- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2013

DC Comics’ legendary Dark Knight once again faces off against a rogue’s gallery of dangerous villains in the third-person adventure game Batman: Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated Teen, $59.99).

Taking place prior to the chaos that occurred in the games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, a player takes control of a younger and edgier Batman just two years into his heroic escapades on a snowy Christmas Eve and must survive an onslaught from famed mercenaries out to kill him.

His dilemma is the result of mob boss Black Mask placing a $50 million bounty on the compassionate vigilante’s head and it will take the combined combat and investigative skills of this burgeoning crime fighter to keep Gotham City safe and remain alive.

At this point in gaming history, the revered Arkham franchise has already set the benchmark for excellence in free-roaming superhero games and developers’ attempt to take the best of previous titles and add to it as they layout the Origins’ adventure.

That means a gorgeous and expanded Gotham City, twice the size of its previous incarnation. It’s an urban sprawl defined by decay and opulence caught in the midst of a harsh winter and more desolate than usual with the streets controlled by pockets of criminals and cops.

Batman explores and quickly navigates to locations via either a souped-up Batwing (I never grew tired of watching an animation of Batman getting into and free-falling out of the plane) or a combination of gliding using his cape and grapnel device to soar from building to building.

It also means hours of melee combat as skill points rack up to unlock more moves. Batman unleashes a variety of attacks on thugs who now included martial-arts experts, armored enforcers and minions of Bane. (Batman must break the tubes delivering the Venom steroid from the backs of these miscreants.)

The use of a free-flowing combat system has been a staple of the series, and it continues. The action highlights an agile Batman able to use his close-range combat skills (fists, feet and cape) with never a weapon required, besides an occasional Batarang.

The system allows the player to beat up packs of thugs with controlled button mashing and plays out each time as a dazzling, violent ballet.

So let’s discuss the batches of moronic minions for a minute. Batman runs into an excessive amount of them on every rooftop, sewer, street, bridge or dark alleyway that he lands in or upon. If it was not for the cinematic melee combat maneuvers, including that cinematic slow down as he delivers a knock-out blow, it could get very repetitive and, dare I say, kind of boring.

Our hero can also direct his attacks like a human sniper while perching high above landscapes. It’s a strategy that can pay off handsomely as he glides down to strike a boot to the head or snares a bad guy like Spider-Man with his Batclaw.

His Wayne Tech toys are now expanded to not only include the remote-controlled Batarang, explosive gel, Cryptographic Sequencer (to crack codes on locked doors) and smoke pellets but a remote claw (that can tether between two objects or pull them together), a disrupter (to disable weapons and other devices with a targeted electromagnetic pulse) and a shock gloves that will put enemies at an exposed disadvantage quickly.

As for heavy-duty adversaries, it’s always a dream match-up for the comic-book fan in the Arkham franchise, and early on Batman fights Deathstroke (an archenemy of the Teen Titans).

It’s an exhaustive battle for the player as he matches countless counter moves in a fight against a villain willing to use a sword, gun or explosives to kill the Bat. The fight never seems to end and is exactly what I, as a follower of DC Comics over the years, would expect from this encounter.

He’ll also run into such legends as Bane, Deadshot, Firefly, Killer Croc and Copperhead as the story progresses as well as take on sub-missions to capture escaped Blackgate prisoners, thwart the blackmailing Riddler, shut down the Penguin’s arms-dealing, save Alice from the Mad Hatter and defuse bombs set by Anarky.

I know some folks might be bummed with Batman getting stuck chasing the two-bit mobster Black Mask. Don’t fret as a certain Clown Prince of Crime does appear, brilliantly brought to life by the vocal stylings of Troy Baker with no disrespect to Mark Hamill’s fantastic interpretation of the Joker throughout the years.

It’s also worth mentioning a deeper Detective Vision mode, now also a Crime Scene analyzer. Batman can still scan areas to highlight danger and useful items. Specifically, a player directs Batman to find evidence (look for the red arrows and threads) and actually digitally assemble pieces of a crime to playback on demand revealing holograms of the victim and or assailant during the crime as he searches for other vital information.

It’s a slick simulation each time encountered, not quite a head-scratching puzzle, but more of a relaxing respite before having to beat up more thugs.

Developers also add an intriguing multiplayer element called Invisible Predator Online that is sure to tempt the Batman fanatic. Matches involve Joker and Bane’s gang (three players each) and a team composed of Batman and Robin (Dick Grayson). Yes, a controllable Joker and Bane appear during the battles.

Batman: Arkham Origins offers enough action and depth to keep a comic-book fan new to the franchise drooling for hours upon hours with its acutely faithful celebration of DC Comics’ mythology. However, Arkham game purists will find it, too often, a perfunctory gaming exercise with little innovation, but still a required adventure.

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