Batman: Arkham Origins follows the world's most enduring vigilante after just two years on the job. The developers at Warner Bros. Montreal, taking over from Rocksteady Studios and their critically acclaimed construction of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, want to convey a "rawer, scarier Batman." He's all growl and grimace in the cutscenes, dangling squirming henchmen from clock towers until they turn verbose, but in play his rookie temper is more difficult to detect.
The prequel is a tricky proposition, especially when it concerns history that's been dissected again and again across comics, movies and games. It's harder to conjure narrative tension while it's colored by the inevitable outcome, and that draws greater scrutiny on mechanical expansion and refinement. Why does this younger Batman make for a better Batman game? He punches and kicks in the same ways, which is less a complaint and more a lingering compliment over the intuitive, thug-crushing combat created and refined over the last two Arkham games. Being frugal with your button presses is still essential in maintaining a combo, as is the nearly instinctual decision to interject a counter whenever someone gets a little too brave in Batman's presence. A new enemy type, the martial artist, is able to counter the hero's attacks, but there are counters for counters too.
When facing unsatisfactory odds Batman still has his predatory routine, this time with a gadget to connect two points (or persons) of interest with a taut cable that quickly yanks them together. Think of it as connecting the dots: the gargoyle to the gargoyle for an instant tightrope in the rafters; the gargoyle to the goon for a dangling victim; the vase to the goon for a smashing knockout; and the goon to the goon for a head-on collision.
Those wrinkles in basic combat and stealth – the only ones I experienced in the press demo of Batman: Arkham Origins, not necessarily the only ones in there – are paired with a few upgrades to Gotham.
Batman's hectic Christmas eve, in which eight great assassins stalk him, takes place across South Gotham island. The looming architecture resembles the financial district of a modern city, filled with high grappling points and swooping opportunities. It is, however, far less charismatic than the carnival stylings of Arkham City.
Warner Bros. says it's a bigger district, which is a point of pride we see so often with open-world games that it's now taken as a guaranteed benefit. For what it's worth, the city is now large enough to justify a quick-travel system via Batman's jet. If Arkham Origins expands the Gotham geography over the dense and essential playground found in Arkham City, I do hope it maintains a low level of filler and the adherence to appropriate, story-driven sidequests. I saw one such sequence, in which Anarky, an anti-institution terrorist, goads Batman into defusing bombs planted across the city.
Batman also solves the mystery of a crashed helicopter, thanks to an enhanced Detective Vision. In Arkham Origins, the Batcomputer can render and transmit virtual recreations of events after the relevant scene has been analyzed. In this case, Batman can see the helicopter reassembling itself in his augmented view, reversing it like video footage up until the point of impact.
This seems like a good vehicle for solving mysteries, and it requires Batman to observe and pursue parts of the 3D recreation across a large area, but his deductions still seem to be based on finding objects, rather than drawing informed connections between them. This is the most work anyone's done on Detective Mode, but it still strikes me as a diluted attempt to involve the player in Batman's brain power. (A minor quibble worthy of parentheses: The sound effect for cycling through the "footage" generated by the Batcomputer is a scratchy, irritating noise. Without change, it'll be the Arkham Origins equivalent of the first game's full-screen white flash upon entering Detective Mode.)
With the helicopter's murder solved, Batman is lured back into the plot and back into a room with his eternal enemies, The Joker and Bane. Perhaps the ensuing events will introduce a much-needed spark in the story of Arkham Origins so far: a competent opportunity to don the cowl, now in the third year of our crime-solving careers.