It’s Christmas, and Batman has a bounty put on his head

After the success of Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum, we’ve been seeing a new game featuring the Dark Knight every two years. Arkham City arrived in 2011, opening up the relatively closed world of Asylum, and with Arkham Origins (developed by Warner Bros. Games Montreal), we get a sneak peek at the humble beginnings of Batman and his nemeses. Origins features an open world as well — in fact, it feels like the world is much larger this time around (players have been given tools to expedite traversing through it, thankfully), and while a trip to Batman’s past is certainly welcome, one can’t help but wonder if the new devs simply ran out of ideas.

The events of Arkham Origins takes place several years before those of Arkham Asylum. We’re introduced to a young and slightly reckless Batman (voiced this time around by a grittier-sounding Roger Craig Smith) who has yet to prove himself to his enemies, the police (who are still not convinced of his allegiances) or Alfred, for that matter. What’s more, he’s got a $50 million bounty put on his head by Black Mask. The ‘origins’ setting allows for some interesting situations — stealthy infiltration of a police station filled with cops, skirmishes with the odd combination of police and underworld henchmen, but more interestingly, the mystery of Batman. Since our hero is still only a legend, you can sense fear in the voices of enemies when they see his shadow (the game’s lighting engine does a great job of showcasing Batman’s iconic silhouette) or before he starts throwing his first punch — of course, this doesn’t stop them from engaging him, because that would just make for a boring action game if they didn’t.

The Rogues Gallery features some nice villains this time around, including Penguin, Deathstroke, Deadshot, Bane, Firefly, Copperhead, Electrocutioner, Enigma, Shiva and Killer Croc, as well as Joker (voiced by Troy Baker of The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite fame). Despite the casting changes, most of the voice acting is top draw stuff, except, strangely for Nolan North (Penguin), whose English accent is more miss than hit. Baker, in particular, has done a great job, having taken over the reins from Mark Hamill. Players will get their chance to take each of the rogues down, sometimes in style — the Deathstroke fight is a highlight.

Arkham Origins serves as foreplay for the future relationships between Batman, his enemies, and his allies. Over the course of the first couple of hours of gameplay, you’ll see him transition from his brawn-over-brains approach to earning his detective badge. He will also realise that he needs friends — yes, we’ve seen this done and redone a hundred times, but the forging of the relationship with James Gordon is something that we haven’t seen handled well in a game before. The rawness of Batman’s abilities is captured through the slightly tweaked FreeFlow combat system. It is far less forgiving than in Arkham City, with counter attacks, in particular, having undergone a huge nerf — timing is more crucial than ever, plus you’ll find enemies interrupting Batman’s attack animation, constantly stifling progress in a fight. The Dark Knight seems to move more sluggishly as well — I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it seems to fit the theme of the game.

Detective Vision is back (as are a variety of Bats’ gadgets) — there are elaborate crime scenes now and your abilities to solve puzzles in first person will be called upon. The character progression system allows you to boost the power of your gear as well as upgrade close combat and stealth skills after earning enough XP. Completing special challenges will unlock some abilities earlier. There is a good separation of stealth set-pieces (more enemies and hostages) and action sections (more enemy types), and as a result, there’s always an opportunity to use a particular gadget or skill — plus, you get bonus XP and a higher combat score for using gadgets in a fight.

While the game looks very similar to its predecessors on console, Arkham Origins on PC is something else entirely. If you’ve got an Nvidia-powered rig, you will be able to take advantage of the game’s incredible PhysX effects — the sheer number of on-screen particles separates the PC version from the others. The newly added APEX Turbulence effects realistically simulate the behaviour of snow (the game is set during Christmas so there’s a lot of it), steam, smoke and fog. Tessellation makes everything from Batman’s cape to snow look much nicer, while HBAO+ (which we saw in Splinter Cell: Blacklist earlier this year), creates realistic shadows around objects.

There’s nothing wrong with Arkham Origins other than the fact that it’s more of the same. If you liked the previous games, you’ll enjoy this as well. If you weren’t a fan of the open world in Arkham City, you will not like Origins’ Gotham either (the fast travel system requires more work than it’s worth to use effectively), while the multiplayer is more of a novelty than a time-sink, but you already knew that.

Batman: Arkham Origins is available on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.