best, the combat will have players assessing and reassessing their situation frequently and making split-second tactical decisions, successful forcing players into the kind of combat readiness that you'd expect from Batman.
On the other hand, the lack of dodge function seems completely out of character for a master martial artist, like Batman, and makes the combat feel a bit crass and borders on being simply unfair. In a similar game, like Infinity Blade, you can chose to block or dodge. Dodging takes more skill and rewards players with a larger window for retaliation, while blocking is easier but can only be done a certain number of times per combat and has a much smaller window for counterattack. A skilled player can dodge back and forth around an opponents attack, nimbly darting in to land a combination of sword strikes when the opponent is exposed. This kind of combative grace is not present in Arkham Origins. Batman simply stands there and takes every hit and, even if he successfully gets his guard up, he still takes damage from the blocked attack. This can lead to frustrating experiences where no amount of skill can save a player from being KO'd by an opponent's enraged attack at the end of very close combat, even if they do block in time. Its hard not to feel a bit cynical about whether or not this was by the developer’s design, since taking this certain amount of skill out the equation makes the accrual of upgrades – which players can spend actual cash to purchase – that much more important.
The mobile version of Arkham Origins is not a very deep experience. The combat is too reliant on purchasable upgrades and experience and doesn't leave enough room for player skill to make a difference. Players will experience a wonderful rush when they bounce back and forth between stances to deliver a string of combos and special attacks to opponents, but this sort of one-sided combat comes at the expense of the more nuanced back-and-forth of some of the genre's best games. As a free download – and one that you can advance pretty far in with just the Waynetech points the game provides at the start, if Batman is upgraded wisely – it's hard to not recommend this to anyone who just can't wait for the game's console release. At the same time, its a bit disappointing to consider what the game could have been if they had ditched the “freemium” model and given it a traditional sticker price.
This review is based on the iOS version of the game, played on an iPad with Retina display.