It's Christmas Eve in Gotham City -- not the merriest time to be Bruce Wayne. For one thing, he's probably had enough of the "Jingle bells, Batman smells" carolers.
This year, he's having a particularly blue Christmas, for the nefarious crime boss Black Mask has put a $50 million bounty on his head. Perhaps Bruce should take Alfred's advice and stay home roasting chestnuts? Not when he's got a list and everyone on it is naughty. It's a rogues gallery of DC Comics villains, from the familiar (The Penguin, Bane) to the ridiculous (Mad Hatter, Calendar Man). And yes, word has it there's a pesky new troublemaker called The Joker on the streets.
"Batman: Arkham Origins" (for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC, $59.99) is the third installment in Warner Bros.' Arkham series, a grim take on the character similar to Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" films. WB has made some substantial behind-the-scenes changes, bringing in new writers, new voiceover talent and, most significantly, a new development team. But fans of the earlier games, particularly 2011's "Arkham City," will be happy to discover that this new chapter retains much of their smooth gameplay.
Without even digging into the main story line, it's just flat-out fun to spread Batman's wings and soar around Gotham, breaking out the Batclaw whenever you want to climb to the top of the skyscraper. Even on Christmas Eve, there are gangs of miscreants roaming the streets, so there are plenty of opportunities to practice Batman's acrobatic fisticuffs on lesser foes before taking on monsters like Killer Croc. Gotham's interior spaces house more challenging set pieces that require a stealthier approach; instead of jumping into the fray, it's wiser to hang from the rafters and pick off enemies one by one.
Meanwhile, there are scores of "extortion files" hidden all over the city, many of which are blocked by head-scratching puzzles. And there are a handful of murder mysteries to solve using a clever mechanism that allows Bruce to digitally reconstruct crime scenes. It took me about 12 hours to conquer the game's core campaign, but I could easily spend dozens more searching for everything "Origins" has to offer.
The supervillains themselves serve up some genuinely satisfying boss battles that are much more imaginative than your generic "beat on the enemy until he cries uncle" fare. By game's end, you'll need every tool in Batman's utility belt -- even the preposterous-sounding "glue grenade."
The action is lively and varied enough to overcome a nagging feeling of familiarity; three games in, it's probably impossible to recapture the freshness of 2009's "Arkham Asylum." And as much as everyone loves the Joker, how many times do we need to go over the roots of his folie a deux with Batman? Perhaps there's someone out there who hasn't read the comics or seen the movies, but there's a sequence about two-thirds of the way through "Origins" that had me rolling my eyes and moaning, "This again?"
"Origins" is at its most interesting, curiously, when the Joker is offstage. One extended battle against the airborne bomb-thrower Firefly is particularly thrilling. WB's Montreal studio has done an admirable job taking the reins from "Asylum" creator Rocksteady, proving there's still life in the franchise. Next time, I'd like to see them take more risks. Three stars out of four.