The Batman: Arkham series is unquestionably one of the biggest success stories of this generation. Developer Rocksteady Studios' clear reverence for the source material and an innovative approach to combat meant that 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum was met with critical praise and healthy sales. Batman: Arkham City cemented the series' position as a modern classic with some of the best review scores ever seen. However, it was not immediately clear where a sequel would take the Dark Knight.
Tackling the age-old problem of the tricky three-quel, Batman: Arkham Origins sticks to convention and moves the story back in time to form a precursor to the first title. Initially we were disappointed with this revelation, expecting the franchise to continue its forward momentum onto even bigger and better things. Equally, the departure of Rocksteady Studios also raised concerns as their understanding and handling of Batman as a character and a property was particularly careful and astute.
Recently, we got the opportunity to spend some hands-on time with the game and found, thankfully, that little has been done to deviate away from the established Arkham formula. Replacing the original developers is Canadian studio Warner Bros. Games Montreal and there is no question that expectations are high. Further significant changes are the departures of other key Arkham figures including notable voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker respectively. Paul Dini, the writer of the previous instalments, was also jettisoned for a new team with additional support from figures at DC Comics.
It seems that Warner Bros. were keen to inject some new blood into the series and when we sat down we were surprised to find that little seems to have substantially changed in gameplay terms. We jumped straight onto the streets of Gotham as snow lined the streets and decorations littered the sidewalks and rooftops. However, far from a tranquil winter, the city is as dangerous as ever thanks to the work of several new villains operating in the urban sprawl.
Batman: Arkham Origins takes place roughly five years before the events of the first game in the series and follows the Dark Knight as he is adjusting to his life as a crime-fighting vigilante. When speaking with the developers they mentioned drawing inspiration from the influential Batman: Year One, choosing to focus on a period where the hero is still learning and starting to encounter more deadly foes. As such, his appearance has been adjusted accordingly and his suit is still a work in progress, compiled of various pieces of experimental and scavenged technology.
Set during the depths of winter, close to Christmas, Batman: Arkham Origins sees the Dark Knight being targeted by the enigmatic and sinister Black Mask. Horribly disfigured by an accident with the cosmetics his company produces, he now conceals his identity behind a mask allowing him to remain undetected. Acting as a powerful leader in the criminal community, he has much of Gotham under his control. Black Mask offers a $50 million reward for the death of Batman, prompting a host of dangerous mercenaries and killers to descend on the city in the hope of claiming the prize.
It is a clever plot move from Warner Bros. Games Montreal and has given them free reign to introduce a range of other popular DC characters into the Arkham universe. Alongside returning favourites such as Bane, the Penguin and Joker are less mainstream figures including Deadshot, Anarky, Copperhead and the Mad Hatter. These villains are set to provide substantial challenge and add a new degree of menace to Batman's early career. Choosing Black Mask as the primary antagonist is a clever move, not only does his veiled persona mirror the Dark Knight's, but his less prominent reputation gives the developers greater freedom to move the plot in new directions.
Sadly, our hands-on time with the game was incredibly light on plot details and we were not able to get an impression of any of the new voice cast or any greater insight into the narrative. Instead, we began stalking the streets of Gotham in search of criminals who needed bringing to justice. Spotting a patrolling gang of ominous looking thugs, we used Batman's grapple to get into position above them and size up the crowd. Black Mask's plan has raised criminal activity in the city, overwhelming police and necessitating the Dark Knight's involvement.
Dropping in on the gang we were pleased to see that combat was still fresh, crisp and responsive. Chaining moves together and evading attacks feels like second nature almost instantaneously. If anything, the combat felt tighter than Batman: Arkham City and a nearby developer assured us only minor changes have been implemented but they certainly seemed to show. However, fundamentally nothing strikingly new was immediately obvious.
It took us a few brawls to encounter the two new enemies the developer's have added: the Martial Artist and the Armoured Lieutenant. The Martial Artist was able to block, evade and counter attacks and proved to be a fairly challenging opponent when encountered in a larger group. In one rooftop dust-up we were faced with several at once and had to use a lot of dodges and fast attacks to beat them.
