The excellent, expansive Batman: Arkham City was always going to be a tough act to follow, and Batman: Arkham Origins, this fall's 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 this spring 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-skeptical about this one.
Arkham Origins' worst current offense 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 colorful 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 pummeling 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).