The first two games in Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment's "Batman: Arkham" series -- 2009's "Batman: Arkham Asylum" and 2011's ."Batman: Arkham City" -- can safely be qualified as "unqualified successes. Thoroughly outperforming the often-shaky track record of comic book-based video games, both titles received nearly universal critical acclaim, along with racking up impressive sales numbers.
Given that pedigree, "Batman: Arkham Origins," out later this month, in many ways seems like a sure thing. Yet it differs from its predecessors in significant ways: It was developed by Warner Bros. Games Montreal rather than Rocksteady Studios, was written by Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh with no involvement from long-time Batman scribe Paul Dini, and current "Avengers Assemble" Captain America Roger Craig Smith voices the title character, and not beloved "Batman: The Animated Series" vet Kevin Conroy.
Despite these changes, based on a demo presented to CBR News last week, "Arkham Origins" appears to hew closely to the first two games in both visuals and gameplay. The combat and basic structure look familiar, and the visual palette matches the earlier entries in the series -- though the team behind the new game still sought to explore new territory.
"There are some gadgets we removed, and some we've added," Eric Holmes, creative director Warner Bros. Games Montreal, told CBR. "We've already got a very busy control system. What we didn't want to do is add even more on top of that, and get to the point where you're just crushed by features and overwhelmed by what's there. One of the things we tried to do to deal with that is rather than adding tons of functionality to Batman, is actually add functionality to the enemies, which works well with Batman."
"Arkham Origins" takes place early in Bruce Wayne's crimefighting career -- roughly Year Two, placing it five years before "Arkham Asylum." The plot unfolds on Christmas Eve, with Black Mask putting a $50 million bounty on Batman's head.
"Batman himself is being formed by this game," said Holmes, who worked on 2005's "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction." "He's not really complete."
In "Arkham Origins," the Gotham City Police Department is fully corrupt, with the SWAT division -- led by Branden from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's comic book story "Year One" -- the worst of the lot. James Gordon is present, but not yet commissioner, and in fact one of the most unpopular cops on the force.
Both James Gordon and her daughter Barbara, depicted in "Arkham Origins" before taking on the Batgirl identity -- the character appeared in the first two games as information specialist Oracle -- are said to be major players in the game. "'Origins' is about seeing the puzzle pieces snap together," Holmes said.
In the GCPD-heavy demoed sequence (chosen, Holmes said, because the outnumbered situations "encourage the players to try to avoid the bigger conflicts of the game"), the police are shown to be hostile to the homeless, which prompts the involvement of Anarky -- a vigilante crusader from the comics making his franchise (and video game) debut with "Arkham Origins." While Anarky has yet to make his New 52 debut, the character is rising in profile in other media, with this game and his antagonist role in the animated series "Beware the Batman."
Also making their franchise debut in "Arkham Origins" are Firefly, Copperhead and corrupt commissioner Gillian B. Loeb; along with new gadgets including a concussion detonator (seen deployed to stun a crowd of cops), remote claw and shock gloves. Among those making a return to "Arkham" are famed villains The Joker, Bane The Penguin, Deadshot, Mad Hatter. Holmes told CBR that despite the wide variety of characters featured in the first two games, it was easy to find new elements to introduce from the character's nearly 75-year history at DC Comics.
"The challenge for us really was choosing what not to do," Holmes said. "There are so many characters in the Batman universe, and a lot of diversity across them. Whenever we added a new character, we had to find the resources to establish that character. The trick was choosing a mix of new blood and familiar faces."
Another new wrinkle is an increased relationship with Alfred and the still-under-construction Batcave, with players encouraged to return to the headquarters periodically. The Batcave is also heavily featured, with the ability to transport Batman quickly and easily to different venues in Gotham City.
In the demo, Alfred was shown to have frequent interactions with Batman, including scolding him for his rough handling of GCPD officers.
"We have a ton of dialogue for Alfred," Holmes said. "It's kind of quirky, because you've got this big-scale stuff happening in the world -- it's almost like a Michael Bay movie's happening over here, and then there's some Joss Whedon stuff over there in the corner. It's not quite 'Mass Effect,' but there's an element of downtime. You're going to get a richer interpersonal experience in Batman's life."
A lot of people played the first two "Arkham" games, but it sounds like Holmes would be happy to get even more folks on board with "Arkham Origins." New features like post-combat analyses are designed to give players tools to become further immersed in Batman's highly competent world.
"We definitely wanted people to get more of a sense of mastery," Holmes said. "That was a goal. One thing that both 'Asylum' and 'City,' they let people feel good at games, because Batman's powerful, and the games were quite well-structured from a balance perspective to give almost anyone a challenge, but that's catered to a vast variety of skill levels. With us, what we really wanted to do was make everyone feel like they're better, but rather than faking it by dumbing down the enemies, we're actually giving people lots of avenues to improve."
Batman: Arkham Origins is scheduled for release Oct. 25 on PlayStation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows.