"Happy Birthday, you've got cancer."
Ben Mattes, senior producer of Batman: Arkham Origins uses a rather grim analogy to describe the ideology at the core of WB Montreal's prequel, but it's very apt. The Joker would be proud.
Set prior to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Origins is placed in year two of Batman's career. The ingredients needed for Bruce Wayne to become the master crime fighter we know from Rocksteady's games are in the mould, all that's left is for him to be forged in fire.
Lighting the flame is Black Mask, a supervillain who places a bounty on Batman's head, thus attracting DC Comics' deadliest assassins to Gotham City.
The events of Arkham Origins take place on, of all days, Christmas Eve. Why? Mattes explains by once again channelling his inner Joker, humming Ferrante & Teicher's Sleigh Ride and then suddenly, furiously, and repeatedly plunging an imaginary knife into a make-believe person sat next to us.
"It was entirely based off the desire to create an emotionally resonant tapestry that we could draw from," he says, regaining his composure.
"Paris at Christmas time is a very elegant pairing; one of the most beautiful cities in the world at one of the most wonderful times of the year. You can imagine walking down Champs-Élysées with that light snowfall, people are singing carols and it's happiness, happiness, happiness.
"Now take Christmas and put it in Gotham and you get that wonderful black-on-white dichotomy. There's something off about it, it's a mix of something joyous and horrifically awful at the same time. It creates a backdrop just disconcerting enough to give us emotional leverage and strings to pull when creating memorable scenes and encounters."
Whether the festive setting proves effective for emotional manipulation and set pieces is yet to be seen, but South Gotham certainly feels like a cold and menacing place. Dive-bombing from rooftops, grapple-launching and swooping beneath bridges, the colorful christmas lights and pristine snow look to be at odds with the dirty industrial architecture and distinctly not-in-the-holiday-spirit chatter of nogoodnicks patrolling the streets.
Arkham Origins doesn't make the evolutionary step the series took from Asylum to City and as a result feels familiar in many ways. Although the next logical stage of evolution is to depict a more lifelike Gotham City with bustling crowds, cars on roads and other typical city sim touches, WB Montreal is very much aware of its limits.
"Technically, we are what we are: a current-gen game" says Mattes, "we're not going to invest tonnes of resources to crowd and vehicle simulations at the expense of other stuff.
"While we want to remind the player that, moments ago, there were vehicles being used, people shopping, stores have now closed and citizens have been driven off the streets. This isn't a prison camp, it's a vibrant city in critical chaos"
The signs of normalcy are there; abandoned cars, footprints in the snow and more subtle touches, but for the most part it's Bats and the bad guys, which fits into the game's fiction conveniently.
"It's late, which is helpful because Batman is not cool during the day; it's Christmas Eve so people are at home; and there's a crime wave that is tearing through the city and driving people off the streets. The people that are still on the streets are there for a reason, they tie into the core challenge of the night."
More than a few innocent Gothamites didn't make it out in time and are at the mercy of the gangs that have invaded the city. Amongst the emergent activities available when exploring are crime-in-progress missions, delivered directly to Batman's earpiece by Alfred. Some, are as simple as as rescuing someone by beating up a group of run-of-the-mill thugs, while others will require Batman to foil more elaborate crimes like robberies, going toe-to-toe with advanced enemy types.
During another mission we came upon a bomb set up by Anarky, an anti-establishment troublemaker that, although not a direct threat to Batman, has a habit of inflicting extreme civil unrest and property damage. Following cables from a van loaded with weapons of destruction, we discover a stash of bombs on a rooftop. However, to disable them we have to first dispatch a new type of martial artist thug.
"Christmas in Gotham...There's something off about it, it's a mix of something joyous and horrifically awful"
Unlike other enemies, martial artists have the ability to counter Batman's attacks, making them a little trickier to deal with. Fortunately, Batman can snuff their counters his own counter-counter. It may sound a little confusing, but in practise it's a game of volleying attacks back and forth until the first person mistimes a counter. This is more challenging than you'd imagine when you've got three enemies them surrounding you.
