Batman has a long history of escaping from some of the deadliest, most elaborate traps a brilliant criminal mind can devise. In his bat-utility belt is a gadget to get him out of nearly any predicament. But in Batman: Arkham Origins, there's one trap Batman can't escape from: the trap of expectations. By now, there are two things that define action in the Arkham series: rhythmic, free-flow combat and stealthy predator rooms. Arkham Origins has those elements in spades. But it doles them out in a straightforward, predictable fashion that lacks the inspiration of the earlier Arkham games.
The most noteworthy difference between Arkham Origins and its predecessors is a significantly larger open world. But that larger world has little meaning when the things you're doing in it are the same things the smaller world of the previous game accommodated perfectly well. Grappling up to rooftops and gliding through the air still feel great, but they don't feel any better here just because you have more rooftops to leap from. And there are side quests that have you doing things like racing to and fro to disarm bombs set by Anarky, which is much like racing to answer Zsasz's ringing phones in Arkham City.
The city is bigger just for the sake of being bigger, and while these side quests make interesting use of characters--Anarky's willingness to go to any length to liberate the downtrodden from the oppression of the rich and powerful makes him a fascinating figure, for instance, and the game gives him his due--the things you're doing are exactly the same as the things the previous game had you doing in its open world. Even the crimes in progress, events you can choose to respond to or ignore that come up on the police radio, aren't a chance to protect hapless citizens of Gotham from criminal elements, but just to fight more groups of thugs, something you do plenty of anyway.
Free-flow combat is unchanged from earlier Arkham games, aside from the fact that there are a few new enemy types in the mix, most notably a martial artist who has an attack you need to counter twice rather than once. The animations are still excellent, and getting into a rhythm where you're dishing out punishment while perfectly countering every enemy attack still feels good, but it also feels exactly the same as ever. At a certain point in the game, you acquire shock gloves that make your punches more powerful, but this doesn't prevent punching dudes in the face from feeling routine.
Predator rooms are also what you'd expect them to be, no less and no more. Of course it's still satisfying to sneak up on a goon and take him down silently, or to be perched on a gargoyle, waiting for a clueless criminal to walk right under you so you can do an inverted takedown. But it's also starting to feel rote. By this point, the mechanics governing these systems have become apparent, the process of sneaking up on enemies or of countering attacks overly familiar. You and Batman and the game he's in are all just going through the motions.
Arkham City built on Arkham Asylum by putting the mechanics in an exciting new context. Arkham Origins lifts them from City and puts them in the same context again, complete with all the same sorts of environmental problem-solving. You still toss grenades into water to form makeshift rafts (glue grenades here, not ice grenades!) and use the batclaw to pull yourself around. You still power up fuse boxes by guiding remote-controlled batarangs through fields of electricity. The occasional encounter with something fresh and exciting could have gone a long way toward making Origins' reliance on these familiar mechanics welcoming. But because nearly everything you do is a straight, wholly unsurprising replication of something you do in the earlier Arkham games, welcome familiarity gives way to an inescapable feeling of predictability.
There is one new mechanic in Origins: a significantly overhauled case file system. As someone who has always been fascinated by the detective facet of Batman's character, I had high hopes that this would make investigating crime scenes an involving process that would test my intellect. Unfortunately, it doesn't. You scan evidence to reconstruct the events of a crime and have to scrub back and forth through the reconstruction to track down more evidence to scan. There's some CSI: Gotham City entertainment value in watching the pieces of the reconstructed crime come together, but your role in the process is minimal.
In the absence of new elements, the tried-and-true free-flow combat and predator mechanics feel routine rather than inspired.
The one area in which Batman: Arkham Origins delivers occasional flashes of inspiration is in its story, which establishes where Batman's adversarial relationships with the criminals who loom large in the Arkham games began, and how he forged an uneasy alliance with James Gordon, a good cop in a police force plagued by corruption. It dabbles in questions about whether Batman's presence only ends up fueling the fires of criminal activity in Gotham, and in its best and most genuinely surprising moments, explores how Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. As Batman, new voice actor Roger Craig Smith is a bit flat, but as the Joker, Troy Baker fills Mark Hamill's clown shoes admirably.
Batman's eventful Christmas Eve begins, however, with a less outlandish criminal. The organized crime lord Black Mask, tired of the pressure Batman has been putting on his operations for the past few years, puts a bounty on Batman's head, calling eight world-class assassins to Gotham, including the muscle-bound Bane, the poisonous Copperhead, and the efficient Deathstroke. Boss fights with these and other characters have an elevated sense of drama because of the personalities involved, but mechanically, they aren't much different from fights with other enemies. Defeating Deathstroke requires good countering. Against Bane, you use stuns and beatdowns. And so on.
Batman: Arkham Origins also includes a competitive multiplayer mode in which eight players are split into three teams: Bane's thugs, Joker's henchmen, and the dynamic duo. The Bane and Joker teams aim to eliminate each other, while Batman and Robin strive to take out enough criminals from either side to disrupt their operations. This unusual structure has potential; as a criminal, the need to be vigilant against heroes swooping out of the shadows while also trying to pick off opposing criminals should keep you on edge. But in practice, it all feels sloppy. Weapon accuracy is all over the place, and being able to sprint only a very short distance makes criminals feel weak and inept. Meanwhile, as the heroes, combat lacks the rhythm and impact that makes it empowering in single-player, and you go down so quickly to enemy attacks that you feel more like a Gotham City impostor than a real hero.
Batman: Arkham Origins is a deeply predictable game. It gives you exactly what you'd expect in another Arkham game, without doing anything to push the series forward. In the absence of new elements, the tried-and-true free-flow combat and predator mechanics feel routine rather than inspired. Origins is worth experiencing for the way it sets the stage for the events of the other Arkham games, but it also resides squarely in their shadows.