Batman: Arkham City set high standards for a big exploration-focused open world filled with content to uncover. Warner Bros. Games Montreal aims to embrace the model established in that earlier Rocksteady game, but plans to dramatically expand the world to have Batman explore the full breadth of Gotham City. Along with a dramatic choice for the setting in time, the game world of Arkham Origins promises to offer a mix of familiar and surprisingly new elements.

One of the big features that sets Arkham Origins apart is its midwinter Christmas setting. The game picks up on a cold and forbidding Christmas Eve night in Gotham City. Batman is not new to his crime-fighting job as the game begins, but neither is he the grizzled veteran we’ll see in later Arkham games. Up until this point in his career, he’s been fighting mostly normal criminals – mob goons and heist artists – but tonight brings a new and far more dangerous series of threats – super-villains bent on the Dark Knight’s destruction. 

The Christmas Eve setting is a purposeful juxtaposition of a normally joyful time cast in the light of the grim world of Gotham City. “It’s a really cool, happy, warm thing and then a really sad thing mixed together to make this ironic image,” explains creative director Eric Holmes. “It’s a beautiful thing in an ugly place. It adds an ironic humor to things without breaking the seriousness of the theme, which is really fun for us.” Scattered throughout the game world in the demo we saw, Christmas lights shine a pale light onto shadowy alleys. Decorative Santa statues take on a frightening tone when placed side by side with gothic gargoyles. Plazas are decked out for holiday celebrations, but they lay vacant thanks to a combination of intense cold, an awful winter storm, and escalating gang activity. Christmas in Gotham is not the stuff of happy dreams.

As Batman faces his new foes in this not-so-cheerful winter wonderland, he’ll have a far bigger world to explore than in previous Arkham games, but the entire setting is thematically tied together. The team calls Gotham City a parachronistic location – a place that seems to be dislodged from time and out of place. Many of the structures seem old and stylized, but the technology available in the world feels modern day or futuristic. “In terms of the timeline, there are aspects of 1930s all over. Like various incarnations of Batman, it’s very consistently in a 1930s style world. But Batman’s technology is clearly from the future. Batman has stuff that we don’t have today.”

[Next up: Rediscovering Old Gotham, and exploring the skyscrapers of New Gotham]