At first glance, Gotham City Impostors may seem like yet another doomed licensed video game set in the Batman universe. After all, the game is essentially multiplayer-only and revolves around conflict between two Batman and Joker cosplaying groups known as the "Bats" and "Jokerz." That's right, it's a Batman game where Batman is not only unplayable, he doesn't even appear in the game! Spend any amount of time in the game, though, and you'll quickly discover that developer Monolith (the creators of successful first-person shooter franchises, F.E.A.R, Condemned, and No One Lives Forever) had pretty good reasons for setting things up the way that they did.
See, Batman has this weird fetish about not killing people. At the same time, first-person shooter games have a nasty habit of piling up the bodycount numbers, especially in multiplayer situations. So in order to make the game that they wanted, Monolith pushed The Caped Crusader into the background in order to let ordinary citizens dressed in homemade Bat and Joker costumes kill each other without worry. It may sound blasphemous, but after spending some time with the open beta of Gotham City Impostors, I have to honestly say that I hardly noticed Batman's absence. In fact, the game is actually one of the more delightful multiplayer experiences I've had in recent memory. Read on to see why in my full impressions of the game's beta.
Let's get one thing out of the way, Gotham City Impostors has very loose roots in any meaningful Batman continuity. If you're a hardcore Batman fan seeking an extension of the comics, movies, or even the very well done Arkham City games franchise, you won't find it here. Since it's a multiplayer-centric game, you're not going to get much in the way of story or exposition. However, there are some nice touches in the game's presentation, such as the Joker manically barking orders to you if you're on the Jokerz team.
There are two levels included in the beta, Crime Alley and Amusement Mile. Both maps are bathed in sunlight and offer bright and colorful lighting, decorations, and environments of general wackiness. Let's put it this way: If Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered in this rendition of Crime Alley, they would have probably respawned in ten seconds wearing manga-style happy faces. Suffice to say, though they are fitting environments for cosplaying citizens to wage war each other, they're not the kind of environments you'd expect a "traditional" view of Gotham City to look like.
To describe the game in a nutshell, I'd say Gotham City Impostors plays like an combination of Call of Duty and Team Fortress 2, set in an urban area filled with crazy people dressed up like they are wannabe superheroes in Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s Kick-Ass. GCI's controls feel very tight and responsive. If you've ever played a Call of Duty game before, you'll feel right at home as the controls are the same, right down to the "click the right thumbstick to do a melee attack" control. Most of the weapons are also very similar to Call of Duty, with your array of assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns and sniper rifles.
However, GCI does inject new flavors into the military-style FPS, such as the inclusion of a bow and arrow, a megaphone-shaped healing weapon called the "Motivator," and gadgets such as boomerangs and ninja smoke bombs. In addition, the game wants you to be able to zip around the level with increased mobility and to that end offers several gadgets to help you move faster, including roller skates, spring boots, and even a hang glider. Both of the beta maps are also littered with trampolines, launch ramps, and hot air geysers to facilitate gadget-based tomfoolery.
GCI pits two teams of up to six players against each other in various game modes, two of which are included in the open beta, Fumigation and Psychological Warfare. Fumigation is GCI's take on the "capture and hold" team objective game. Three sites of poison nerve gas are set up across the level and it's up to each faction to capture and hold a majority of these sites for a set amount of time. Once that happens, the losing team will all get gassed and the match will end. Because of GCI's fast and varied core gameplay, Fumigation is very fun, but doesn't offer much in the way of innovating the "capture and hold" gametype. It's the other gametype, "Psychological Warfare" where things begin to get more interesting.
Psychological Warfare can be boiled down to "Capture the Flag" mechanics but with a wacky twist: you're trying to turn on a mind control device before the other team does. Teams vie for control of one battery that they must take into the enemy base, install, and defend for a short time while the machine powers up. If it successfully activates, the other team collectively drops all its weapons and is only able to defend themselves by slapping the enemy. I've been on both sides of being mind controlled and let me tell you, nothing is more embarrassing than dying to a hysterical guy in a fugue state dressed as a clown running up to you and slapping you to death as you flail about with your supposedly menacing assault rifle. To make it even more fun, a creepy monotone voice drones on in their heads about how they are failures, quitters and losers.
