Superman has enemies. Batman often has victims. Now the developers behind Batman: Arkham Origins want you to be one of those victims. Some of the time, anyway.
And it's also some of the developers. While the main campaign's being handled by Warner Bros. Games Montreal, whose bat experience to date comes from porting Arkham City to the Wii U, the new multiplayer component's the work of UK-based Splash Damage. That's the team who were last seen on PC and consoles delivering Brink, a complex multiplayer shooter that could degenerate, at times, into a bit of a well-intentioned muddle.
Arkham's multiplayer is already looking complex and well-intentioned, at least. The idea is initially fairly simple: Origins Online will expand on the previous games' Invisible Predator sequences - those bits that saw Batman knocking around in the rafters, stalking prey, and then swooping down to pick them off one by one. It's Batman and Robin against rooms of well-armed player-controlled goons, in essence.
The implementation, though, is a little more complicated than that. Bats vs goons would mean a lot of goons do a fair amount of waiting around and not seeing any action. You'd basically be simulating the bit in a comic book movie when baddies whistle to themselves on patrol before being clubbed from the shadows by a man in rubber.
"Obviously, when you start with Invisible Predator, it's natural to try and keep it as it is," explains Alastair Cornish, the creative director at Splash Damage. "With one hero and one faction, one of the things you quickly notice, though, is that this is okay for Batman, who's got a target-rich environment. The flipside is that, if Batman doesn't want to come down and play with you, or if he's picking on one guy over and over, there's pretty much nothing else to do. We wanted to make sure there's always something to worry about."
Splash Damage's solution is to throw another faction of goons into the mix. So the Joker's gang and Bane's gang are already facing off against each other, and only then do Batman and Robin turn up.
It's 3 vs 3 vs 2, in other words - but the developer still hasn't finished with the twists. If the basic setup suggests an asymmetric spin on the standard deathmatch template, the new design also adds control points.
And control points tie back to the objectives of the gangs, each of which is trying to wipe out any rival villains and bring their total of potential reinforcements (or respawns) to zero. A gang loses a reinforcement ticket every time one of their players gets offed - and vice versa - but teams can deal additional damage to their rivals' stock of reinforcement tickets by capturing and holding a series of locations spread across the map. The first team to get the enemy team's reinforcement count down to nothing and mop up any remaining stragglers wins the day. As this is unfolding, Batman and Robin are flocking around the map on their own, and they're trying to raise the intimidation level to a point where both gangs knock the fighting on the head and go home. Heroes get an intimidation boost for each takedown, but they also get a big intimidation penalty if one of them gets killed and has to respawn - and the team that killed them gets to respawn their guys, even if they've run out of tickets.
There's more. While the game's various meters - reinforcements for the baddies, intimidation for the goodies - are fighting it out, there are plenty of little balancing tweaks going on too. Heroes make up for the fact that their enemies are packing guns exactly the same way they would make up for these things in single-player - they have pretty much all of the standard single-player traversal tricks and gadgets, and they have unlimited access to detective vision so they can keep tabs on foes. Reading the landscape is crucial: varying takedowns leads to bigger bonuses, but heroes can only perform these moves on enemies who aren't aware of their presence. If Batman swoops in on a thug and the thug dodges out of the way, it's going to come down to a melee win.
The gangs, meanwhile, are dropped into pretty standard third-person shooter territory, with cover to snap to, a series of shotguns and other weapons to pick between, and various themed gadgets depending on their gang affiliation. (The Joker's goons' treats include clownish spins on proximity mines and dual-weilding, for example.) Gangs also get enhanced vision, an equivalent to detective vision that comes with a serious caveat: it only works for a limited time, and you'll need to turn it off to charge it back up again.
Given the game's complex, often fairly vertical battle maps, this can feel like playing blind, and, judging by a few quick matches at Warner Bros' London HQ, it makes for some of the online game's most exciting moments. When rival gangs could lurk around every corner - and when you have to assume well-trained do-gooders are ready to pounce at any moment too - you need to stick together and work as a team. "You can see the teams that really get it," says Ed Stern, Splash Damage's lead writer. "They're using enhanced vision one at a time and eking it out."
Players rotate, but Splash Damage has done a lot to try and make the players who end up in the role of thugs feel special. These are no random street gangs but their respective crime lord's elites, apparently. "We knew they needed to be really well outfitted to take on Batman and Robin, and to fulfil the idea of the hunter, hunted," says Cornish. "From one moment to the next the heroes can feel like the apex predators, the next minute, they might be trapped rats cornered in the grate network of a level by gangs who are using their enhanced vision and their items to pin them down. Elites have a suite of their own abilities and own weapons to turn the tables. Beyond that, the things we think are really going to hook people in are the customisation options, because Batman and Robin are fixed constants, even though there are different skins for them. The elites are where you can really stamp your own personality on the game. There are over 250 items to unlock, and you can customise so many different aspects of them and put a bit of yourself into the Arkhamverse."
(On top of that, once every game, the option becomes available to play as either Bane or the Joker themselves. Whoever follows the appropriate marker to the right spot when it appears on the map gets to fill the big mens' shoes and benefit from a little more swagger - swagger that comes at the price of not being able to respawn in-character or regain health.)
It's all thoughtful stuff, but initial impressions - based on only a handful of very quick matches, granted - suggest that this attempt to bring the elites to life is not yet entirely convincing. In a Batman game, it's hard not to feel cheated whenever you're not playing as Batman (okay, or, at a push, Robin), and the third-person shooting currently feels a little rough around the edges when compared to the swooping and the takedowns, with weapons that don't yet deliver an appropriate sense of character or weight to back up the bright starbursts of their muzzle flashes. Multiplayer could just be something of a slow burn, of course: before we're allowed to play, the developers suggest we watch three introductory videos, and then there are another two covering advanced tactics to watch a few games later. Shades of Brink once again.
Finished? Not quite. Origins Online still hasn't laid on the last of its complications, adding a range of levelling systems that are linked at account level, faction level, and even weapon level by the looks of it, while menu listings like Store and tool-tips about something called Arkham Credits suggest that IAPs might be joining the party, too. (I received a very polite "That's not something we're talking about at the moment, I'm afraid," about this from Cornish.)
You could question whether the Arkham series needs multiplayer at this point, after two deeply satisfying and defiantly single-player outings, and the overall success of Splash Damage's asymmetric approach is by no means assured. It would be hard to argue that the people involved aren't putting the effort in, however. Will that be enough?