Origins' similarities to Arkham Asylum also means the nuts-and-bolts of the game aren't too different. However, what the game tries to do is give players a better understanding of how the mechanics work and make them more proficient in using them. According to Mattes, a surprising number of Asylum and City players aren't aware of how deep the combat is in this series.
"It's players like you that probably understand the role of quick-fire gadgets, focus mode, combo takedowns, multi-ground takedowns, disarm and destroys, that are getting up there to the 50, 60, 70 hit combos, racking up diversity multipliers, but you're definitely in the minority," he said.
"A lot of people button-mashed their way through the first two games, having no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. They only have a cursory appreciation for the depth of these systems, imagine how they'd feel if they fully appreciated how rich the systems are."
Although returning to the formative years is definitely a tough sell to fans wanting to see where the series goes after the shocking conclusion of Arkham City, the rewind also creates some interesting opportunities to tie Batman's maturation into character progression mechanics.
"We've invested significantly in creating tools and support systems to help make sure that, ideally, every player is getting that black belt in being Batman. In the process of playing the game they'll evolve their abilities, understand the depths of the free-flow combat system and develop in lock-step with Batman's progression."
Amongst these tools is the option to summon Batwing (sorry, you can't pilot it) and return the Batcave to sharpen skills, hone strategies and experiment with new gadgets.
Batman's training gymnasium gives him access to all of the challenge maps unlocked throughout the game, in addition to a suite of instructional gauntlets. This is the game equivalent of a training montage employed in the films, and completing each stage is rewarded with experience points used for upgrades.
"Let's say there's a ten-point scale for Batman's ability, in year one he's at one and by the end of Arkham City, which by our chronology is year nine, he's a ten; absolutely mastered everything, he's super calm and controlled. We wanted to start at around a five.
"From a player point-of-view we saw an opportunity for an elegant pairing up between the evolution of Batman from a decent ability set to an advance set, and the players, some which have come from Arkham City, will begin the experience with a certain handle over how to fight, but a surprising number of whom have never truly experienced the depth of the systems.
"That growth is a growth of character that we feel totally legitimate in claiming is the turning point in becoming the Dark Knight. Before this night he was more or less was obsessed with vengeance, but after this night he learns he has to become more if he's going to become the hero we know from Asylum and beyond."
"Before this night he was more or less was obsessed with vengeance, but after this night he learns he has to become more"
But Batman's transformation into the Dark Knight that Gotham City needs is about more than just how well he can punch thugs or how accurate he is with his grappling hook. It's also how his relationship with allies define him and how the threats posed by his enemies shape him. As a result, Origins places more of a focus on the supporting cast of characters.
Since the game takes place prior to the establishment of the Bat-family, the likes of Robin and Oracle won't be making an appearance, but more of a spotlight will be placed on Alfred, who in previous games was given the just the odd throwaway line or two.
"When all you have is a hammer, every problem is going to look like a nail. Batman is going to have to change that world view, you cannot solve every problem by punching it until it stops causing you a problem," Mattes explains.
"He's going to have to recognise the world view he's had that took him through those first few years when all he was fighting was organised crime and thugs is not going to be sufficient to take him through the challenges he's going to face on this night."
Batman is characterised in Arkham Origins as a brasher, impulsive character. He's less refined and almost careless in the manner he conducts himself, not at all like the surgical master strategist he goes on to become.
At first this becomes evident in the way he fights. His stance is aggressive, looking almost undefended to invite enemies to take a shot. His counters pack much more vicious bite to them and even his gadgets seem designed to maximise damage. The Remote Claw, for example, can be attached to two enemies to send them crashing into each other, or to explosive barrels for something a little more devastating.
But his rough edges also manifest in his interactions with other characters. Prior to embarking on a mission to infiltrate Gotham City Police Department, he's advised by Alfred to adopt a less confrontational strategy to avoid engaging with the city's civil servants, corrupt though they may be. His response is to shrug off Alfred's words of wisdom.