Customization and Progression
Monolith is trumpeting the many ways that you can customize your character in GCI as a key selling point for the game and the beta certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. Starting out, the beta offered players a choice of several premade "class loadouts" with your typical archetypical roles: soldier, scout, heavy weapons, medic, sniper. However, once you reach level 3, players gained the ability to create custom loadouts, which is where things got really interesting. Like in Call of Duty, you can customize your primary and secondary weapons along with "perks" (called "Fun Facts") and gadgets. In addition, though, you can also customize your body type, which changes how your character handles on screen. You can pick a body type on a spectrum of five choices from lithe to walking tank. As you can probably guess, the amount of health and speed afforded to your character are inversely related to body mass. So if you've always liked playing a medic, but hated how fragile they usually are, you can create a medic with the durability (and lumbering speed) of a heavy weapons guy.
There's also a wealth of options when it comes to customizing your character's public appearance. Borrowing a page from Halo: Reach's vanity system, you can change each piece of your character's clothing. There's separate wardrobes for a Bats costume and a Jokerz costume so that you're always ready to look your best no matter which side the game automatically assigns you to. However, it does seem like a bit of an oversight that you can't tie a specific costume set to each one of your custom loadouts. After all, it makes sense that your nimble rocket-launcher carrying scout would want a different costume than your walking tank of a medic.
You can also create a "calling card" that acts as your online profile when people browse your character in between matches. Here, you can change the background of your card along with a choice of icons and witty one-liners. It's not as exciting as creating an in-game persona, but it's still a nice touch.
Finally, once you reach level 12, you can become part of a "gang." Now, the beta is fairly cryptic in explaining the benefits of joining one of the five gangs available. Doing so lets you build reputation with them without doing anything other than playing the game normally. There are two benefits to doing so: you'll start to earn access to certain gang-specific rewards (what these are, we don't know yet) as well as contribute to the gang's greater cause, which you can track the progress of on the web.
Tying these all together is a simple, yet layered progression system. What, did you think that you would be able to customize every aspect of your character right off the bat? Oh no, buddy, you'll have to earn every unlock through blood, sweat, and nerve gas vomit inhalations. Gain a level, and you'll unlock one morsel of customization, whether it's a new weapon, gadget, or modification. It's a little annoying that you're at the mercy of the game as to what sort of unlock you will be getting as you progress, but c'est la vie. Though the beta caps out at level 25, Monolith is touting 1,000 levels of progression to be obtained in the complete game. While that may seem like a lot, keep in mind that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has 800 levels of progression when you factor in Prestige mode.
The cool thing about GCI is that almost everything you do in game nets you some sort of progress. It's one of the few shooter games that awards you points for simply damaging the enemy in addition to kills, assists, and objective completions. There are also side-challenges that you can take part of, like getting a certain number of kills with each weapon or obtaining a certain number of assists. In addition, Monolith smartly separated the method of obtaining each type of customization (weapons, costumes, and calling cards), as it encourages you to customize each aspect of your character throughout your progression without worrying about falling behind in actual gameplay ability.
I didn't have high hopes for the Gotham City Impostors beta going in the first time, but after a few matches, I was hooked. The game is clearly influenced by mechanics in the Call of Duty and Team Fortress franchises, but injects enough personality and polish that it's able to stand alone. It's fast, fun, and just as deep as it's more established competitors. Best of all, the game will be priced at a very reasonable $15 (or 1200 Microsoft Points on the Xbox 360). If the final version of the game keeps up the level of quality that I experienced playing the beta, it could end up being one of the biggest multiplayer shooter game bargains of the year.
Gotham City Impostors releases on February 7 on the PlayStation Network and for PC while Xbox Live gets it on Feburary 8.
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