The Armoured Lieutenant was another relatively daunting prospect but after one or two encounters proved fairly straightforward to dispatch. Covered in a thick layer of body armour and usually surrounded by a squad of, usually armed, minions; he is invincible until his shielding is removed. By stunning him and removing the armour in the dazed state, he can then be defeated. The main challenge was removing his surrounding guard while avoiding his slow but high damage attacks.
Neither new opponent seemed to make a huge difference to combat in the brief time we had with the game, which was something of a surprise. Warner Bros. Games Montreal may have been worried about damaging the balance of the game but it seems more likely that these new additions will be scaled and introduced with greater frequency as the title progresses. It would have been interesting to see how dangerous these enemies were in larger numbers or more confined areas, but we are hoping they will make more of an impact than in this preview.
While roaming the streets Batman's Cryptographic Sequencer pointed to two main types of side mission. The first, Crimes in Progress, involved Batman reaching a specific location around Gotham and encountering Black Mask's forces. We foiled a bank robbery, with a group of tough enemies including Armoured Lieutenant. It felt natural and fitted in perfectly with the story and feel of the game without appearing to be a jarring additional mission.
Similarly, while flitting across rooftops we discovered a Most Wanted mission. Here Anarky has planted a series of bombs across the city, which must be diffused using the Cryptographic Sequencer within a specific time limit. The chase across the rooftops to the critical point was fairly intense and required Batman to defeat a number of enemies before the bomb could be disabled. What was rather unclear was the rewards and benefits of completing these side quests, but there are many located throughout the city.
Our Cryptographic Sequencer directed us to the smouldering wreckage of a crashed helicopter outside a large building. Here, another new gameplay element was introduced: reconstructing crime scenes. Using Batman's detective abilities and the Cryptographic Sequencer, it is possible to solve various crime scenes scattered throughout Gotham. After examining various pieces of the wreckage and surrounding buildings, we were able to create an interactive reconstruction of the crash itself.
A timeline option becomes available, allowing Batman to move throughout the sequence of events as they happened, displayed in game as a translucent holograph. Spotting something suspicious before the crash happened; we paused the recreation and climbed to the top of a building. Slowly playing the events, we were in a perfect position to see a sniper shot hit the chopper identifying the cause of the crash. Again, pausing the reconstruction, we could see where the shot came from and follow it to a nearby building and another crime scene.
This seems like one of the biggest additions to the game and it seems likely that several puzzles will utilise these mechanics. The use of the Cryptographic Sequencer to scan and move around in the timeline was very straightforward and it felt like a natural addition to the other puzzles present in the earlier games. It was also a great way to provide variation to the gameplay and help break up the combat with a meatier and more time-consuming challenge.
Our gameplay demonstration came to a close with a chance to use the Dark Knight's stealth abilities. Entering into the lobby of a hotel, a group of guards patrolled. Using the grapple to ascend into the darkness above we used Batman's abilities to pick them off one by one. One new addition was the Remote Claw, which provided some sadistic fun to knocking enemies unconscious. This allows two objects (or unwitting opponents) to be tethered together sending them flying into one another. Initially it seemed to be a situational weapon but its ability to take out two enemies was very useful.
As so much of the Arkham series rests on the switch between stealth and combat, it was pleasing to see this fine balance retained and developed with a few subtle additions. While some critics may be disappointed at the lack of innovation and evolution of the gameplay, fans will no doubt be relishing the chance to clear up the streets of Gotham once again. Despite the absence of many new single-player features, the story is one of the biggest selling points to Batman: Arkham Origins with a dark and complex tale promised.
There is clearly a lot more still to learn about this entry into the series, with a multiplayer mode being recently announced. Being separately developed by Splash Damage, the multiplayer component will see up to eight players fighting it out online with some taking on the role of Batman and Robin, with the remainder acting as Bane or Joker's henchman. It is an interesting prospect and we hope to bring you a hands-on preview of that component in the next few weeks.