Batman: Arkham Origins

Two years into his crusade, everyone still thinks the Batman’s just a myth. Nobody’s gotten a good look at him. Only crime lord Black Mask takes him seriously … seriously enough to put a $50 million bounty on his head. And eight top assassins have come to collect it on Christmas Eve.

Batman: Arkham Origins (due Oct. 25 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC) takes the familiar beat-’em-up/stealth gameplay from the Arkham series and backs it up to an earlier time in the Dark Knight’s career. “We wanted to bring Batman back to a place where he was scary, where people who saw Batman wished they hadn’t,” says senior producer Ben Mattes of Warner Bros. Montreal (the studio replacing original developer Rocksteady). “There’s a certain familiarity that Batman has later on in his career. He becomes part of the establishment. That’s not the Batman story we wanted to tell.”

That’s not the Batman you get in Origins, either. Bruce Wayne’s in a very different place here, his anger still raw and on the surface. As Batman, he’s bestial, unshaven, and snarling at his victims. That’s the main thing keeping a creeping sense of over-familiarity at bay.

And this time, the Dark Knight patrols the entire city, not a walled-off prison, though the demo limited me to a fairly small area and didn’t let me access the map overview. Gotham City’s covered in snow and decked out for the holidays, a scene creative director Eric Holmes describes as, “a party hat on top of a corpse.” The streets look oddly deserted, though you won’t find any shortage of violent criminals hanging out on rooftops. Holmes put the absence of civilian life down to a combination of the holidays and bad weather. Put another way, the franchise is rapidly running out of excuses for keeping Gotham uninhabited.

In terms of combat, Warner Bros. Montreal mainly hit the “repeat” button, though a few new enemies mix things up a bit. The hulking Armored Lieutenant echoes past franchise heavies, this time requiring you to rip their armor off before administering a few rapid, multipunch combos. They’re big, slow, and not much to worry about if you pay attention.

Batman: Arkham Origins 2

Then you get the new Martial Artists, and going up against trained fighters throws a much better curveball at you. They block and counter just like Batman does, forcing me to engage in a nice, fist-to-face chess match. They also came at me with karate attacks that required repeated blocking — the standard “incoming attack” warning icons get big and angry just before a Martial Artist launches a multihit combo. Squaring off against a few of them pressed me in ways the series hasn’t in a while, forcing me to change up my tactics whenever I saw one on approach. Good stuff.

Less good? Some familiar hiccups return from Arkham City. Booting thugs off a rooftop results in some magical physics to keep them from plummeting to their death. Using the glide boost — a handy way to go from grapple line to flight — can still launch you off into unexpected directions.

Outside of bad guys, I counted exactly two new additions to the series, and they both come with caveats.

Batman: Arkham Origins 4

I found Batman’s one new gadget, the Remote Claw, hilariously fun. It attaches two objects with a bat-line that goes taught, good for making tightropes across a stealth-centric Predator Mission arena. Used offensively, it can smack two thugs into each other, send a propane tank careening into someone’s head, or string a baddie up from across the room. The claw is highly entertaining, but it did make picking off enemies from the shadows ridiculously easy and risk-free. Hopefully, the scenarios will escalate (as they do in other Arkham titles) to rebalance Predator runs back into the tense hunts I enjoyed before.

Warner Bros. Montreal also wants to point a big finger at its new Detective Mode investigations. These put you inside a first-person, holographic re-creation of a crime, which you rewind and fast-forward. The clues you need are somewhere in the playback.

Batman: Arkham Origins 3

The demo’s example tasked me with picking apart a police helicopter crash. I followed the copter’s severed fuselage around corners, backtracked to separate locations with new information, and scrubbed the scene down to the cause: a bullet trajectory identical to one I saw in Arkham City, leading to the same villain, Deadshot. This became one of several “random” Most Wanted events I ran into while patrolling the streets — another featured terrorist-of-the-people Anarky.

I do wonder if this enhanced Detective Mode won’t require plenty of handholding to work. Batman offered a lot of “I should do this” prompts during that helecopter sequence. I needed them, too, because the trail from location to location didn’t always follow a linear, logical path. Regardless, it’s definitely more involving than simply tagging glowing items on the ground, though Mattes confirmed that those old-school detection sections return as well.

Batman: Arkham Origins 5

If you get the overall sense that the third spin through the Arkhamverse didn’t move the needle too far, that’s fine. I got that sense, too. The real appeal of Origins, if it does appeal, will be in attaching the series’ aging but still-entertaining gameplay to a story that showcases Batman’s first encounters with his iconic rouge’s gallery. Roger Craig Smith’s (Ezio in Assassin’s Creed II) stellar voice work as Batman and Troy Baker (Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinte) as the Joker, replacing series legends Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, sold those moments completely.

Indeed, the demo ended on a confrontation involving Bats, Bane, and the Joker, and all three oozed a degree of brutality and menace I never saw in the franchise’s earlier entries. The moment felt remarkably fresh. And that’s a hell of a thing to say about an origin story we’ve seen many times before.