Batman’s always made the shadows his ally, but in Batman: Arkham Origins, he finds the shadow of his own previous games impossible to escape from. It’s as good as Batman: Arkham City in most ways, having inherited an outstanding combat system, but it lacks interesting ideas of its own, and it’s missing the polish and attention to detail that makes Arkham City and Arkham Asylum great action games.
It’s more of a traditional Batman plot that retreads some of The Dark Knight’s most familiar themes over its roughly eight hours of main story content: a self-destructive insistence on working alone, and how far he’ll go to avoid taking a life - a concept the final battle cleverly toys with. It’s a respectable plot that even concocts a plausible reason for Batman to face so many villains all in one night - a $50 million bounty on his head.
This younger Batman already has all his signature moves and gear, flies a fancy plane, and is on a first-name basis with pretty much every villain but The Joker. So at the cost of really selling the idea that these events happen prior to the other two games, Origins keeps the foundation of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City’s amazing combat intact, including every gadget in one form or another.
Two new enemy types add a little extra variety, notably the martial artists who can counter your attacks. But the only substantial change is one of those things that’s awesome for the first time you use it, but quickly reveals itself as a bad idea. The Shock Gauntlets are among the last gear you unlock, which is good, because once charged (by hitting a few guys in regular combat) and activated, they let you completely ignore everything that makes combat interesting.
Out in the expanded and snow-covered open world, I found Gotham City beautiful but lifeless. In Arkham City, the excuse is that this part of town has been walled off and given to the criminals. Without that scenario, the absence of any hint of civilian life makes Gotham feel eerily barren, especially next to Origins’ open-world peers and their populated streets. It may be the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, but streets teeming with nothing but decidedly un-jolly criminals are still weird.
The northern half of the map, which is largely recycled from Arkham City, is connected to a new southern island by a tediously long bridge that your quest marker will frequently make you cross as you chase the next mission waypoint. The bridge stands out as crumby and inconvenient map design and I rushed to skip it with fast travel at every opportunity. Gotham is also full of annoying blockages that seem like Batman should be able to easily grapple or climb over, yet prove frustratingly insurmountable.
What constantly nagged at me, though, is that I spent the first few hours searching every corner of Arkham Origins for the DC Comics-themed Easter eggs that Rocksteady (the developer of the previous games) liberally stashed around the environments of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. But the most I ever saw outside of the Batcave was a Flying Graysons poster. That’s not to say there’s no incentive to explore - Gotham is, as ever, littered with collectable items, some of which are locked behind puzzles you have to gadget your way through - but they’re nowhere near as much fun as finding a hint that Scarecrow was here.
Technically, there’s plenty of things to do around town, as it’s terrorized by a lineup of villains like The Penguin, Mad Hatter, and Anarky. Yet most of their missions boil down to the same “Go here, beat up a group of thugs, and deactivate/blow up a thing,” with variety limited to some of them having a timer on them. The one set that feels interesting are the radio towers, which must be disabled in order to unlock fast-travel locations. Those are mini-fortresses that integrate some tougher fights with light puzzle solving.
For visual novelty, the new crime-scene investigations are impressive, and take the “zoom and enhance!” cliché to new extremes. Using the shoulder buttons to scrub through an augmented-reality reconstruction of events looks great, but it’s only barely interactive; all you do is find the next clue when prompted and scan it to get the next piece of the puzzle - no decision-making involved. It’s a better, showier use of Detective Mode than Asylum or City came up with, but still, it’s just for show.
Where Origins does its best work are in its boss fights. With only one exception, they’re all very physical, direct encounters with supervillains. A few stray dangerously close to quick-time event territory, since Arkham games’ combat is prompt-heavy to begin with, but the spectacle of the unique animations makes them feel like a Batman fight should - most notably the Deathstroke duel. Others are simply mob brawls or stealth fights with a particularly dangerous foe mixed in, but the added challenge of having to stay on the move while fighting to avoid bombs, for example, brings something different to it.
Next to Arkham City, Arkham Origins is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of new ideas and use of win buttons, making it the least interesting of the trilogy. But as excuses to dive back into the excellent free-flowing combat and predator takedowns go, this story isn’t bad.