"The key relationships; Alfred, Gordon, others, that define the character of Batman are the parameters of his character growth on this night, driven by the catalyst which is the arrival of the assassins," Mattes says.
As the name implies, Origins is also the stage on which Batman encounters pivotal characters in the universe for the first time. Though they are destined to become friends, Batman and Jim Gordon start the game on opposing sides, and in many of the cinematics we saw Gordon is shown coordinating missions to capture Batman and put an end to his vigilante activities.
Similarly, this is the first time Batman will be running into Joker, Deathstroke, Deadshot and the other villains that want to cash in Black Mask's bounty. Mattes says the exploration of villains and their place in Batman's life will be given equal attention.
"You're not telling a story about Batman's growth if you're not exploring the role that these villains play in that. We pay a lot of attention to the narrative of some of these villains and their evolution as well. Because this is an early career story, this is a wonderful opportunity to play with the idea that these are first encounters.
"This is the first time Deathstroke and Batman have ever faced off. While Batman has some very light understanding of who this character is, to Deathstroke, Batman starts as just a mark. There's opportunity to evolve that, likewise with other characters."
"When all you have is a hammer, every problem is going to look like a nail. Batman is going to have to change that world view, you cannot solve every problem by punching it"
The battle against Deathstroke is one of the newer gameplay sections we're given the opportunity to play. It takes place in a gladiatorial arena of sorts, where the only option is to head-to-head slugfest with the assassin.
WB Montreal's approach of deconstructing Rocksteady's design extends to boss battles. Arkham City's Mr. Freeze boss battle is heralded as one of the finest examples of putting a player's knowledge of the game's systems to the test. It required players to use all the strategies and tools at their disposal to outwit their opponent. Origins takes a similar tact, instead singling out a specific aspect of the game's systems and putting players through their paces. If you haven't got a grasp of it by then, you'll learn it the hard way.
"Mr. Freeze was an inspired design, and what was so elegant about that boss fight was that it was the opportunity for players to prove to themselves as a player, the game, the universe, that they had mastered the predator sequences, you knew all the takedown opportunities, that you knew you could use gargoyles, grates, destructible environments, hide behind glass, you knew all the different opportunities to take down enemies.
"Hypothetically, from that point on, if beforehand you had always hung on rafters or gargoyles and used the glidekick, takedown zipline away strategy, that fight taught you there was much more to the system. There's a whole other wealth of tools for player expression, creativity and strategy within the predator rooms."
The Deathstroke fight in Origins was designed to test, or teach, counters. The only effective way for Batman to gain the upper hand and open Deathstroke to attacks is to nullify his own attacks. Gadgets such as the grapple claw can be used to stagger him, but this is just long enough to get in a sucker punch here and there.
Deathstroke will throw down smoke bombs and leap out of the cloud unexpectedly with overhead attacks, he'll throw explosive barrels from a distant and execute flurries that require specific timing to counter.
"Our decision to create a premise of assassins coming to town and challenging Batman to undergo this significant evolution was inspired and driven heavily bythe Mr. freeze fight," Mattes continued.
"Our entire boss fight design philosophy centres around that idea of the masterclass. For every core encounter that we have in this game, the player is tested on the mastery of some subset of the Arkham mechanic. Each assassin serves effectively as an exam that, by passing, the player is given the confidence to take the lessons learned to apply in the rest world as we layer in more challenging enemy configurations."
With Batman: Arkham Origins it's important to manage expectations. As a series that has evolved in significant, sweeping ways thus far, it's tempting to expect another leap in design from this third entry. But that just isn't the case.
Instead Origins looks to be taking what made Arkham City an exemplary open-world action game and re-presenting it in a deft way. It's handling of an origin story creates some interesting propositions, most notably the idea of a more human, fallible Batman, which is definitely exciting for fans of the caped crusader.