Written by Matthew Pellett.
As a product of the Joel Schumacher Batman & Robin era, I grew up rather apathetic towards the Dark Knight. 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum eventually put me on the right track, and in the wake of Batman: Arkham City I nearly spent a full day drawing little bat symbols on every lightbulb in my house. Which is why I'm terrified to start playing Batman: Arkham Origins .
With Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady transformed Batman into a gaming icon. Strip off the cowl and Batman becomes Bruce Wayne; this we know. But take Rocksteady out of the Asylum games and you've got what, exactly? That's the thought running through my head as I take control of Batman in his latest outing, developed not by series creators Rocksteady but by relative newcomers WB Games Montreal. If they get this wrong, they will have ruined my Batman.
My first reaction is one of confusion. Arkham Origins isn't Batman's origin tale. Rather, it's a 'Year Two' adventure. Set on Christmas Eve, it's the story of how Black Mask gathers eight of DC's toughest assassins and sets them loose in Gotham City to kill Batman, and how the Caped Crusader overcomes the odds and first begins what's to become a very long war against the city's masked villains.
But as I start my clean-up by tackling an eight-strong band of The Penguin's thugs I discover the freeflow combat skills picked up in Arkham City – the simultaneous counters, the quick-spray explosive gel, the weapon stripping and so on – are available.
The world's greatest detective inside me points out that this adventure predates Arkham Asylum's fiction (indeed, it's set so early on in Arkham's timeline that Batman hasn't yet met Captain Gordon and the Penguin is currently sans bottle-monocle). So why is it that, post-fight, I'm also able to launch up into the sky and slingshot myself across the city with the grapnel boost manoeuvre, which was only possible in Arkham City thanks to a new prototype gadget? Or perform double-takedowns on unsuspecting goons when I'm later sneaking around Gotham's dockyards to infiltrate The Penguin's super-tanker base?
Comic book lore is no stranger to plot holes, and I'm happy to shrug the timeline inconsistency aside on the grounds that it makes for a better game in the long run. That the combat and city traversal feels exactly like Arkham City should come as no surprise: WB Games Montreal inherited every last scrap of code and kilobyte of assets from Rocksteady.
Initial familiarity soon slips into the shadows as new features emerge. The core mechanics haven't changed too much, but WB Games Montreal feel more mileage could be wrung out of Batman's existing skillset complexities. Hence the birth of the Dark Knight system, which sees Bruce programming the Batcomputer to set combat metachallenges for XP and gadget rewards as he trains himself (and you) over the course of the night.
Though Arkham City's landmass has been reused, it's almost unrecognisable from its last runout. In its pre-Asylum, preflooded, snow-covered midwinter state it feels vibrant and looks lived in.
Indeed, cops battle thugs in the streets as a major snowstorm buffets the city and drives innocent residents indoors and behind locked doors. As Batman explores the city, you'll be able to tune into police dispatch radios and swoop in to stop crimes in progress, as well as pick up and follow clues to villain-specific splinter campaigns.
My demo takes place entirely in Old Gotham – a scant 50 percent of the game. Across Gotham Bay lies the upmarket island of New Gotham, where skyscrapers dominate the horizon. The added verticality won't be sectioned off into a separate location bubble such as Arkham City's hemmed-in Wonder Tower: from the tip of the tallest building to the far corners of both islands and the long bridge stapling them together, the entirety of Gotham City's external map lives in one streaming world. (Albeit a world big enough to warrant a new fast-travel system in the form of the Batwing.)
The extra real estate is put to good use in a revamped detective mode, too. The redesigned system sees you scanning clues and piecing together video recreations of crimes; videos that can be scrubbed through to pick out incidental details (such as a killer leaving a fingerprint on a surface) for further investigating. Though the demo's crime scene took place inside a single room, I'm told city-wide crime scenes can and will appear.
And what of the void left by original custodians Rocksteady? Newcomers WB Games Montreal are understandably going to be viewed as a sidekick developer until they prove they can pull this off, but as a couple of major demo features (dynamic weather that affects combat and enemy quadrotor drones in predator rooms) have been removed on the grounds of them not meeting 'Arkham Quality' levels, the team's breaking its own back, Knightfall style, to live up to all the expectations.
Batman: Arkham Origins is out on October 25.