What kind of man takes the law into his own hands, risking himself again and again for a thankless city? Not an entirely sane one, that's for sure. We're talking about a man so driven by his compulsion to dress up as a winged mammal that he adds the prefix 'Bat-' to everything he owns - a man who obsessively draws his explosive gel in the shape of his symbol, even when no one else is watching. A man so insufferably solemn, even his butler tells him to lighten the hell up - presumably while cutting his sandwiches into perfect little Batarangs. Origins takes us back to the formative years of that man, who, as it turns out, only gets by with a little help from his friends.
Origins begins with a rough overview of the events of The Long Halloween, with Julian Gregory Day - AKA Calendar Man - in prison for several high-profile murders. It's Christmas Eve in Gotham City, roughly two years into Bruce Wayne's burgeoning career as the Dark Knight. You have free reign over a wider expanse of Gotham than ever before: new areas include a ship, the Gotham City Police Department building, the Pioneer bridge, Blackgate Penitentiary and even the Batcave, while Wonder City, Park Row and Crime Alley make a reappearance from Arkham City.
The environments of Origins lack the obsessive detail of the previous Arkham games, but there's plenty to see - from boxes of Janus Cosmetics at the Sionis Steel Mill and Queen Industries crates at the shipyard, to dirty money hoarded in the air vents at the GCPD building, and the names Carmine, Falcone, Viti and Thorne written up on the briefing room chalkboard.
There are also hints at future events, joining the dots between Origins, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, such as posters outside the Gotham Theatre ("The Flying Graysons - Coming Soon!"). Most of Arkham's references are subtle enough to completely pass most casual players by, but for core fans, these touches have always been what made the series stand out.
That said, the need to create links with Rocksteady's work seems to have hurt WB Montreal's ambition a bit - the new team often settles for reprising old tricks. There are two hallucination sequences, a section where you follow a DNA trail using detective vision, a side mission in which you must destroy a number of containers carrying a dangerous substance, and a section where you drag a portable raft around with the Batclaw. While building on Rocksteady's outstanding gameplay makes sense, WB Montreal never risks trying anything different in terms of missions and structure.
What sets Origins apart, however, is its focus on the relationship between Batman and the various bad guys, and how a young Bruce, with everything to lose, finds his feet as Gotham's protector. The story owes a debt to Frank Miller's seminal comic book origin tale Batman: Year One, but also draws on narrative elements from The Killing Joke, Knightfall and even the psychology of Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, on which the original Arkham game is based. Criminal kingpin Black Mask puts a 50 million dollar hit on Batman's head for one night only, luring eight of DCU's deadliest assassins to Gotham. Other villains like Riddler, Anarky, Mad Hatter and Penguin also show up to pursue their own agendas, and you'll need to scour the map to find and confront them.
With so many villains crammed into one story, a few are unexpectedly sidelined, while more familiar ones, like the Penguin, threaten to outstay their welcome. In fact, you may not come across some of the assassins at all, unless you take the time to investigate their associated side missions. The fact that Joker plays a larger part than suspected shouldn't come as a surprise, and while Batman's arch-nemesis has had a prominent role in the previous two titles, his inclusion here doesn't feel tired. This is, in fact, the most interesting Joker portrayal yet.