Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Batman Vs. Everyone: My Outline For A Multiplayer Arkham City

Friends and regular readers of this blog know that I'm a very big fan of Batman: Arkham City, much as I was the original Arkham Asylum. I really just can't get enough of the incredibly engaging and dynamic combat and predator system Rocksteady Studios has created (I told some friends last night that I was "still sucking the marrow out of the game's bones"). The company now officially has a genuine franchise on their hands, and as I'm wrapping up the last morsels of content in their second game, I'm wondering what they could possibly do next. My solution? More Riddler Trophies! Haha, no, just kidding. That would be awful. My real answer is: Multiplayer. More specifically: Batman Versus Everyone Else.

Now I know what you're saying:"Nobody wants to be anybody but Batman in a Batman game!" and yes, this will be the most difficult obstacle to overcome (this problem was sidestepped, and from what I hear, competently done in the recent Gotham City Impostors, where players are neither the overpowered Batman or the lowly goon, but a member or a pro-Batman or pro-Joker gang). But imagine a game where as Batman, you were taking down thugs not controlled by an A.I. routine, but by actual people who are desperate to take you down. Or, conversely, to be playing a game where you hunted down the most bad-ass superhero of all time - the greatest video game "boss" there could ever be. Wouldn't it be the ultimate thrill?  You don't even need to answer. I can confirm that yes, it would be - because a game like this existed once before, and it was one of, if not the best multiplayer game I've ever played. This game was called Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (and later improved upon in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory)*.

The Splinter Cell series redefined the stealth action genre first introduced by Metal Gear in the early 2000's. The second game in the series, Pandora Tomorrow, introduced a revolutionary multiplayer component when it was released in 2004. This new kind of competitive/cooperative multiplayer featured stealthy spies going toe to toe against heavily armed mercenaries in a large map usually mostly covered in darkness with lots of vents, nooks and hidden passages that a creative spy to travel through. The spies controlled much like Sam Fisher, the series protagonist, in that they were designed to covertly traverse any environment, and make quick escapes if discovered. They also came equipped with tons of fun gadgets - night vision, camouflage, smoke grenades and little spy cams that could shoot knock out gas. The one thing they didn't have were guns. Instead, they had a shock gun which could temporarily stun opponents or (de)activate electrical devices.

The mercenaries on the other hand were right out of a first person shooter, down to the field of vision (the spies saw through a moveable camera in third person view, while the mercs saw the world through their own eyes in a more limiting first person view). They came equipped with an assault rifle, grenade launcher, proximity mines, a motion-tracking visor and various other traps. They operated with brute force, and a spy that came face to face with them would not be able to stand his ground for long. They were often tasked with either killing the spies or preventing them from accomplishing their mission, which typically involved hacking a number of computers or retrieving a data disc and bringing it back out of the complex.

A typical match would find the mercenaries strategizing to best cover the large area as efficiently as possible with traps and proper patrol routes, and the spies doing their best to get to their destination either unseen or by neutralizing any nearby threats in the process. The characters, maps, and challenges were all extremely well balanced (especially by the time Chaos Theory, the third Splinter Cell, and second draft of the multiplayer system) and a match with four proficient players were always incredibly tense and required a high level of diligence by either side to ensure victory. A spy popping his head out at the wrong time was just asking for a bullet to his brain, and a careless mercenary could easily find a spy sneaking up behind him and snapping his neck.

The experiences I've had playing this game were exhilarating. I've never gripped my controller so tight as I did while watching my spy try to hack a computer for ten incredibly long seconds, knowing the mercenaries has just been alerted and were heading my way. And tricking a mercenary into tripping his own proximity mine or catching him at just the right moment with a blast of knock out gas from my spy camera felt oh so good. Conversely, catching a spy who thought he was hidden with a headshot or a grenade sent flying through a vent was also incredibly satisfying. You felt like such a badass because you didn't just do any of those things to some programmed enemy who - as all enemies have in the history of all video games - will inevitably forget that you exist if you just wait around long enough. And given the cat and mouse dynamic of the Splinter Cell series, there's an added level of satisfaction that, at least for me personally, was missing from a lot of other multiplayer games.

