I got around to playing Batman: Arkham Origins. Gameplay wise, it pretty much is what I expected it to be, which is an expansion pack of Arkham City rather than a true sequel. WB Montreal took a 'don't fix what isn't broke' approach so the exploration, combat, and mission structures are identical to Arkham City with very minor, if not merely superficial, tweaks here and there.
You get more hallucination missions, boss fights with giant enemies susceptible to cape stuns, running around like an idiot collecting trophies for Riddler, ninja ambushes, and detective missions where you just scan highlighted objects in specific sequences. If you liked these things in Asylum or City, you'll probably like them here. If you didn't, Origins won't change your mind because it's not trying to change anything.
I know WB Montreal boasted about expanding the size of Gotham City by a third from the previous game, but I can't say they made the setting feel bigger so much as they merely stretched out what was already there. And Gotham actually feels less interesting to explore this time out. Unlike in City where it was really easy to know where you were at all times based on the surroundings and landmarks, I found myself opening up the map very regularly in Origins since all the building and streets looked identical covered in snow. The implementation of fast travel was a welcome and necessary mercy.
The only thing that truly surprised and really impressed me was how engaging the story was.
Without Paul Dini on script writing duties I was expecting the plot and characterizations to be notch bellow Asylum and City, but I can now say without reservation that Origins has the tightest and satisfying storyarc of the three installments. There's a much clearer and well-fined focus on character development, thanks to the nature of its premise.
Whereas Asylum and City dropped us into arguably more challenging and exotic scenarios as Batman, everything about the characters and settings were already well defined and locked in. And since Batman is already full-on Batman by that point, there isn't much room for him to change. In general, both Asylum and City were about exploring who Bruce had already become, and his superhuman ability to remain heroic and not compromise who he is, even in the face of all the evil and calamity regularly thrown his way.
Origins, being set in the earlier days of Bruce Wayne's career as Batman has much more latitude for character evolution. This is a Batman who's already mastered being a vigilante, but hasn't yet realized the power of heroic inspiration (at least outside of inspiring fear), or that human connection isn't a liability, but a strength that will make him even more formidable in the years to come.
Even the Joker gets a bit of development as well. Truthfully, I had no idea he was going to be the main villain of this game again since I missed out on most of the media coverage, and assumed he was just going to be secondary to Black Mask and his hired assassins.
I groaned a bit when it was revealed he was the primary villain yet again, but the angle they gave his story here, essentially a love at first sight tale with Batman, kept things just fresh enough to make most of his scenes interesting. Still, I really could go at least one whole game in the future without him in it at all (Rocksteady already has a pretty excuse to exclude him).
Anyone familiar with modern Batman comics, especially the classic Legends of the Dark Knight series, will be familiar with this type of storyarc since it's a pretty well-worn one, but that doesn't change the effectiveness of the story when it's done as well as it's done here. And the sense at the end of the game that you've watched Batman and the world around him significantly transformed from the one you started out with a dozen hours ago was more cathartic and rewarding than the finale of the previous two.