Published Dec 17, 2013Gaming sequels generally don't have the baggage of film sequels because so much of the initial game is focused on building worlds, developing game engines, conceiving art direction, laying out levels and various other design issues. Sequels, having gotten all that dev leg work out of the way, can then put more focus on deepening the narrative and tweaking the gameplay even if they lose the initial element of surprise. Think of the leap from, say, Arkham Asylum to the bigger, better Arkham City.
That said, many do bottom out when the publisher ditches the original developer for whatever reason. Bioshock, for instance, was an instant classic while its sequel, by a separate studio, was fine enough but ultimately failed to truly gasp what made the original game so special. It won't be remembered with reverence, if at all.
This was the fear of the third Arkham game, thanks to the departure of beloved British studio Rocksteady and the franchise's resident DC Comics scribe Paul Dini, a legend amongst Bat fans thanks to his work on the beloved '90s Batman animated series.
For Arkham Origins, WB Montreal took the reins and smartly made it a prequel, allowing them to re-calibrate rather than trying to maintain the momentum between Aslyum and City. Rewinding back to the second year of Batman's career, he's still mostly an urban legend finding his wings rather than the Dark Knight we've been playing. Gordon is a captain, the actual police commissioner is corrupt (as is much of the force) and Batman's still used to fighting gangsters and thugs, not supervillains.
The world is actually bigger than the previous two games combined, including the island neighbourhood we know as Arkham City. not yet turned into an open-air prison. But the game doesn't feel bigger — and not just because it all occurs on one un-merry Christmas Eve as a crime boss named Black Mask puts a bounty on Bat's head, bringing in a host of costumed criminals looking to get real paid. Others, meanwhile, use the deadly distraction to launch crime sprees.
While many are d-list supervillains, some high-end Big Bads are brought in — including Bane, Penguin and, most effectively, the Joker, who meets his arch-nemesis for the first time. Ultimately the Origins in the title is about Batman's rogues gallery rather than himself.
If they had played it a little less safe, Origins could have made itself more of a Year Two game, perhaps with a blue costume and a more noticeably younger, thinner and less powerful Batman. There's a great plot twist mid-game, but otherwise the story seems somewhat unfocused, despite its one-night-in-Gotham conceit.
But the biggest problem with Arkham Origins is not a bad one to have — it's not able to transcend the high bar set by the first two games, but those games are classics. This one is pretty good, just not as good as those and not different enough to avoid comparisons. Perhaps next time they'll ditch the Arkham title altogether and aim their own bat signal at the sky. Might I suggest adapting No Man's Land?