By Darren Franich
October 25, 2013 at 06:03 PM EDT
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Arkham City was a near-miracle videogame. It was built like an open world but it played like a nonstop-fun arcade brawler, expansive and micro-detailed all at once: Think Grand Theft Auto pretending to be Streets of Rage. Rocksteady Studios built on the success of Arkham Asylum to make a game that ravenously attacked generations of Bat-lore. It felt like the sequel to whatever generation of Batman you grew up with — the classic comics, the animated series, the Nolan movies, the bleak Miller explorations. Like so many headline characters in contemporary pop culture, the Caped Crusader’s story will never end. Arkham City made you forget that. It felt like the last Batman videogame ever. You wondered how they could ever follow that up.

The answer is: They didn’t. At least not yet. Rocksteady Studios left the next Batman game to Warner Bros. Montreal; in turn, the studio opted to append the word “Origins” to the title, an action that already feels like a lame joke from a period piece set in 2011. And the game is not just a prequel. Batman: Arkham Origins is a victory lap over well-trodden ground. It’s bigger than Arkham City. It has slightly improved the fight mechanics that made City the perfect middle ground between strategy-fighting and button-mashing. But Arkham Origins has none of City‘s crazy ambition. It settles for reflected glory.

Origins follows City‘s one-crazy-night narrative. On Christmas Eve in Gotham City, Batman has to chase down the villainous Black Mask, who has put a kamillion-dollar bounty on Batman’s head. That means assassins are coming Batman’s way, and though the game tries hard to leverage the gang-of-assassins subplot into something exciting, it feels a bit like a bench-clearing of the rogues’ gallery. (Lady Shiva! Copperhead! Electrocutioner! The Minstrel would’ve been more threatening.) Also, Bane is there — because Dark Knight Rises — which means we are now entering our third straight decade of Bane making no sense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, every other villain you can think of is taking the opportunity to send Batman on a series of five-minute missions. For the most part, their role in the game is replayed note-for-note from Arkham City. Enigma — the Riddler-by-any-other-name — has left hundreds of findable things around the city. The Mad Hatter sends you on a hallucinogenic trip. Every few minutes, the HUD informs you that there’s a crime happening nearby. There’s a new Detective Mode which essentially requires you to go to crime scenes and try to find bright glowing dots.

The gameplay feels undernourished. Origins‘ gamespace is much bigger than City‘s, but it’s also much less memorable. Where City took place in a garish funhouse city-prison, Origins imagines the Gotham mainland as an empty shell-tropolis. (There are no innocent bystanders walking around, a curious circumstance that the game explains away whenever your radio buzzes, “Citizens of Gotham, there is a curfew in effect” — a cheap shortcut in a game filled with shortcuts.)

And when you get by the basic fight mechanics, Origins is a mess. The idea of exploring a much younger Batman could’ve been fun, but the game can’t commit to this idea. This Batman is even more well-equipped than the older version from the earlier games, a rookie-mistake prequel fallacy. Black Mask is boring, and the game throws in a twist that only serves to prove just how long a shadow the last game casts. Remember the moment in Arkham City when the game carried you underground, into the decayed utopia called Wonder City? At about the same point in Origins, you fight your way up through the floors of a hotel. The Wonder City had enthusiastically overdesigned visuals, like a Batman game that suddenly deviated into BioShock. The hotel feels like Hotel Corridor: The Videogame.

I’m worried I’m talking too much about Arkham City. (Full Disclosure: We kinda liked it.) But that’s because there’s nothing to Arkham Origins beside its relationship to Arkham City. It feels like one of those off-numeric Assassin’s Creed titles, or like this year’s disappointing Gears/God of War prequels: Same gameplay, bigger gamespace, zero soul. It might be more generous to look at Origins as a mercenary act of franchise curation, a glorified DLC. Rumors persist that Rocksteady is working on a next-gen Batman game, a true Arkham sequel. If all you’re looking for is an appetizer to tide you over, you could do worse than Origins.

But Origins could’ve done better, too. There’s a sequence several hours deep into the game that hints at what could have been. It’s too spoilery for words; suffice it to say that it involves a radical shift in perspective, viewing the Batman legend from very different eyes. It doesn’t last very long. (There are more faces that need punching.) But in the sequence, you can feel the game operating on a whole different register.

The last year has seen the release of several AAA games that take bold moves within the confines of their mega-franchise tropes. Think of Grand Theft Auto V‘s character-shifting, or BioShock Infinite‘s overpopulated world; think of Assassin’s Creed III, a game I didn’t even like very much, which nevertheless featured one of the great Act One twists in games history. Origins plays it safe. It’s a reminder of fun, a karaoke rendition. It could have been so much more; it couldn’t have been much less.

Grade: C+

(Available now on PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360, and Windows)

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