F.E.A.R. and Condemned developer Monolith takes the Batman license to a place no one thought it had any business: the online multiplayer shooter. Culling inspiration from the modern multiplayer frameworks of Call of Duty, et al, and the humorous, inventive gameplay of their own series No One Lives Forever, Monolith successfully marries Gotham lore to this seemingly incompatible genre. Seriously, it works, and they make it look easy in the process.
Gotham City Impostors (GCI) gets one fundamental principle right: match your gameplay with your theme. Not every game needs to satisfy this precept to be good (you can read my thoughts on GTA in "Critically Acclaimed Games We Hate" for a pertinent counterexample), but when a title can merge its pitch, aesthetic, and play mechanics into a cohesive whole that doesn't make the separation between concept and genre stand out, then you're dealing with something special.
The developers achieve this by setting up a wealth of gameplay possibilities and ensuring that none of them go unexplored or underdeveloped. As I wrote in my beta impressions, players are cast as residents of Gotham City, who seem to be just as psychologically disturbed as Batman and the Joker themselves. The minute the Bat-signal shorts out, they take to the streets for a bit of the old [adversarial] ultraviolence. Maybe it's something in the water, but Monolith uses the few storytelling opportunities afforded to them- mainly details in the front-end, map design, and voice-work -to sell the scenario. While the concept sounds untenable for a Batman game (how do you make one without Batman in it?), any suspicion of incongruity melts away after the first round of Team Deathmatch.
Impostors is an immensely flexible, class-based affair. Players have a solid selection of pre-set classes to use, but when things are opened up for customization, it becomes a Fibonacci sequence of slowly un-spooling possibilities. At first it seems like the options are kept on too-tight a drip, as new weapons, mods, gadgets, etc. can only be unlocked one at a time every few levels. However, this serves to slowly introduce players to the many different options they have to choose from, and keeps menu-exposure down to a matter of how interested one is in tinkering with their preferences.
Classes are allotted two weapons from any tier, with one mod apiece, as well as one support item, one gadget, two Fun Facts (read: perks), and one Rampage ability (a timed character bonus granted for kill-or-death streaks). In addition to this, players select a body-type, which governs melee power, movement speed, weapon handling, and airborne agility. Finally, once players hit level 30, they can select a Psych Profile, which challenges players to commit to a certain play-style. If players can stay within the bounds of the Profile's guidelines, such as sticking to lone wolf tactics, then they get Bonus experience points, but if not, they get penalized.
This is all before cosmetic, mascot, calling card, or Turf War customization comes into play.
Everything mentioned above contributes to an incredibly diverse multiplayer experience. Matches are capped at 6 versus 6, but it oftentimes feels like there are twice as many players in the mix. While heavies patrol the skies in glider rigs, snipers can be grappling up to hidden perches, and cloaked assassins can be tagging enemies for their teammates. During a game of Fumigation (read: Domination or Conquest), players can be lining control points with bear traps or jack-in-the-bombs, while medics skate towards tanks in need of healing. Matches are fast, gunplay is solid, and you rarely see anyone using the same build. It really does feel like a group of misfits lashing out in the pressure cooker of Gotham's storied criminal history.
If you played the beta, then you'll immediately notice a slight improvement in anti-aliasing and weapon detail. Aside from that, GCI isn't much of a looker, but it does a great job of helping players distinguish friend from foe. For an online shooter, that's paramount, and it's combined with a lot of goofy details in the maps and costume options, making for a game that's more than visually acceptable.
The sound design is also fairly good. Weapons and mixing are nothing special, but there's a lot of great voice worked involved. One liners and oddball reactions to what's taking place fly thick and fast, and GCI also shares Brutal Legend's approach to foul dialogue: bleep it, because it's just funnier that way.
GCI has easily given me my favorite game moment of 2012 so far, through a practice I've dubbed, "Batmanning." The idea is simple. Equip the glider rig, hit a thermal vent to gain altitude, watch below for enemies who use the grappling hook, and when they take off towards their target-- Dive bomb! BATMANNED! It's one of many juvenile multiplayer tactics, but it takes time to master and is balanced by the exposure of being airborne. Divebombing, ramp-jumping, and grappling towards the ground are just a few of the bizarre strategies that comprise the game's play language. It's very hectic and unpredictable, but that's precisely what makes it so good.
Outside of the matches themselves, GCI is packed with amusing easter eggs and celebrations of its own silliness. A little Batman-in-office-attire character guides you through each of the menus, and pretty much everything he says is tinged with offbeat commentary (pay special attention to what he says when you accept the EULA). In lieu of complex descriptions, the game also uses little animated diagrams between "Office-Batman" and "Blue-Collar-Joker" to explain its mechanics and modes. They evoke the old "Spy vs. Spy" cartoons and each of them is well worth watching.
Right now, if there's one blemish on the proceedings, it's the matchmaking and net code. Matches run fine once the game has been started, but twice I've been frozen in the lobby, and in a few other instances it's taken in excess of ten minutes to find and start a match. People are certainly playing right now, so the volume isn't a problem, but it feels like there's always a chance the game will phone-in its attempt to put a round together, and that's disappointing. Fortunately, it's not the norm at this point, and I have faith that Monolith will smooth things over in the near future.
This is a $15 download, and it packs more than enough content into its frame to balance out the relatively meager 5 maps and 3 modes. Make no mistake, however, Gotham City Impostors stands head and shoulders with every other big-box multiplayer shooter out there. It gives players just enough conventional shorthand to get off the ground before expanding into its own vibrant and chaotic mix of gunplay and gadget-assisted shenanigans. It's definitely one of the best games in its field and scope, and a surprisingly great twist on the Batman license.