It must be tough being Bruce Wayne. For the past four or five years, he's been beating the bad guys up on an almost annual basis with no sign of a break. No sooner has he finished throwing the baddies in the slammer at the end of last year's Batman: Arkham City: Armoured Edition, than there's some sort of wormhole at Warner Bros HQ, leading to the creation of this - Batman: Arkham Origins, a free-roaming, crime-fighting prequel to Arkham City that isn't quite the origin story the title may suggest.
Instead, when you first pick up the controller, you find yourself in control of a slightly more inexperienced Batman, near the start of his crime-fighting career. Far from being the new kid on the block, though, Bruce already has a wide range of technology under his belt, with a Batcave, a Bat plane (the Batwing), and an under-repair Batmobile in his repertoire - yet to the people of Gotham City, he's a man of many mysteries. Having already gained a reputation as something of a vigilante, the criminals are almost universally running scared of Batman - but the police aren't wholly convinced that you're a "good guy" yet. To them, there's a chance you could just be a criminal mastermind out to get revenge on those who've wronged him. After all, if you're a good guy, why so serious?
It's in this turbulent world that a jailbreak happens at the Blackgate Penitentiary, a high security facility where only the most dangerous - yet sane - crooks are kept. Taking the Police Commissioner hostage, a group led by the notorious (although perhaps not one of the more well known Batman villains) Black Mask make their escape, but not before letting Batman know that a bounty is now on his head. Luring in eight of the world's best assassin's, Black Mask wants Batman dead - and he's willing to pay $50 million for the privilege.
From there on in, rather than having you immediately rush off to put a stop to the evil plan, the game takes a slightly more relaxed pace, as the entirety of Arkham becomes available for you to explore. An open-world, free roaming action game like the ones that came before it, Arkham Origins is far from a revolution for the series - but it ticks all the right boxes. Playing as Batman feels every bit as cool as it should do, as you use your grappling hook to shoot yourself up to higher ground (almost any ledge, within reach, can be grappled), before leaping off the side of a building and flying (well - fall with style) in true Batman fashion.
Even if you don't touch the main storyline, there's plenty of fun to be had wandering around Arkham, too. As you're legging it over rooftops, and gliding in between buildings, you'll sometimes overhear conversations between the baddies, as they plot where to rob next, who to kill, or simply moan about having been left out in the freezing cold. Sometimes, however, there's something more sinister going down, with "Crimes in Progress" that need to be stopped. Swoop on over to the scene, following the not all that intuitive arrow, and Bats can swoop in to dish out some vigilante justice, and save the police some work.
While the crooks may be pretty tough when they're beating up a homeless guy, or tormenting a policeman, when you drop down from your vantage point, it's a different story. You may only be a young Batman, but the crooks are running scared - as they should be, as you can beat them all without raising a sweat by simply reversing everything they try to do.
The combat in Batman: Arkham Origins follows the same tried and tested format as in the previous games, with an accessible mix of button mashing that simultaneously is easy to understand, yet lets you pull off spectacular beat-downs with ease. In general, the game only really uses two buttons - one, that lets you punch and kick, and another that lets you reverse. Press the reverse button when a blue icon appears over a nearby enemy's head, and you can instantly reverse their move, even if they're standing behind you, and Batman couldn't possibly have seen them coming. Unless his Bat-sense was tingling...
Still, laying the smack well and truly down on the bad guys by pressing a few buttons is every bit as much fun as it was before, with more emphasis on timing and rhythm rather than memorising ridiculously lengthy combos. That being said, it can be a bit annoying at times, as the game has a tendency to go into slow motion when something important happens in the battle - with the awkward side-effect being that you don't have a clue whether the game's registered your button press or not, or if you've pressed it at the right time. As timing and rhythm are so important, it seems a bit daft the game messes round with it, as though it's trying to put you off.
As entertaining as dropping in on random crimes is, though, there's plenty of other things to do in Gotham City, and plenty of extras that unlock as you progress through the story. From jamming beacons that need to be found and destroyed, to the return of the Riddler's challenges (only this time, the challenges are put out by someone that calls themselves Enigma), which usually ask you to fly your remote controlled Batarang through a course to hit a switch, there's plenty of ways to solve crimes without bashing skulls together. The remote controlled Batarang is still as fiddly as ever to fly though - press a button to throw it, and your viewpoint will change to just behind the flying batarang. While you can hold the left trigger (on the Wii U) to slow things down, it's still a bit twitchy to control, so managing to navigate it down the long, narrow vents it asks you to is easier said than done. But still, it wouldn't be a challenge if it was simple, right?
Continuing with the tech theme, Batman has a range of other gadgets up his sleeve, too. Pressing the L button will bring up a fancy overlay that highlights anything that may be of interest nearby - from enemies to collectibles, and everything in between. Things of interest are usually highlighted in orange, with the game giving you a handy description of what it is you're actually looking at too, which can certainly help when it comes to figuring out how you're supposed to interact with it.
Of course, far from just being a billionaire vigilante crime fighter, Batman has a bit of a detective streak as well - but rather than putting on a deerstalker to deduce what happened, he takes a slightly more high tech approach. Pressing the L button in a crime scene will trigger Detective mode, a similar looking overlay that lets you replay exactly what happened during an event. Giving you a clue about where you should head next, or letting you find a key item that seemed to have been lost during a shootout, it's a nice addition, even if it doesn't require all that much extra thought.
But while there's nothing especially wrong with Origins, it does feel more of an expansion pack than a full on new game. It takes place in a world that's very similar to Arkham City, and there are few truly original features that make a difference to the gameplay. That said, the recent Batman games have been so good, any major changes to the gameplay would likely have made things worse. Perhaps we're just dreaming, but we can't help but wonder what Batman would be like if he took to the streets of Gotham City proper. Perhaps his Batmobile would get a look in then, too.
While it's certainly more of an incremental update than the next big revolution for the series, Batman Arkham Origins is still a lot of fun, and is well worth picking up.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U