Our field report after playing the first few hours of Batman's latest adventure
There's a point early on in the third installment of Warner Brother's Batman Arkham series when our hero is unable to save someone from getting murdered. The victim is a completely corrupt menace to society, but Batman still attempts to save the man's life. Gotham City would clearly be better off if the guy were pushing up daisies, but the Caped Crusader knows that we can't just go around murdering the bad guys, or look the other way and let someone else do the dirty work. At the same time, Batman (especially in this early phase of his career) wouldn't hesitate to break your face or crush your larynx if he decided that you were a bad guy who is in the way of him doing good things. Since he's conditioned himself to peak of physical fitness, it's not a difficult task.
This multi-layered moral code is just one of many things that have made him so successful since his debut in 1939. More importantly for gamers, new developer Warner Brothers Montreal understands the character and the world he inhabits; taking over from Rocksteady was no easy task after the stellar Arkham City, but WBM proves that they can develop the over-arching story while keeping the successful gameplay model from previous installments.
In fact, if you squint your eyes, you may not be sure which Arkham game you're playing. The eternally nocturnal art style is largely the same; combat has the same chaining-combo model with the lightning bolt icons over incoming attackers; and the map, on-screen indicators, and character dossiers remain intact. The changes unfold gradually. For one, your experience point-based combat rewards you for mixing up your moves now. Throw a batarang in between punches, drop some explosive gel on someone else, do an instant takedown, dodge a blade or two, and you'll get graded higher and earn more points. That allows you to level up faster, at which time your health bar increases and you get access to new abilities.
The ability tree has also been completely redone. For one thing, you'll have the enhanced grapple right away this time; that's the one that accelerates your movement and allow you to keep gliding without touching the ground. In the last game, you had to complete a few optional challenges first, and you may never have known that the enhancement was available. This upgrade makes it much easier to get around the city, which is much bigger now. So big, in fact, that WBM introduced a fast-travel system. But the city is broken up into sections that are shielded by towers that you have to disable to get access to your Batwing in that area, so you can go anywhere you want at first. Some towers are inaccessible until you have unlocked the proper tools. A number of other abilities are carried over, and WBM introduces a few new ones, like being able to aim your smoke pellet and increase the area of its effect.
As you have probably seen from the advertisements, the game is set on Christmas Eve, about two years into Batman's career. But it does not follow the continuity of the Batman: Year One comic; some characters from there appear here but experience different outcomes, while other characters are introduced that didn't arrive until much later in the Batman canon (we're trying to avoid spoilers here, can you tell?). The usual suspects are still in place, such as Batman's butler Alfred and policeman Jim Gordon. The Batcave, however, has been unavailable in the Arkham games until now. Batman uses this new location to study evidence, train, and even modify some of his gadgets. Speaking of evidence, his "Detective Mode" has been enhanced. At certain points in the game, he can piece together a holographic re-creation of a crime scene and move its timeline back and forth to spot clues. Since Batman has long been billed by DC Comics as the world's greatest detective, it's neat to see this part of his repertoire get a deeper treatment than before.
What you probably haven't seen is what it's like to get from Point A to Point B in Gotham. Batman can still grapple-n-glide his way through, but you'll notice that Riddler trophies have been vastly reduced in number. I prefer this change, as having literally 400 of them in the last game felt excessive. This time, the objects you interact with in the open world feel more meaningful. The game will also alert you to crimes in progress nearby, which are like dynamic mini-missions. They mostly revolve around beating up thugs like usual, but they're a nice, optional way to gather up some extra experience points and to practice your moves for the more important fights.
Speaking of which, the boss fights. Arkham Asylum had a bit of a reputation for long encounters whose success relied on the careful repetition of narrow timing. This meant that you needed to do the fights several times just to familiarize yourself with the patterns and stages. Arkham City was more forgiving, perhaps too much so. But the encounters used much larger locations, giving both you and the developer more dynamic tactical options, so the relative ease wasn't disappointing. The fight with Mr. Freeze was probably the best example of the second game's approach. Arkham Origins is probably in the middle of the two previous games. The big fights are trickier now, but you can scrape through if you pay attention to the game's on-screen prompts (which you can disable if you want) and don't try to rush things. All of that variety that the game encourages you to participate in when fighting the cannon fodder thugs will also click into place when it comes time to trade blows with truly dangerous characters. You will learn not just to play like you were Batman, but to think like him too.
All of this might not fall into place if the game is ugly. But Origins builds on top of that last game's visual prowess. With a 26GB footprint on your hard drive, a game that size is usually packing a lot of high-quality textures, and that appears to be the case here. Nvidia claims it as a member of its "4K gaming" initiative for super high-resolution displays. Everyone looks more detailed than before, though you might need side-by-side comparisons for some returning characters. Nvidia GPU users get more realistic-looking PhysX effects now (Arkham City had a lot of oddly wispy trash floating around). They can also choose Nvidia's TXAA over FXAA to take care of jaggy edges. Or you can use the more standard MSAA, but it can cause a big performance hit. Everyone gets ambient occlusion, which is a pretty and dynamic shadow rendering system, and depth-of-field. Nvidia advertises their own exclusive implementations of these last two technologies as well. But bottom line, you won't mistake this for a console game, no matter which brand of video card you use.
You've probably also heard that Mark Hamill has basically retired as the voice of the Joker after 20 years. Troy Baker, who voiced the male leads in Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us -- and Robin and Two-Face in Arkham City -- takes over the role and does an excellent job. Batman is voiced this time by Roger Craig Smith, who played Ezio in the Assassin's Creed games and who, like Baker, has a long resume of cartoon and video game voice work. WBM says they chose Smith because they needed a younger-sounding Batman for this earlier story. He does fine as well, though his line readings sometimes feel too intense for the situation.
We'll need to finish the single-player campaign, test out the New Game+ mode, and delve into multiplayer before we can deliver an actual verdict, of course. But for now, I can say that fans of Rocksteady's last two Batman games should feel right at home in Origins.
At work, we tested on a Windows 8 system we built ourselves, containing a Core-i7 4960X overclocked to 4.25GHz and paired with a Radeon HD 7990, followed by a GeForce GTX 690. At home, the test rig was a Windows 8.1 system with an i5-3570K overclocked to 4.2GHz and paired with a GTX 780. The game has no built-in benchmark this time, but according to Fraps, we had no trouble maintaining 60FPS with all settings maxed out at 2560x1600. The GTX 780 was more than enough to max everything out at 1080p. In the coming days, we'd like to test out the game at a variety of performance tiers, so stay tuned for that as well.