If in doubt, prequel it. With Batman and his rogue's gallery having been painted into something of corner in 2012's acclaimed semi-open world brawler Arkham City, going backwards in the timeline certainly provides a few narrative get out of jail free cards. So, in theory, we're back to a younger Batman, one who's less experienced and who is considered little more than a criminal by Gotham City's beleaguered police force.
Oddly, this third Arkham game avoids much in the way of examining what a less battle-scarred Dark Knight might entail, and pretty much gets on with business as usual. Characters now dead get the chance to reappear, characters repeatedly defeated later in the Arkham timeline don't sound quite so ridiculous in their conviction that they can bring down the Bat, and the game has a cast-iron excuse for not offering much in the way of new high-tech gadgets for our brooding hero to employ.
Origins is a mixed bag, it really is. It doesn't advance the formula much, and despite offering a different story and antagonists it often feels like Arkham City redux. That's a little sad, given just how far City pushed things from its slighter, leaner predecessor Arkham Asylum. This does mean more of what’s arguably gaming’s best superhero simulator, of course – effortless batroping between tall buildings, gliding hundreds of feet, employing a wide array of utility belt toys to demolish sizeable packs of enemies and alternating between outright force and expert stealth to keep those endless thugs, henchmen, petty crooks and supervillains in check.
Holy threequels does it feel familiar though. There’s a lot of recycled technology here, so even though Batman’s no longer restricted to an area of Gotham City that’s been turned into a vast prison and instead has, in theory, the run of a fully-populated metropolis, in practice the streets are bare and quiet, bar occasional packs of violent toughs. The excuse of a snowstorm is given for why there are no civilians or cars to be seen, but it’s a weak one; we can only hope that a later Batman game realises Gotham a living place rather than just a collection of piecemeal fights.
Meanwhile, an over-arching plot about the young Batman being hunted by a dozen deadly assassins quickly gives way to another Joker tale, and there’s some odd pacing and dialogue that can make the story feel incoherent and hurried. The Joker’s great and all, but it would be even greater to see some other rogue achieve similar stature.
On the other hand, Origins very much does the right thing by steering clear of the more fantastical, supernatural elements that Arkham City veered into. Even though this has crocodile men, supersoldier serums and electricity-controlling gloves, it feels an awful lot more grounded – much more about weird science than magic and mutation. At times, the plot offers some interesting commentary on the relationship between a city, a superhero and criminality, though it is treading ground already covered by Batman comics and even movies.
The impressively tight combat makes a welcome return – again, not expanded upon, but the slickness of the ‘flow’ system which sees dramatic pay-offs from careful timing rather than elaborate button combos is always a pleasure. It rewards both frantic button-mashing and those who chase the mythic 100% completion, and all the upgrades and Achievements that entails. Like its predecessors, Origins is very good at making you feel like a superhero, rather than a drunken, geriatric boxer.
Less successful this time around is the smattering of optional sidequests which Batman can undertake as he frantically sprints, swings and sneaks his way between major plot events. They feel bitty and contrived, hooting loudly that you’re in a videogame and chasing percentages rather than feeling like a natural part of Gotham’s dark world. It’s hard to resist doing them, in the hungry pursuit of experience points and unlocks, but stopping random crimes – which always means a short, uninspired brawl - and hunting for yet more Riddler trophies hidden behind electronic gates and whatnots is rarely satisfying in itself.
It all contributes to that nagging sense that this is the once-proud Arkham series putting itself in a holding pattern while it tries to work out what to do next. In its own right Origins is a fine action game and very good Batman game, but it doesn’t attempt enough that’s different to feel like it needs to exist in addition to Arkham City.