The control room was thick with smoke by the time I arrived. But Batman was busy pummeling the last of the men inside, so he didn’t see me aiming the machine gun at his chest. I quickly pulled the trigger.
I, a lowly member of Bane’s gang, had done what many comic book villains have failed to do: Kill the Dark Knight. But I only had a few precious seconds to celebrate before he magically came back to life.
That’s right: Batman: Arkham Origins (out Oct. 25 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC) will come with multiplayer. Developed by Splash Damage — Warner Bros. Games Montreal is still working on the single-player campaign — Invisible Predator Online puts players in the grimy shoes of criminals and supervillains as they attempt to defeat a rival gang (3-on-3) from the perspective of a third-person shooter. But Batman and his sidekick Robin are there to shake things up: The lucky folks who control them (as decided by a lottery system) hunt down the rest, ideally while remaining in the shadows.
“The way that we looked at it was: take the Invisible Predator room online and just think about how we can make that work,” said creative director Alastair Cornish. “So it wasn’t the case of putting a third-person shooter into Batman. It was, ‘What aspect of Batman would work best in multiplayer? What would feel like an organic extension of the single-player experience?’ And the answer there was the Invisible Predator room experience.”
Up until this point, the Arkham series (Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City) has been single-player only, so fans might be a little hesitant to find out about this multiplayer mode. I came to the demo fully expecting to see new levels or villains for the story, and I walked away pleasantly surprised from the handful of matches I played. Invisible Predator Online isn’t finished yet — I saw plenty of rough-looking textures and a few bugs that popped up — but the cat-and-mouse gameplay of heroes hunting down bad guys who are also hunting each other was a lot of fun.
I pledge allegiance to Joker (or Bane)
You’ll be spending most of your time playing as what Splash Damage calls “gang elites,” souped-up members of the foes you normally faced in the previous games. Leading these gangs are two well-known villains from Batman’s history: Joker and Bane. Both sides must kill each other and capture control points while also avoiding Batman and Robin.
While you can customize the look and loadout of your gang member — make them look bulky, fat, or skinny; choosing the kind of clothes or tattoos they have; or equipping new guns — they feel somewhat heavy and slow. Their speed reminds me of the way the characters move in Gears of War, and they can also roll out of the way and snap to cover. What makes these guys deadly is that they all have the same vision technology as the heroes: Flipping it on enables you to see through walls for a brief period of time (you’ll know who’s using it by the rays of light protruding from their eyes). But since the x-ray vision slowly recharges its battery once it runs out, you have to use it wisely.
The first few matches I played felt like other third-person shooters: I threw grenades, ran around to capture control points, and grabbed extra bullets from ammo boxes. The map — based on the infamous Blackgate prison in Batman lore — had a good mix of indoor and outdoor areas, with plenty of low walls and other objects to use as cover. This is when I started getting concerned. Invisible Predator Online can feel a little too familiar to other multiplayer games, especially if Batman and Robin have trouble making any meaningful impact on the battle.
Maybe it was because the other journalists and I were just getting used to the rules, but trying to win a match with the heroes is a lot harder than it sounds. Batman and Robin do have some spectacular-looking knockouts if you play them right. However, if they fail to make a difference, the gang-vs.-gang gameplay faces the danger of feeling like a regular third-person shooter, one that’s set in the Batman universe.
Things picked up again when I played as the Joker. If one team is dominating enough with the control points and still has plenty of lives left (known as “reinforcements”), one of its members will have the chance to summon their leader into battle — whoever runs to a special door first to let them in gets to play as the villain, but this can only happen once per match. While Bane can run through foes and throw them around like toys, the Joker is all about firepower, whether you use his slow hand cannons or his rapid-fire grenade launcher.
You do not want to fight the Joker head-on. Bane’s minions were no match to a face full of grenades or a well-placed shot to the head. Joker’s melee move, where he shocks his opponents with a not-so-innocent hand buzzer, is also a one-hit kill for anyone but the heroes. I carved a path through the other team with ease, and neither Batman or Robin could stop me. The best part was that this moment actually felt like something that could happen in the comics. The Joker seemed to agree: His creepy cackle echoed throughout the prison as the bodies fell left and right.
Fighting for the cowl
The greatest challenge when playing as Batman or Robin is showing restraint. They’re the only ones who can take advantage of a level’s verticality, where they can perch on ledges and light fixtures or swoop to the ground and find a hiding place within a series of interconnected vents. They have gadgets that can disrupt the enemies’ vision goggles (smoke bombs), stun them when they’re not looking (batarangs), and slow down a control point’s progress (scrambler). With all these benefits, it’s tempting to go ahead and attack the first thug you see. But that’s not always the smartest choice.
Any gang member can take out the heroes with only a few shots, so if you spend too much time fighting them mano-a-mano, or get surrounded, you’re probably going to die. Dying resets the duo’s Intimidation meter (seen as a bat symbol at the top center of the screen), which is crucial because filling it up is the only way for Batman and Robin to win the match. Stealthy takedowns — fancy combos that knock out an enemy — replenish your meter, and the more you mix it up with different moves, the better your score will be. Defeating high-value targets, like captains (players with a white star above their heads) or Joker and Bane (via multiple takedown attacks), will net more Intimidation points.
“So you can literally go from having zero on the board with a couple of minutes left and one team … if you were just careful to get two or three really good and varied takedowns on captains, you’re straight back in the game,” said Cornish. “It’s always in your interest to keep going after one gang, normally the winning gang so you help balance it and prolong the match to help you build your Intimidation.”
Trying to find that balance is difficult. The heroes never won during our hour-long demo. And I didn’t do much better when I played as Robin: I was too hasty with my approach and too eager to catch my first prey. After I fumbled what I thought would’ve been an easy knockout, the others kept their eyes and guns on me as I made a messy retreat. Since stealth attacks only work on “unaware” gang members — you have to attack when they’re not looking — I had to hide for a few moments before I could try again.
My one shining moment as the Boy Wonder came when I kicked someone from the air, performed a brutal ground takedown, and flew back up with my grappling hook without anyone else noticing. Striking hard and fast while being as quiet as possible is the best way to play. You want the two gangs to feel paranoid at all times. Environmental effects, like pieces of cloth swaying in the wind or a group of bats suddenly bursting from a dark corner, help create this fearful atmosphere, but it’s up to you to follow through with it.