If you told me they were making multiplayer for a Batman game, I'd tell you that I want to play as Batman himself. I'd want to take down thugs controlled by other players, and I'd want to do it in the most Batman way possible. And what do you know, that's just what the upcoming Batman: Arkham Origins multiplayer will let me do.
Last week, I headed to a hotel in downtown San Francisco to check out Arkham Origins' multiplayer for the first time. I got to spend a good chunk of time playing one of the game's main multiplayer modes, which is called "Invisible Predator Online".
A lot of what I saw lined up with what Kotaku has already reported. This is the first Batman game to offer multiplayer — both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were single-player only. (Actually, the people representing Warner Brothers tend to call the series the "Arkham Games" and not "Batman Games", which is a strange signifier that may lose some utility by, say, the fifth game in the series.)
Arkham Origins' multiplayer is being made by Brink developers Splash Damage, a separate team from WB Montreal, the studio working on the single-player game. (Splash Damage creative director Alastair Cornish was sure to point out that no resources were being taken away from the single-player to focus on multiplayer, which was a common worry among commenters back when we broke that story.)
Invisible Predator Online (let's call it IPO) doesn't appear to be the only of the game's multiplayer modes, though the developers and PR were typically — though no less frustratingly — tight-lipped about any possible other modes. IPO involves a conflict between Joker and Bane, with Batman and Robin in the middle.
It's a three-team asymmetrical setup: Three players play as Joker's goons, three as Bane's, and two as Batman and Robin. The bad guys control more or less like characters in any third-person shooter you've ever played. Aim with the triggers, take cover, throw grenades, etc. The big wild card in the game-type are the heroes, who don't have guns and control like the heroes in past Arkham games.
As the two thug teams fight it out on ground level, the heroes flit about above it all, swooping in periodically wreak havoc. It makes for a distinctive experience that, while not without some crustiness, is chaotic and enjoyable in a way that feels fresh.
Ready for some bullet points? Let's do this.
- There are different win-conditions for gangs and for heroes. Gangs win rounds by reducing their opponent's reinforcement numbers to zero - basically, by killing them a whole lot. Heroes win by taking down the thugs in creative ways, which increases their "intimidation" score. If they max that score out before one of the thug teams can reduce the others' reinforcements to zero, the match ends and the heroes win.
- If a thug's reinforcement count is at zero and he manages to kill a hero, he'll win a few new reinforcements for his team, which can turn a close match around entirely. It's a great feeling, scoring a lucky shot and taking Robin down to get your team back in the game.
- At one point in each match, the "boss" supervillain will enter the arena. Cornish told me it's set to happen more or less halfway through the match. When that happens, the first player from either team to arrive at the boss spawn point opens a door to let either Bane or Joker into the match and gets to control the boss character.
- I got to control Bane at one point, and it was pretty fun; a lot like controlling a berzerker in Gears of War 3. He's a tank that can take a ton of damage and wreck anyone he touches. When you play as a supervillain, all of the enemies turn up on your screen and you hunt and kill them until you're finally taken down.
- I didn't play as Joker, but he is more of a ranged character and less of a tank than Bane. I did go up against him once, and even though I emptied a couple of clips into him, he eventually wrecked me.
- The race to the supervillain spawn-point is also a neat idea, since both teams suddenly have a reason to head to a single choke-point and fight it out. Cornish told me that the losing team will be given a bit more notice than the winning team as to the location of the supervillain, meaning they have a better chance to get to it first and even up the match.
- Ammo is scarce for thugs, which helps the balance of the game. To refill your ammo, you'll have to head over to an ammo crate and stand there, extremely vulnerable, while an ammo-bar slowly fills. A siren even goes off as you fill up, notifying any heroes in the vicinity.
- The levels are designed to be disorienting by design. There are flocks of bats swooping all over, designed to distract the player and make him or her see Batman and Robin where they aren't. It's all very claustrophobic. We only played on one level, set in Blackgate Prison (that's also the setting shown in the trailer above), but Cornish told me that it gave a sense of the size and design of the other levels.
