The excellent, expansive Batman: Arkham City was always going to be a tough act to follow, and Batman: Arkham Origins, the next in the series, does not immediately make a strong case that it will surpass its predecessor. That may seem like a harsh assessment of a game that was just shown to press and is still five months away from release.
I played about 15 minutes of the game last week and listened to the game's creators discuss their plans for this Batman prequel. I'm feeling extra-sceptical about this one.
Arkham Origins' worst current offence may simply be that it feels awfully similar to Arkham City and even its predecessor Arkham Asylum. It's bringing some new stuff — stuff that's hard to judge the potential of.
Arkham City had it easier. Well, in retrospect it did. Rocksteady Studios' surprise 2009 hit Arkham Asylum had treated players to a smooth-yet-deep combat system, gritty graphics and a carnival of great comic book characters. But it confined its action to an island. Rocksteady's Arkham City blew that out across an open section of a city, filling its Gotham with sidequests and intensifying all aspects of the Asylum formula. It featured nearly every major villain from Batman lore and many of the Dark Knight's friends as well.
Arkham Origins, developed by the new WB Games Montreal studio, tries to escape these shadows by gliding into Batman's past. This adventure is set in its own sprawling, open sections of Gotham, they too filled with sidequests. The game occurs on a Christmas Eve, with the villain Black Mask tasking some top assassins to hunt our hero down.
The city is decked with snow and is more colourful than the last game's, but it appears to function in the same way: serving as a playground in which gamers can beat up street thugs, grapple to the tops of buildings, glide down alleys and activate new missions.
In a section of Origins' city that will be shown at E3 — and that was shown to some reporters, including me, last week — Batman zips through part of the city, encountering a gang to pummel, a device to hack and a mystery to solve.
The pummelling looks and, as I learned later when I played it, feels familiar. Montreal hasn't changed Rocksteady's system of easily chained strikes, counters, lunges and gadget attacks, though they've added a stats read-out that shows players what they did well.
The combat is freshened a little by the addition of some new bruiser enemies as well as, as seen later in a rooftop fight, some martial artists who counter many of your moves but whose counters can be countered. The additions add wrinkles but feel minimal.
Later, we see the mysterious figure Anarky railing against the government. He's one of the game's sidequest villains you can track down. He's planted a bomb. If you've read the comics, you'll know that Anarky has an important secret; it's not clear if the game's version of him has the same.
Much of the game's gadgetry is familiar. Gels and batarangs return. So does the hacking device that forces Batman to combine two halves of a word. He uses that to defuse Anarky's bomb. If you played Arkham City, you did it before.
Inside buildings, as before, Batman might come upon a room full of enemies and topped with gargoyles from which he can hunt them or even hang them. It's another series staple and another without any apparent major changes. There is a new gadget that works well in these situations, at least. It's called the remote claw. This gadget is meant to be fired twice rapidly, first at one point to define where a tether will be place and then at another point to define where the tether will end. Tethering an enemy to an explosive barrel snaps the two together and hurts that enemy. Tethering one enemy to another causes them to collide. And tethering two points of a wall creates a tightrope for Batman to walk across.
So what really feels fresh? Not much, but the game's detective work could be the big change. The previous Arkham games made minimal use of clue-finding gameplay. The new game, however, appears to make Batman a busier sleuth. I'd be more confident if the instance of it that we got to play hadn't been presented as an optional side mission.
In the demo I saw and played, making Batman walk to a certain part of the city triggered a sequence involving a helicopter behing shot out of the sky. The investigation that followed built on the sort of CSI Gotham searches for forensic evidence seen in Arkham City's handful of Deadshot missions. But this chopper investigation involved many more clues, some red herrings and, most importantly the ability to both fly through a crime scene and scrub through the events leading up to the crime while searching for clues — sort of like rewinding or fast-forwarding a video (and sort of like Capcom's upcoming Remember Me but with freedom of camera movement).
Scrubbing through the moments right before the crash, you need to look for clues, select them and then see how Batman's understanding of the events right before that plays out. This involves watching the helicopter hit the ground, rewinding enough to see how it began to break apart, following events further back to see how its tail had been knocked around the side of a building, discovering the vantage point of a possible shooter, seeing why that shooter couldn't have felled the helicopter and so on. Each discovered clue is a step toward the truth. Expand on this more — make the investigations varied and complex — and this could be Origins' most valuable addition to the series.
With any preview there tends to be a gap between what is promised and what is shown. In this case, the gap involved the very hero we're controlling.
The new game was presented to reporters, as it is likely to be presented to fans, as a game about a younger, more raw Batman. One cutscene showed a Batman who was willing to hang his enemy from a clock and then drop him. But Batman doesn't kill. Batman kept the guy's fall from being fatal.
Arkham City threw everything in but the Bat-sink. Origins needs more or different ideas.
Is this a new Batman? A different one? The new game's gameplay doesn't even hint at a difference in our hero. This younger Batman seems to be as skilled and ruthless a combatant as his older self. He is as quick and precise with a gadget as he was/will be in Arkham Asylum and City. There's nothing in the gameplay shown so far that screams prequel.
So far, Arkham Origins seems more like WB Games Montreal's proof that they can make a game similar to Arkham City. That alone is not exciting, though, as marketing plans go, perhaps this is the foundational point WB wants to make to ease fans with the familiar before surprising them with the new. Or perhaps, more worryingly, the series is just exhausted. Arkham City threw everything in but the Bat-sink. Origins needs more or different ideas. Something seems to be missing. Hopefully it's just something we haven't been shown yet.
A note about the voice-acting: Reports about Arkham series stalwart Kevin Conroy's involvement or lack thereof have been confusing. Conroy had played Batman in the last two games, but early coverage of the game suggested he was not in Origins. This game's younger Batman will be played by Roger Craig Smith, who played Chris Redfield in recent Resident Evil games, Ezio in Assassin's Creed II/Brotherhood/Revelations, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Mark Hamill won't be the Joker this time. BioShock Infinite's Troy Baker will.
What of Conroy recently saying he's working on a new Arkham game? Either he's talking about a different game or he has a surprise role in this one. A PR rep for the game confirmed the new voice actors for Origins' leads but declined to clarify what Conroy was talking about nor even clarify whether he is in the game at all or not.
This preview is based, in part, on our hands-on time with the game. We played about 15 minutes' worth.