The mythology of Batman has been so thoroughly excavated over the years in comic books, TV, films and video games that it’s difficult to get too excited about the Caped Crusader anymore.
The entertainment industry hit the final saturation point, I think, with 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” the last of director Christopher Nolan’s dark and thrilling trilogy. But that hasn’t stopped plans for a new Batman movie with Ben Affleck (!) donning the cowl.
It also hasn’t stopped the steady procession of Batman video game properties, including the new “Batman: Arkham Origins” ($59.99, rated T). Fans of the previous two titles in this series (“Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City”) will find the game satisfying and familiar. These terms aren’t mutually exclusive, though some will argue that they should be.
I don’t mind a little familiarity, or even a lot, when a game series is as fun as this one is. The story of “Origins,” as you may have deduced, serves as a prequel to the other games. It’s not quite an origin story, but rather picks up the action several years before “Asylum,” when Batman was just starting his crime-fighting career.
Less a legend than a rumor around Gotham, Batman has nevertheless earned the enmity of crime boss Black Mask, who dispatches a team of legendary assassins to take down our vigilante hero. An effective early scene runs down the dossiers of the villains – Bane, Copperhead, Deadshot, Firefly. The Joker and The Penguin get involved later, as well, and a sense of dread builds. Batman is going to have some long, hard nights.
This is where the familiarity kicks in, as “Origins” brings back the previous games’ core combat scheme of third-person beat-em-up action. The endless free-flow fighting is broken up by regular stealth missions and puzzle solving. Also back are Batman’s array of BatGadgets, and the occasional opportunity to do some actual detective work.
As with the previous games, I found the hand-to-hand combat sequences get old fast, particularly the relentless goon fights. I much prefer Batman in stealthy predator mode, when he sneaks up on villains and/or quietly neutralizes them from a distance.
You can bend the game in this direction to a degree, but you’ll eventually be cracking knuckles on street thugs regardless. Boss fights require different strategies depending on the opponent, and those can be particularly challenging.
The game also boasts a bigger open world arena within Gotham City, which is good for free-form messing around, like gliding off rooftops, disrupting random crimes-in-progress, or completing a series of side quests.
With the new online multiplayer mode – first in the series – you can return to Gotham’s mean streets as Batman or Robin, or take the role of various villains and underlings. Competitive and co-op options are available, and you can tweak gameplay settings to set up specific scenarios and environments.
This new Batman initiative is a cross-format assault: The powers that be have also issued companion games on other platforms. “Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate” continues the console storyline for handheld PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS. A free-to-play mobile game has also been released for iOS.
On balance, veterans of the Arkham series will find “Origins” a worthwhile investment, particularly those wanting multiplayer options.
I kind of like having old Bats in this new incarnation of earnest crimefighter, and the story elements here are quite intriguing. There’s still some life in the Batman franchise yet.
New this week
The PlayStation 4 console goes on sale Friday, with a metric ton of new launch titles. The competing Xbox One comes next week. Watch this space for details.