First-person shooter Gotham City Impostors was released. I've spent a few days on the streets of Gotham, mopping up crime and causing criminal chaos. Is it 'Zap!', 'Kapow!', or more of a sad 'Thunk!'? Here's Wot I Think.
I should love this. The premise of Gotham City Impostors, Batman wannabes fighting Joker-ised thugs, is the first multiplayer FPS in a while that’s made me want to stick my head out of Badwater Basin. It sounded so silly, so camp, how could I not be slapping my thighs while smiling knowingly at the monitor? Because after levels of EULA hell to wade through, GFWL to navigate and update, and then being cajoled into signing into Warner Bros. in-game social nonsense to gain some extra bling, I finally discover Gotham City Impostors doesn’t know what it wants to be. It's attempting to be a middleman between Team Fortress 2's cartoonish action and Modern Warfare's combative unlock-a-thon. It's neither the Bats nor the Jokerz. It's Two-Face.
You feel awfully like you’ve just bought into a free-to-play shooter. On one hand it offers a range customisations for you to trim the fat from the character, or add to it if you want a tougher head to deflect the bullets. There’s an overwhelming number of weapons, body types, and costumes you can tweak. But on the other hand it’s stingy in the way that f2p games are: levelling delivers tokens that you use to access new weapons, gadgets, support devices, and a separate system of tokens for visual customisation. It doles both out in the smallest possible increments as you play. I guess I could have bought the XP boost DLC that was released on the same day as the game, but there's a limit to what I'll do to deal with frustration. Judging by the high-level characters I bumped into only a few hours after launch, others didn't quite have that worry.
Making your character look like the sort of bad-ass Joker or Batman is hatefully boring. A slog. Despite both teams being equally matched in terms of weapons and body-types, you spend the dress-up money separately as well. Which wouldn’t be too much of a problem if you were given the choice of sides when you join a game. But you don’t, and that’s just one problem with the hateful matchmaking. Oh god, getting into Gotham is atrocious. There's no human intervention other than choosing what game mode of the paltry three that's on offer, voting for one of the five maps, and deciding when to quit out the lobby because the matchmaking has failed to fill its quota of players. It's obnoxious and tedious to have to sit in the pre-game lobby and listen to the constant background noise of someone else's PC thanks to GFWL's auto-turning on mics, wishing, pleading for the damn thing to kick-off. The small teams means unbalances are noticeable: in the first hour I'd played against two utterly overwhelmed oppositions, and had one game where I was one person against 5. But at least was in.
Game modes and maps also feel like teasers for upcoming DLC drops and map-packs. There are three online modes, and although one is Team DM, the other two are inventive. One is essentially capture the flag with a single flag: it's a battery both teams fight over to power their propaganda machines. The other is a twist on territory control, where teams are attempting to control gas machines that poison the enemies. There's also an offline challenge mode. You can learn a lot in the offline mode, and there are lots of challenges that neatly teach you a few tricks and the layout of the levels, and you build XP competing in them, so there’s another route to leveling to accessing more tokens.
The token system for the weapons is at least willing to give you access to everything regardless of level: you're never denied the option of what you can choose, as long as you have something to spend. And you're given carte blanche as to how you build your character: there are set classes to pick from, but as you progress you can swap out primary, support and gadgets. In theory it meant I could make a heavy class with a sniper load-out; in practice it meant that I was never quite sure of what I'd run into on the streets of Gotham. But I was never up against people with truly unfair advantages. A careful or lucky player might be able to procure an ideal load-out relatively early. I was not that player, though.
The primary weapons are a typical cadre of sniper rifles, shotguns, blah, bore, snooze. Although they can be modded (my custom class shotgun can sniff out enemies and mark them on the HUD), I almost resent their presence in what is a rather wonderfully realised daft world. One of the Batman masks is a cardboard box with a mask drawn onto it. The little loading icon is a happily animated, skipping batman firing pistols into the air. It's silly. It's genuinely somewhere I'd love to see built upon, and my first suggestion is to take the realistic weapons and smelt them. And while annoyingly I actually like using them - they're weighty, meaty, damage dealers - I didn't want them in this game. Play less Modern Warfare, 'kay?
At least you augment those with secondary, comic bookish additions: freeze rays, invisibility powers, goggles that see through walls, boomerangs. Yup, boomerangs: the poor man's Batarang. That's brilliant: simple, stupid, and it totally fits into the world of cut-price heros and villains. As do the gadgets: they're the one thing really standing in the way of Gotham City Impostors feeling like a MW mod, as they allow players to scoot around levels in all manner of inventive ways: grappling hooks, roller-skates, super-jump boots, and more. I love watching three clumsy Bat-wannabes starting a level, all zooming off in different directions, bouncing, flying, zooming along wires . It results in interesting combat situations: how do you fight someone while you're both zip-lining at right-angles to each other. Do you make a dramatic escape, dropping and firing your line to confuse your enemy, or do you drop and pull out a gun, firing mid-air?
There were harmonious little moments when those battles realised everything GCI could have been, but even then it's tuned for fights to be speedily resolved. Just as things were getting interesting, one of us would die. They were good little fights, at least and when I finally hit upon a combination of rocket-launcher, freeze-ray, throwing axe and grappling hook, I at least got into a groove of freezing and blasting. But it was never a sustained level of fun. Someone would drop out, someone’s mic would be on (and it took me two hours to figure out how to mute), I’d kill or be killed too quickly.
I feel like a dour git hating on Gotham City Impostors, but it’s a misfire. It’s slipped on the banana peel when it should be placing it. It’s whack rather than wacky and it sabotages its own sense of fun.
Gotham City Impostors is out now.