- Thugs have an enhanced vision mode that's similar to the Arkham games' detective mode, but it has a quickly depleting charge and can only be used sparingly. That said, I found that I was always able to use it quickly, scan for heroes and enemies, and then turn it off, so I could more or less use it at will. It dramatically changes the way the game is played fro other third-person shooters, but it's not as limited a resource as it could be, and it undercut the levels' built-in distractions quite a bit.
- The character designs of Bane's thugs are very boring, even after customisation, particularly compared with Joker's men. There's probably nothing to be done about it, but Bane's guys are basically just generic video-game dudes, while the Joker's goons are crazy crazy juggalos.
- Moreover, playing as a thug kind of feels lethargic and a tad unsatisfying. The shooting feels piddly and movement is arthritic — the levels are designed to have a lot of blind corners and cramped corridors, which don't make it easy to run for prolonged periods of time.
- "No one wants to play a fish in a game about shooting fish in a barrel," Cornish said of their attempts to make the thug teams fun to play. While the effort to make the thugs more than just "fish" is admirable, they're still less interesting or satisfying to play as than Batman. Then again, that was probably inevitable. The heroes are the best part of the game even if you're playing as a thug; they're an x-factor that keeps the game interesting and unpredictable.
- At the end of each round, there's a lottery to select which players will be the two heroes next round. You can opt out of the lottery if you choose.
- The most enjoyable game my fellow journalists and I had was the second to last one, which had both teams down to very few reinforcements and wound up a bit of a nail-biter. In the end, the heroes pulled off a victory after a war of attrition put both villain teams on equal footing. In that match, I began to get a sense of what this game-type could really be like once players got familiar with the levels and became evenly matched. It was a lot of fun.
- After that match, I played as Batman for a while. (Adam Sessler was Robin, and was a much better Robin than I was a Batman.), We were doing OK, until my demo PS3 froze. (They were sure to say that this was early code, so the crashes were forgivable.) Even from my short time as a hero, it seems clear that this mode will be at its most interesting when playing as the Caped Crusader or the Boy Wonder, as the entire dynamic of the thing changes. Suddenly you're able to see everything, all the time, and use detective mode however you want. It's much more chaotic than playing the predator levels in past single-player Arkham games, but it does have a similar vibe.
- I found playing as a hero to be quite challenging; you'll do a lot better if you communicate with your teammate and take down enemies together. One false move and you'll eat a clip full of bullets and lose a lot of intimidation points.
- Batgirl won't be playable, nor did I see any female characters for the thugs. When I asked Cornish about that, he said, "I know guys on the team are very keen to have female representation in games generally, and that goes for me as well, but I think this is about what resonates most with fans. You work out what resonates best." PR then weighed in to say that they also just wanted to put Batman and Robin together. "Batman and Robin are the classic duo, and also Robin, I guess, more readily comes to mind when you think of Arkham. So that's really the reason why," Cornish said. "They are the dynamic duo, they hunt together. If you were to ask a typical fan on the street, not necessarily 'who would you rather play as' but 'what do you think of when you think of Batman?' Robin would generally come mind sooner than Batgirl."
- Cornish said that you'd need a minimum of 3 players to play a match of this game-type, and that while the maps were balanced for eight players, they'd still work with three — two thugs and one hero. I'd actually think the game might be fun that way! But we didn't have a chance to try it.
It wasn't possible to get a sense of what Arkham Origins' full multiplayer suite will look like. Cornish was under strict orders not to even discuss the existence of other modes, let alone their details, so it's all but impossible to judge for certain what the final game will look like. I'd say that from the tight-lipped reaction I got, it's a safe bet that Invisible Predator Online isn't the only multiplayer mode in Arkham Origins. Will there be any superhero-vs.-superhero action? Will there be other supervillains, like the ones our source mentioned? Or a two-team version of the match-type I played, with one team of heroes and one of villains? I'm sure we'll find out at some point, but for now, no one's talking.
The mode I played was good fun, and a welcome change from the more standard sorts of team-based multiplayer we see in other action games. Between this and Splinter Cell: Conviction's Spies vs. Mercs mode, we seem to be seeing a resurgence of asymmetrical competitive multiplayer. I'll take it.