So now let's get back to Batman. In the 'Predator Challenges' prevalent throughout the game (and featured in their own separate mode once you finish the main game), Batman is tasked with clearing a room full of armed thugs without being seen. Like the Splinter Cell spies, he does not carry a gun, but he is armed with ninja-like abilities and a ton of awesome gadgets. The armed thugs have the guns that elevated their status above their pathetic regular "thug" compatriots, along with their own sets of gadgets (radar jammers, mines, and such). They also happen to outnumber Batman many-to-one. They are effectively the mercenaries from Splinter Cell. So the basic dynamic already exists - its just a matter of making the necessary (and there are certainly major tweaks to be made) to make the gameplay between Batman and his assailants balanced, and more importantly, fun for both sides.

The current game features an engaging but not entirely realistic enemy A.I. routine. Batman's most common hiding spaces are above conveniently placed stone gargoyles and under see through ventilation grates in the ground. The gamer engages in a little suspension of Bat-belief assuming his enemies are, unless provoked, never going to check those locations while patrolling. This setup would need to be altered to give the Batman player maneuverability around human players by altering the level of darkness in areas where Batman is meant to be hidden, and by giving the Batman player better (and lots more) hiding spots. To ensure that Batman's enemies don't cluster around one area, the maps would need to be spacious and objectives - as well as ammo and gear - would need to be placed in separate areas all over the map to ensure the 'goon' players all spread out.

The new mercenaries would similarly need to be made more powerful/interesting to play without making it impossible for the person playing as Batman to take them down. To compensate for the darkness, goons should be given thermal goggles (as some of the better equipped A.I. goons have in the game now), but likewise not be able to keep them on full time. One alternative could be that they could either plug in their radar jammer (keeping the Batman player from using his own night vision) or their thermal goggles, but never both, both limiting the thug's abilities and encouraging teamwork, which is the their main advantage. Players would communicate via headset while playing, and also presumably be able to quickly mark an area where Batman has been located (or an area that needs to be protected).

The final question is how to decide who gets to play as Batman and who (more likely) doesn't? At first, everyone is going to want to play as the titular hero, and only reluctantly ever play as a goon/merc. One solution is to have every game start where no one is Batman - perhaps the game can factor in a (hopefully well programmed) A.I. Batman that needs to be taken down. And whoever does so gets to be the Dark Knight first in the next round of gameplay. Every round following that, the player who that kills or does the most damage to Batman gets to play as him next. All other players will receive 'partial (bat)credit,' increasing their chances of playing him again the following round, to the point where even if they've done nothing, they still get their chance to play as Batman. This could also be a way to incentivise players who are knocked out by the Batman player earlier in the round to keep them from quickly quitting. Thus players who put in their due time are rewarded, and players who constantly quit games will be punished accordingly. A high quality A.I. for any missing mercenaries would also be welcome to fill in any gaps when need be.

If done right, I really do think this could be one of the greatest video game experiences of all time. I haven't even touched on things like the idea of adding a second hero like Robin or Nightwing, along with supervillains like Mr. Freeze and the Joker on the other side, which I think could also add a ton of flavor to this mode. Rocksteady actually admits they tried adding it to the last game (though its unclear if it was anything like what I've described here), but eventually backed out, saying they didn't want to have to water down the single player experience for the sake of a mediocre multiplayer that no one was going to play. Fair enough. But now that they have a pretty rock solid single player experience in place, I think the time has come to think of ways to expand the franchise, and about the possibilities for multiplayer going forward.

There are still plenty of details to flesh out from the single player game, like: should Batman's semi-ridiculous cape stun ability still work against human players? Should he still be able to just throw a batarang to knock them out (including the already kind of game-breaking remote-controlled batarang)? And if not, what else could it do, instead? I honestly don't know the answer to everything. Rocksteady (or whatever company decided to roll with my awesome idea) will have to figure that part out. But I really do think there's the foundation for a pretty amazing multiplayer game here, inspired the core concepts from the groundbreaking Splinter Cell series and the mechanics already set in play in the single player Arkham games.

What do you guys think?


*Ultimately gimped and watered down in Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Then removed from the series entirely afterward. It would seem the spy vs. merc multiplayer never gained the traction it needed online, likely due to the level of difficulty/finesse required to play both sides, but especially the weaker spies. A multiplayer Batman game would need to address this issue as well.

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