Batman: Arkham Origins has multiplayer. Taking that sentence on its own merits shouldn't really be a big deal - or that surprising given the video game world we now live in - but these words were enough to send many fans into disarray when information leaked out earlier this year. To be fair, it's not as if fears about a well-received franchise receiving 'tacked-on' additions don't carry some weight. In a quest to maximise longevity, multiplayer is often introduced to avoid trade-ins. Let's just blame it all on Call of Duty...
It's a little different where Batman is concerned, though. After years of being force fed barrels of crap - what hell was Rise of Sin Tzu?! - we're now living in an era where The Dark Knight is a constant success in nearly all forms of media. The games, as we know, are great. The latest run of films were excellent. The comics are barely putting a foot wrong. DC's brand is, arguably, stronger than it ever has been. It's natural there are fears that a new studio - Warner Bros. Montreal - and the introduction of a multiplayer element a fair few don't think the series needs are going to be its undoing. To put all your worries to rest now, it won't.
Developed by Splash Damage of all people, Origins' multiplayer is one of the most promising additions to an established template I can remember for quite some time. Resembling Splinter Cell's Spies vs Mercs just a tad, the first mode which has been unveiled, 'Invisible Predator', is broken down into three teams: The Joker Gang, The Bane Gang and The Heroes. While the former two are made up of three random thugs, the latter consists of Batman and that asshole Robin.
As those representing the villains fight for Gotham in a turf war - both teams have a specific number of 'reinforcements' (spawns) that will result in a loss if they're all depleted, along with 'terminals' that can be hacked and then maintained for the win - the Caped Crusader and his loser sidekick are simultaneously trying to fill their 'intimidation bar'. If they do so, fear strikes into the heart's of their enemies and the criminals run off into the night. Although that may sound a little ridiculous on paper, in practice it has the makings of an excellent three-way dance.
Batman and Robin increase this meter by acting in the same way as they do in the single-player campaign (striking from the shadows) but targeting specific individuals - one of the gang's captains, for example - will fill this gauge up quicker. This line of attack makes sense too as, just like it should be, both are bound by Bruce Wayne's one rule: they can't kill. To keep things balanced this means Batman and his whiny friend can use the array of gadgets that have been introduced in the past, as well as taking advantage of grates and high spots (through the use of the grappling hook), to keep out the way of would-be foes.
Conversely, those who have no such moral compass lack the ability to use all areas of the map but do, rather importantly, carry weapons. This, of course, raises the rather difficult issue of introducing third-person shooter controls into an arena that's never toyed with them before. Currently they're decent and don't feel too out of place, but it's certainly an area that may need some tweaking before release. Largely, though - as it would seem, anyway - this is why multiplayer specialists Splash Damage have been brought into the mix.
Known for plying their trade in the online space, the creators of Brink have been brought on board for two specific purposes. The first, as just mentioned, is to bring experience to aspects of the Arkham titles that have never been touched on previously. The second is to ensure no resources are taken away from the single-player game. With Warner Bros. Montreal taking on the difficult task of replicating Rocksteady's critically acclaimed work - and even with all the tools and resources it's not as if anyone can ensure they'll produce the same magic - the decision was made to make the multiplayer side of the next Batman its own entity, even if it comes on the same disc.
Splash Damage's influence us also why, you'd imagine, more unique elements have come into play. The dynamic duo have access to detective vision, as per usual, giving them a constant x-ray outline of the map and its participants. To ensure this can be countered, though, their rivals have the same setup, albeit a slightly counterfeit system that works off a battery. Not only does this mean gang members using it have to allow it to recharge - it depletes insanely fast - but it also introduces Origins' most interesting online mechanic.
Many multiplayer experiences cater for running around like a maniac, not worrying too much about the surroundings unless you're in the presence of a threat. Given that two targets are superheroes, however, renders that line of approach useless. Using your magic vision allows you to cover all bases but when it runs out, even stepping over a grate without checking it first could be suicide. Neither Batman or Robin can perform a silent takedown if they've been spotted, giving you all the inclination you need to be smart, slow and, if you can believe it, use some sort of tactical thinking.
That idea extends further as well, especially where terminals are concerned. Capture one and the enemy team loses a reinforcement. Capture all that are present on the map - in this case three in Blackwater Prison - and they start to lose three reinforcements every 30 seconds. In short, if you only concentrate of cold-blooded killing, there's a very strong chance you'll put yourself in a very precarious position.
In many ways it all sounds like Origins has maintained its very serious nature, and while that's true, the fact you're fighting it out in Gotham hasn't been forgotten. At any given moment, The Joker or Bane will decide they want in to have their, physical, say on proceedings. Sticking to schoolyard rules - whoever gets there first wins - a door will be highlighted on-screen: who enters all depends on which gang claims victory in the race. Not only does it make for some ridiculous moments as everyone stops what they're doing as soon as it's announced, but having one of Batman's most iconic enemies enter the fray is just exceptionally entertaining - it's also a joy that a player then gets to control either The Joker or Bane, depending on gang alligenance. They only get one 'life', but their increased strength and how they tie into the lore - if Bane captures Batman he'll break his back - is just added fan service that compliments matters wonderfully.
As is the way in 2013, loadouts and customisations are rife (from both a visual and gameplay perspective) and it will give anyone who invests reason to keep ploughing through it. There's pleasant splashes as well, such as getting a 'reinforcement' back if you manage to kill a hero - think dodgeball. The real key elements, mind, could be else Splash Damage intends to offer. The only mode on show was the one above, and while the developer refused to answer if more would become available it would be a missed opportunity if this was the case. Even a Left 4 Dead type idea - where Batman simply has to get from point A to point B, avoiding player-controlled guards - would be an interesting twist on the formula. If there's an entire studio working on it, one choice would not be enough.
On top of this, there's the question of in-game purchases. Nothing was announced or mentioned during the reveal, but there were many menu options - such as 'Arkham Credits', 'Store' and 'Consumables' - which seemed to hint that there may be discretionary costs associated with some elements of the mode. As ever it all depends on what this consists of. Blackwater Prison was the only map we were treated to, and while well put together - it very much felt like it was stripped from a portion of Arkham City's environment - no one is going to have a smile etched on their face if you have to pay for more.
There's still a touch of work needed, too, when it comes to the concept's core and armed combat in general because, to be blunt, it's just not as fun when you're not in control of Batman. That, however, is always going to be a tough hurdle to get over, mostly because that's the case with life in general. If you're given the choice of wearing the cowl or not, you always, always plump for the former.
Given what Batman: Arkham Origins' multiplayer could've been - I would've topped myself if they had gone down the standard deathmatch path* - this a welcome surprise, however, and although it does run the risk of being slightly too complicated for some, it's still potentially very good indeed.
* This is not true.