You’re running through a dark alley clutching a shotgun close to your chest when the light from a nearby rooftop casts a silhouette on a nearby wall of a chilling-yet-familiar caped figure. You spin around and aim your weapon upwards, trying to catch a glimpse of the menace... but it’s already gone. Spotting a nearby trampoline and bouncing off of it far into the air, you pull out a grappling hook at the apex and shoot it towards a distant building. Zooming across the sky you spot your prey, running along a nearby roof, and you disengage your hook and drop down behind him. Up close he’s far less scary than he seemed- an overweight man in a homemade Batman costume running around with a machine gun. You pull a jack-in-the-box out of your pocket and throw it at him, cackling madly as it explodes in a direct hit and the screen tells you how many experience points you just earned from his death.
Rocksteady Studios' Batman games might have spoiled us and given us unrealistic expectation about the quality of Batman titles, especially considering the World’s Greatest Detective’s dismal gaming track record, but Gotham City Impostors manages to continue this great new trend. First note the title, however- you're not playing Batman, the Joker, or anyone sanctioned by either character. The backstory is simple- Joker managed a successful attack on Gotham City for once, flooding the city with some gas that caused the citizens go crazy and divide into two sides, “Batz” and “Jokerz”. One’s led by a Batman impostor that’s promised to clean up the city- with guns!- and another offers freedom to do what you want and kill whoever you want. The game is a deep meditation on how anarchy and law are interchangeable at their deepest roots, how the egos of the figureheads have grown to such a point that they’ve become what they most fear.
Or something. Cause really, story? This is a multiplayer first-person shooter, and story doesn’t matter here, besides offering a reason for all the wanton violence you’re about to participate in. Not that you ever need an excuse for that.
Monolith Productions, the developers behind Gotham City Impostors (and the underrated F.E.A.R. 2), were smart. If you’re going to make an online-only shooter, you might as well take from the best - the best generally considered Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty. Mash up the gunplay, experience system and feel of the latter with the cartoony style and weapons from the former, sprinkle a little DC Comics flavoring on top, and you’ve got this game.
The combat is insanely fast and fun and actually feels quite different than most shooters, not only because of the thematic weaponry. Besides the many standard weapons you are given - everything from pistols to rocket launchers - you can equip gadgets to maneuver around the maps with ease. There’s a glider rig that lets you ride drafts from air vents, a grappling hook to zoom around, roller skates to vault off ramps into the air, spring shoes and double jump sneakers to more easily bounce around. All of this (along with the many features scattered around the world like ramps, trampolines, etc.) encourage much more vertical combat than you’re used to, making you constantly check the skies for caped madmen about to swoop down on your position, or snipers who have used spring shoes to bounce up to an unlikely perch in the corner of a map. You’re never really safe in this game.
The matches are great but variety may be an issue for some, as there are a mere five maps and three multiplayer modes to compete in. The maps use familiar locations like the Ace Chemical Plant, Gotham Electric and such, but they feel fairly similar since they have wide-open expanses to take advantage of all those wonderful toys.
The three game modes are all team-based six on six player matches, and the one that sees most of the action is a straight-up team deathmatch. That one’s the simplest of the bunch - kill as many people on the opposite team as possible, try not to die. Hopefully you won’t end up with a lopsided team in the matchmaking, which seems to happen a bit too often. (Note: this has been mostly remedied with the latest DLC. See below for more.)
Psychological Warfare is basically Capture the Flag and Fumigation is King of the Kill, but of course the flavor makes them more entertaining. You’re not trying to capture a flag, you’re fighting over a giant battery that is used to charge up your team’s brainwashing machine. Manage to power it up and it will hypnotize your rivals with a droning voice that tells them of their incredible incompetence, leaving them to madly flap around, weaponless, trying to slap the machine and destroy it to hasten their return to normal.
Fumigation sees you trying to hold down three points scattered around the map. Capture at least two and your team will steal points from the other team - get all 100 and you unleash a killer attack on the others and end the match - poison gas for the Jokerz, a swarm of deadly bats for the caped crusaders. Silly? Sure, but still fun to watch, at least for a handful of times.
There’s also a single-player challenge mode that offers up some offline gameplay as you compete for gold medals. They’re generally based around a certain gadget so you’ll have to fly through a bunch of checkpoints with the glider, or use those skates to speed over ramps and shoot a bunch of targets, always as fast as possible for the best score. It’s a nice diversion but hardly as impressive as the online portion.
Fortunately for those who might tire of the maps easily, a staggering number of unlocks await you as you complete challenges (ripped straight from Call of Duty) and win matches, everything from custom characters, new weapons, add-ons, gadgets, perks, and of course, outfits. I’m not usually one for playing dress-up with my digital characters but I have to admit, I bought a cardboard Batman mask and a new Bat-symbol for my team to wear, and am looking forward to equipping my Joker team with equally ridiculous outfits.
Over a thousand unlocks await you, and nearly every level you gain earns you a key to unlock something new. The game does a good job enticing you to keep playing just to see what you get next.
Despite a few hiccups with matchmaking, Gotham City Impostors offers polished multiplayer madness without a tacked-on single player mode, something a lot of the big boys could learn from. It’s the kind of game you could spend an entire night playing or just get a match in whenever you have 15 minutes free. For a $15 downloadable title, you really can’t go wrong here.
Note: After writing this review a free DLC pack was made available for the Xbox 360, with PS3 and PC versions on the way. The pack includes a new map called "25th Floor", which sees you fighting on some Gotham rooftops, as well as over 100 (!) new customization options and improved matchmaking. Now you can jump right into a game in progress and it's a lot easier to get an equal match going. Great to see these improvements and definitely gives hope for the longevity of the game.