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Holy b****cks. Class-based shooter Gotham City Impostors snuck out of Warner's back door earlier this week, which strikes you as unusual for a first-person shooter based on one of the biggest licenses around and made by Monolith, developers of Condemned and FEAR. Something to do with its extraordinarily large amount of in-game purchases, perhaps? Or maybe Gotham City Impostors isn't... you know... any good?
Its matchmaking system certainly isn't. It almost never works quickly or smoothly - instead, be prepared for regular waits of five to 10 minutes, frequent cancellations and dropouts, and many disconnections. This is an exchange two of my teammates had as a new game finally started:
Player A: "Who invented this f***ing matchmaking?"
Player B: "You just read my mind."
Not good for an online shooter. It eventually works, most of the time, though since launch the servers (on PC) have been quiet and sometimes seem empty. In terms of modes, there's vanilla Team Deathmatch, Fumigation (which is a straight copy of Domination), and Psych Warfare. In the latter, the object is to get a battery back to your base then defend it for long enough that propaganda starts playing - at this point the other team can only slap, and there's a 'mop up' bonus for killing them.
Despite the lick of Batpaint and at least one new idea, that's a thin offering of game types for a six- on-six shooter. Impostors' gunplay lacks finesse in terms of both effects and feedback, but it's robust enough to satisfy a trigger finger. An armoury that mainly consists of guns filched straight from Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty (without their iterative polish) is never going to excite, however. It's left to the eye-catching gadgets to save the day. And the good news is, they do.
One thing Impostors does well is introducing its toys. The tutorial's nothing special, but a hefty single-player challenge mode lies beyond that takes you through everything from roller-skating to mid-air grapple switches with a shottie blast in the middle. In a nice touch, you also clock up XP for completing them within various medal timings, though as with everything else in Gotham City Impostors the amounts are miserly - more on this later.
One of the game's best touches is that the Impostors' gadgets are budget knockoffs trying to mimic heroic abilities. The grappling hook is a wind-in winch, the cape becomes a strapped-on glider, skates let you move quicker, spring boots let you jump (much) higher, and with a Sam 'Fisher' Price headset you can even see through walls. These wonderful toys each have a style of play to learn and are full of little tricks to discover.
But they shine because of environments designed for them, where interactive scenery is everywhere - ramps, vents, trampolines - and it's entirely possible to glide around and never touch the ground. The roller skates, for example, increase speed but decrease manoeuvrability; after playing the Ace Chemicals level a few times, you'll notice a curving rat run that goes around half the map, inside and out, past all sorts of camping spots and flashpoints. The only problem with the maps is that there are only five. Not a lot, even allowing for the fact that this is a downloadable title - though apparently a sixth is due in March.
The maps vary in size and construction, but they're a rather rough smooshing-together of styles. You can see that Batman is a double-edged sword for designers: the aforementioned Ace Chemicals is straight out of Tim Burton's films, whereas Crime Alley is more original but feels dull, as well as being inexplicably surrounded with green gas. In Amusement Mile you get a glimpse of what they could have gone for: all gauche and glitz, all huge, no need for taste. But then it's back to the Docks and an old joke being overplayed, or the huge walls of Gotham Power that start seeming too familiar too soon.
The more you look at Gotham City Impostors' visual styles, the more it looks like an identity crisis. The slideshow tutorials are exactly like BioShock's plasmid intros, while the characters are pure Unreal - all chiselled faces, sinewy bodies, prominent scars. Impostors' visual design finally hits an original vein with the character customisations and cards, but unfortunately these are either unlocked painfully slowly or bought. The game's structure in this regard is basically 'freemium' - each match rewards you with coins, and everything's on sale for these coins, but it's just so... damn... slow to earn them. In isolation, that would be fine.
But it's not. Gotham City Impostors' levelling structure feels compromised by its payment structure - whereby you can pay for hundreds of in-game unlocks individually. It's hard to separate this from the fact that levelling and unlocking is very slow, and hard-won rewards can be underwhelming to say the least. At around level 12, I earned the right to make a second custom class. Since when has each individual custom class slot unlocked separately?
Levelling up sometimes rewards you with two or three trinkets, but more often it's one - a cosmetic unlock or a weapon unlock, and so on. Unlocking the game's guns and mods is an absolute crawl, and even though the preset classes offer a decent range of hardware, the miserly way the game ekes out your customisation options is far too noticeable.
In the context of all those transactions, it seems like gamesmanship. You suspect someone made a big call with Gotham City Impostors: we will force every player to do just that little bit more grinding and see what happens to the in-app purchases. But hey. Maybe I'm biased. Maybe I'm just too bad at shooters to unlock things properly. Maybe all I need is a good micro-transaction.
The sad thing about Gotham City Impostors is that it could have been a great game. You see glimpses of it all the time. Armies of amateur Batmen grappling up to bouncing Jokers; impromptu kill teams forming around the player with the spotter's goggles, silently following orders. A looping aerial fight followed by the perfect crash-landing into a bunched-up group. But just as often, the game will be teams of four, then two drop out and it's either a massacre, a campfest, or everyone leaves and starts matchmaking all over again.
In its best moments, Gotham City Impostors is like Shadowrun, the PC/360 multiplayer shooter that was supposed to be a Games for Windows Live killer title and which sank without trace. The resemblances are remarkable, from the gliding abilities to the use of area-of-effect health positions (which, in Impostors, are fixed rather than being player-set); even the silhouettes seem familiar. Impostors does a good job of making its wildly different abilities mesh into some sort of order, such that even the less popular options like spring boots are still seen around. But even if this does exceed Shadowrun's design, at the moment you feel it's heading for the same fate. You can't see anyone playing this in three months, never mind six. There are few enough now.
Gotham City Impostors offers a minimum of substantive content - maps, in particular - and a maximum of unlockables that put unrealistic demands for grinding next to a 'buy now' button. It is possible, apparently, to reach character level 1000 in this. I cannot imagine it. The gadget-enabled shooter at the heart of Gotham City Impostors is fun, smart, and hard to dislike. But it's impossible to recommend.