A younger, angrier digital Batman to distract people from Ben Affleck.
Batman: Arkham Origins follows one of the current trends of games being developed when an IP has been taken to its natural conclusion in terms of its story and the owners don't know where to take it in the future: prequel, prequel, prequel. We've seen God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgment, Halo: Reach, Metal Gear Solid 3, Metroid: The Other M, and DmC, so at this rate I wouldn't be surprised if before long we saw Uncharted: Things Drake and Sully Did that One Time and Super Mario Bros Alpha: Overalls.
Not that Arkham Origins developer Warner Bros. Games Montréal, responsible for the fantastic Wii U port of Arkham City, is resting on the-house-that-Rocksteady-built on this one. It's the tiny things that surprised me at first, like how Batman's grappling hook can catapult him beyond the target destination and the sheer expansion of the concrete jungle of what the game's creative director, Eric Holmes, points out as the more Detroit-like Gotham City.
After running me through an accelerated version of the demo from PAX and E3, he showed me two sections, the Batcave and the Gotham City Police Department. Arkham Origins exists in the Batman's second year, allowing WB Montréal to pick and choose the lore they want in building up to the full-fledged Batman of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. For fans of different iterations of the series, they may notice visual similarities to Batman Begins and story elements from the famous Batman: Year One comic.
In the Batcave, this manifested as Batman's supercomputer appearing as a cobbled-together collection of different components. Near a training area (where you can master advanced combat combo techniques), you can see the fender of a Michael Keaton-movie Batmobile and other unfinished parts. Visually, it's got a stripped-down look that's similar to Batman Begins, with everything feeling high-tech and modern, but with that look of being constructed from available personal body armor.
The connections to Batman: Year One are clearer once Holmes showed me the inside of the GCPD. A stalwart Jim Gordon, not yet Gotham's Police Commissioner, is the one honest cop in Gotham, while the rest, especially the vicious SWAT team, plans on killing Batman and collecting the reward offered by the game's antagonist, criminal organization leader The Black Mask. While the police are corrupt, it serves Batman better not to take them down (and in their house, there are often too many of them gathered together at once for him to do so) so stealth was key in this section, as the goal was connecting the bat computer to the police database.
When I heard that Rocksteady wouldn't be continuing with the next game, and that it was a prequel, I thought the worst. Instead I'm deeply impressed and convinced that WB Montréal is delivering marked improvements on an already amazing game series. The combat is the same countering and combo-driven encounters, but with new enemies Holmes tells me they've tried to sneak in so that they feel like they've always been there in prior games. Not that it's come without some trials.
It's easy to understand the initial Batman fan backlash against the voice choices for Arkham Origins. For so long, the animated series' Kevin Conroy has been the official voice of Batman that it's hard to hear anyone else in the role and take them seriously. But Roger Craig Smith (Resident Evil's Chris Redfield, Assassin Creed's Ezio, and Sonic the Hedgehog) does a fantastic job at sounding like a younger, angrier, and rawer version of the same Batman. Perhaps more shocking is Troy Baker's (Joel, The Last of Us; Booker DeWitt, Bioshock Infinite) turn as an absolutely dead-on impersonation of Mark Hamill's iconic vocal performance of The Joker.
If there's one problem Arkham Origins might face that I can see from this viewing, it's that continuity-wise, Batman may be a little too good, with better tools, in this earlier adventure. Fans wanting to play through chronologically may find themselves wondering where "those wonderful toys" he had earlier in his career went, if they go back and play the other games after.
Batman: Arkham Origins releases worldwide on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii U on October 25, 2013. Having been such a fan of Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition for Wii U, I know what platform I most excited to play it on.