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'Batman: Arkham Origins' is good, but very familiar

The fights with folks like Deathstroke in Arkham Origins have a boss-battle feel previous installments didn’t necessarily have. The rest of the game is more of the same in the series — for better or worse.

Warner Bros. Interactive

The fights with folks like Deathstroke in Arkham Origins have a boss-battle feel previous installments didn’t necessarily have. The rest of the game is more of the same in the series — for better or worse.

There's good news and bad news about Batman: Arkham Origins (Oct. 25). The good news is that it fits right in with previous installments Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. The bad news is that it fits right in with previous installments Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

This kind of thing usually happens when a new developer takes on a successful franchise. WB Games Montreal was tasked with one of the most difficult missions in software development: making a sequel that feels almost exactly like the original without being almost exactly like the original. Taking the reins from Rocksteady Studios, which set the bar sky-high in 2009 and 2011, WB Montreal succeeds with the former, but fails with the latter.

Not that it's a bad thing. The best parts of the Arkham series — the combat, the gadgets, the puzzles, the exhaustive dramatization of the DC Comics catalog of characters — is such a fanboy festival that it's hard to say it's bad. It's just not all that groundbreaking.

There's a nifty crime scene investigation mechanic that is underused and mostly superfluous, and we get to meet a host of villains not yet shown, but that's where the fun stuff ends. The rest is simply playing a retread of the prior two titles.

The most recent tentpole example of this problem is 2012's Halo 4, which was the first FPS Halo title by Microsoft Game Studios' 343 Industries after series creator Bungie closed the book on its involvement in the saga. Halo 4 played out almost exactly the same way Arkham Origins does: The game was good, and worth the money, but relied on tired mechanics and cheap upgrades like new weapons and enemies. There's no risk-taking there, and it shows. Both Halo 4 and Origins play like mere derivatives of the originals, refining the theme without expanding upon it.

This is most obvious in the Origins open world, which is old Gotham City before it was turned into Arkham City. There are some new sections to explore, but the playing field feels like a cop-out, simply reusing the bulk of its architecture from the 2011 installment. This is forgivable, considering it would have been worse if Gotham had been presented in a completely restructured way, but it seems lazy when you can see the Wayne Enterprises building across the way in new Gotham, but can't travel there.

That's not to say WB Montreal did a bad job, but it would be better to see them experiment with formulas, locations and experiences a bit. Call of Duty managed to do this quite successfully. Former developer Infinity Ward built a successful Modern Warfare franchise, while Treyarch was allowed to mine events from the past, such as the Pacific theater in World at War and countless CIA incursions in the Black Ops series.

Command & Conquer has undergone similar juggling, and even the developer of this week's Battlefield 4, DICE, has farmed out installments of that long-running series. There's been varying degrees of success in all cases, and in the long run, WB Montreal did just fine, but the franchise titles that have always stood out are the ones who tried something new. Command & Conquer, for example, made a series arguably more popular than the original when it threw in a goofy time-travel plot hook, reworked its vehicles and created Red Alert.

Changing everything about a beloved series is not necessarily a good thing, but changing nothing is always a bad thing. If Capcom hadn't changed development staff between Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Resident Evil 4 (with Code: Veronica as practice), we wouldn't have evolved from the original's clunky, stilted controls to the over-the-shoulder shooter, which is now a staple of video games.

Warner Bros. Interactive should really think about that the next time they take on the Dark Knight.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

'Batman: Arkham Origins' is good, but very familiar 10/30/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 31, 2013 2:30pm]
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