Video games and comic book superheroes ought to be an irresistible combination. Instead, comics and games have gotten along about as well as Superman and Kryptonite.
The greatest exceptions to this rule are Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, developed by a London studio known as Rocksteady and published by Warner Bros. In Batman lore, Arkham is a psychiatric hospital for supervillains like the Joker that is named in honor of a fictional city in the work of H.P. Lovecraft. These games made players feel as if they had become the Batman of Christopher Nolan's movies and Frank Miller's comics.
Batman: Arkham Origins, the third and newest installment, repeats this trick in a Gotham that's bigger than ever. The Dark Knight glides from rooftop to rooftop, using his Batclaw to grapple and fling himself higher and farther. He drops into alleys to brawl with criminals in fights that are rhythmic and brutal, with the snap of bone or the scattering of teeth. He lurks atop gargoyles, descending to sneak behind his enemies for sleeper holds. He wields an array of wonderful toys — Batarangs, explosive gel, smoke pellets, electric gloves, glue grenades — and the game grades players on how varied and how well they are deployed, a nudge to discourage the overuse of the duller, more direct Batfist.
Is it ungenerous to respond to this largess by asking: Is that all there is?
You would think a game called Arkham Origins would be interested in the psychology of its main character, but Batman here is all muscle, no meaning. The game is a prequel to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but the story looks at how Batman first encountered some of his notable allies and nemeses, not how he invented himself. There is a head-fake premise about a $50 million ransom on Batman's head on Christmas Eve that ends up as a ruse to justify the reintroduction of the Joker and the (OK, evocative) playing of Greensleeves and Carol of the Bells while Batman dukes it out with his foes.
But Arkham Origins never makes us understand why the trust-fund orphan Bruce Wayne became Batman, how this seemed like a reasonable decision. Sure, the game explains what happened, in ritual genuflections at the altar of his parents' murder on the city streets. But we never feel his motivation, viscerally, thrillingly, the way we feel the flight of the Bat in the night.
Arkham Origins, developed by Warner Bros. Games Montreal, is at minimum a continuation and in some ways a refinement of the work done by Rocksteady in Arkham City. Among the improvements, there is now a somewhat coherent explanation for why Batman is tediously tracking down a bunch of stuff locked away behind puzzles devised by the Riddler. Mark Hamill is no longer the Joker, a role he had played since 1992 in Batman: The Animated Series and continued through the first two Arkham games, but Troy Baker's performance is an effective channeling of Hamill's beloved interpretation without descending into mimicry.
After two Arkham games that leapt in a single bound over player expectations for the superhero video game, however, the ability of Arkham Origins to run in place feels, perhaps unfairly, like a step backward.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
'Batman: Arkham Origins'
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montreal
Publisher: Warner Bros.
ESRB rating: T