After an uniformly excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, Warner Bros is changing up a number of things for the newest iteration of Batman. At PAX Prime 2013, I had a chance to see Batman: Arkham Origins in progress. Creative director Eric Holmes shepherded me through a hands-off look; I didn't get to play the game, so the direct feel of this fresh-faced Batman isn't something I can relate to you. Maybe next time.
The game is still a direct continuation of what you had in Arkham City. Batman travels across Gotham City stopping crime and breaking skulls in his quest to stop his rogues gallery from their latest plot. Batman still uses his grappling hook and gliding to move around the city. Holmes is well-versed in the game; he makes Batman ziplining from building-to-building look far easier than I remember in my playthroughs.
"Gotham's a very different place. This Gotham, everything has been reborn. What Batman's facing here is organized crime," says Holmes, explaining the game's story foundation. "He's so much better than the guys he's fighting. He's confident, he's cocky. He's got that young man in his 20s sense of being bulletproof. Tonight things change. Tonight on Christmas Eve, the Black Mask - currently the number one crime lord in Gotham - places a price of $50 million Batman's head."
What strikes me in the presentation was how much is new surrounding the game. Right off the bat, the game is under new stewardship: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City developer Rocksteady is consulting on this one, but it's being developed by Warner Bros. Montreal, who worked on the Wii U version.
The game takes place two years into Batman's career, so not only is he younger, but the city is younger as well. In Arkham Asylum, you were trapped in the eponymous structure. In Arkham City, your stomping grounds were expanded into a larger area, but that area was beaten by the passage of time. The Gotham in Arkham City had lost its luster and shine.
Gotham is still 'gothic' in Origins, but that darkness also give ways to brighter colors. The demo takes place in South Gotham, which is more vertical, with majestic towers jutting up into the Gotham skyline. This feeds into the gameplay, giving you more buildings to dive off of: Holmes's Batman leaps from a particularly high structure only to land in one of the new randomly-generated crimes. These small bits can be ignored, but stopping them before gliding away really makes you feel like you're watching Batman. You'll also hear crimes-in-progress over the radio, which are deeper random encounters for players to tackle.
I also notice that Arkham Origins now grades your combat prowess after each encounter, like Devil May Cry. Better showing, better grade, more experience to upgrade your Batman.
"It's really great to be Batman out in the world," says Holmes. "but now there's a lot more reasons to be there. There's unpredictable encounters and there's more feedback as to how you're doing. There's a lot of guys out in Gotham tonight because there's a price on Batman's head. A crime-in-progress is a dynamic open-world thing. This is where the biggest, most dangerous, and most valuable XP thugs are in the world. If a player hears these, they should be attracted to them because they represent a big opportunity."
Thugs are not the only thing out in the city. Eight deadly assassins pulled from DC Comics are out and about in Gotham trying to lure Batman in. You can take down these assassins in any order, it's completely up to you. In the demo I'm seeing, Batman disarms bombs set by Anarky, takes on Firefly directly on Gotham's main bridge, and reconstructs a crime that will eventually lead to sharpshooter Deadshot.
If that "reconstructs a crime" lights up a Bat-Signal up in your head, then you win a prize. Using a new scanner mode, Batman can actually trace back crimes to find new evidence and lead you back to the culprit. A police helicopter chasing Batman goes down in flames? Investigate the wreckage, trace back the fall of the chopper, find out where the debris landed, and use those clues reach a conclusion. The whole thing plays out like the film Minority Report: Batman can see the crime being committed once he has all the available clues.
"What we're doing in Origins is we want to use the system to tell a story. We have a simulation here that you can actually play forward and backwards. We can do it at any speed we want to walk through the crime scene," says Holmes.
Want new gadgets? Batman now has the Remote Claw, which you can use to tether two objects together. This can include two thugs or even just two buildings, giving you something to zipline across. The Remote Claw being used on thugs recalls a similar feature in Just Cause 2, so I can't wait to do things like tether a criminal to the edge of a building and push him off. (That sounds sadistic as I'm writing it now.)
The demo ends with a cutscene encounter with the Joker. Here's where one of the game's biggest changes for Batman fans may be felt: Batman and the Joker are not voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, two actors deeply tied with the franchise up until now. This is noticeable in Batman: new voice actor Roger Craig Smith is a solid Batman, but you can tell that it's not Conroy. Something was just slightly off for me.
On the flipside, I would've sweared to you that Mark Hamill was still voicing the Joker. And I would've been completely wrong. This Joker is voiced instead by Troy Baker. The voice behind Final Fantasy XIII's Snow, Bioshock Infinite's Booker DeWitt, The Last of Us' Joel, and Infamous: Second Son's lead Delsin Rowe, is doing a pitch-perfect copy of Mark Hamill's Joker. It's damn impressive.
"We went through a lengthy casting process to find folks that actually sounded like younger versions of the characters played by the original actors," explains Holmes. "We're not rebooting the franchise, this is a prequel to those games, and we wanted to cast actors who'd feel familiar, but still felt fresh. One of the big themes about Arkham Origins is these characters finding out who they are. Something that really helped with those characters is that it's new to [the voice actors] too. It really helped the characters make these discoveries for the first time."
Batman: Arkham Origins makes a fresh start for the series. It's got a new developer, a bigger city to play in, new villains, new missions, and new voice actors bringing it all together. From what I've seen, Rocksteady's fine work has been passed on into worthy hands, but I'm not 100 percent sold until I can get my hands on the game.