Video games and comic books. Could there possibly be two things that just seem so perfect for each other? Just look at how much they have in common! They are both awesomely nerdy. Both have millions of devoted, passionate fans. Both struggle for acceptance from a judgmental society. Both inspire awesome cosplay. When trying to purchase either, you run the risk of being behind someone who has never even HEARD of hygiene. (I kid. Mostly.) And both are rampant with sexism. Okay, so that last one isn’t such a good thing. But still, a match made in heaven, right? And when a video game based on a comic book comes out, it should be the greatest thing since Joss Whedon’s birth. After all, who wouldn’t want a chance to live as their favorite comic book hero, even if it is just virtually? Yet, when these two amazing media combine, the results aren’t always as pants creamingly awesome as they should be. Why is that? That’s a good question. Perhaps we should look at some examples of different superheroes and the games that have been made about them to see what went right and what went wrong. Let’s start out with my very favorite comic book hero.
*Note- For this article I am going to stick to talking about comic book superheroes. I could go on for an entire article alone about how heart breakingly amazing The Walking Dead game is, or talk about how much fun Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game or TMNT: Turtles in time are, but for this article I am just going to stick to Superheroes. I am not going to talk about any ensemble (e.g. Marvel Ultimate Alliance) or fighting (e.g. Marvel vs. Capcom) games either. I am just sticking to individual hero games.
“I shall become a bat.”
I have the great fortune of being a batfan in this day and age. Aside from all the great Batman comic book story lines to choose from, Batman has been fortunate enough to be critically and commercially successful in the motion picture and interactive entertainment businesses as well. Though the respective creators of these media are making boatloads of money of their works, I think it’s safe to say that the fans are the true winners, here. But Batman is actually an interesting case in terms of video game success. Before Rocksteady’s incredible Arkham series came out, there were many Batman games, and just about all of them were terrible.
If I even have to explain how not batman this is, perhaps you should just stop reading now.
After so many failed attempts, many believed it was impossible to make a good Batman game. So how is it that Rocksteady succeeded where so many others failed? Well, along with fun gameplay and an interesting story, they had an understanding of the character and the universe in a way that no other game developer had before. They understood what it is about Batman that makes him Batman. As a result, they almost perfectly captured how it feels to be the Dark Knight. The freeflow combat is incredibly well designed and very intuitive. It is fairly easy to learn, but takes some time to master. But the feeling you get the very first time you clear out an entire room of enemies, using all of Batman’s various moves and gadgets, without getting hit or even breaking your combo is phenomenal. This, combined with the stealth sections where you can sneak around and clear out an entire room of armed enemies from the shadows without ever being seen, make you feel unbelievably badass. You feel unstoppable. You feel like the goddamn Batman.
The only aspect of Batman that the series doesn’t capture perfectly is his detective skills. They make a decent attempt with the Riddler ‘s clues and the couple of times you have to use detective mode to track someone or examine a scene, but it’s not quite enough to make you feel like the world’s greatest detective. However, the upcoming prequel, Arkham Origins (which is looking better and better every day) is going to attempt to fix this, and really integrate Batman’s detective skills into gameplay in a significant way. And it will be awesome.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Spider-Man is another hero with a number of video games in his name. Luckily, his track record is a bit better than Batman’s. There have been a number of fairly good Spider-Man games, however there is one that surpasses them all: Spider-Man 2. Yes, the licensed movie game. This may seem crazy, since as we all know, movie licensed games are notorious for being worse than a wolf gnawing on your grundle. Yet Spider-Man 2 is able to achieve so much more than any Spider-Man game before it or since. Previous Spider-Man games were linear, simply having you go from level to level fighting enemies and completing objectives, but putting Spider-Man in a series of levels with limited space is a waste. Sure, the combat may have been well done and fun, allowing you to use Spidey’s quick, acrobatic fighting style, as well as his web slinging powers to take out your foes, but you never had enough space to really move around. Spider-Man 2 puts you in an open world, free to explore the entire island of Manhattan. And the city actually feels alive. As you move about the city, distressed citizens will call out for you help at random times. You can be on your way to your next mission, and a woman will call out to you to stop the mugger who just stole her purse. You can always ignore it an head to your next mission, if you so choose. But of course, with great power comes great responsibility…
But the true genius of the game is the brilliantly done web swinging mechanics. And after all, wouldn’t that be the most fun part about being Spider-Man? The game makers knew it was important, so they gave it the amount of attention that it needed. The webs actually need to attach to a building in order for you to be able to swing, and the game uses actual physics to determine the speed and path of your swing. So it takes a little bit of skill to use, and is incredibly satisfying (as well as ridiculously fun) once you get the hang of it. Swinging at high speeds around the city, while stopping to save endangered citizens really makes you feel like you really are Spider-Man. You can do everything that Spider-Man can do, including the fluid, acrobatic combat that other games had done so well. You got a sense that the developers weren’t just cashing in on a popular movie franchise, they really understood what makes Spider-Man as a character and successfully translated it into gameplay, which is what makes it so vastly superior to any other Spidey game.
“I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.”
Wolverine is possibly Marvel’s most popular character. Certainly the most popular of the X-Men. He is a complex and interesting character. But mostly, he has claws that essentially make him a walking blender, ready to make human smoothies out of anyone foolish enough to cross his path. Tearing people to shreds is as natural to Wolverine as smashing is to the Hulk.
Trying to tone down Wolverine’s brutality is a risky move, and almost never works out (Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan being a rare exception.) It’s one of the the reasons the two family friendly solo Wolverine movies have failed to truly capture what the character of Wolverine should be. But where X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed, the video game based off of it succeeds. The game is sort of an anomaly, in that not only is it a good movie game, it is actually significantly better than the film it is based on. Though based on the terrible movie, the game has no qualms about allowing you to tear through your enemies in a way that would give Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine nightmares. The game is essentially a God of War clone, but that’s okay, because it turns out the GoW style of play is a perfect fit for Wolverine. Beating down and tearing apart your enemies really lets you feel Wolverine’s animalistic rage and brutality. Not to mention, it’s damn fun. It is also one of the few games where regenerative health actually makes sense. Your character even takes physical damage from enemy attacks. It is pretty gratifying to tear through a particularly difficult battle and see your character standing there, all bloody with his flesh torn off and bones exposed, only to watch his wounds slowly heal themselves before your eyes. Being able to savagely destroy your enemies really gives you the feeling if being Weapon X himself (Hmm, I’m beginning to sense a pattern here.) Of course, the game is not perfect. The fact that it’s tied to the terrible movie limits it in many ways. Particularly the story, which follows very closely to the movie story, and the game suffers as a result. However, what the game does right manages to outweigh it’s shortcomings. Overall, the game developers seem to understand the character in a way the makers of the movie could not seem to grasp. Plus, you can unlock a few classic comic outfits for Wolverine, making it a little easier to mentally disassociate it from the movie.
I do hope that someday, somebody takes some cues from this game and makes a proper, standalone Wolverine game based on the comics, because this game has shown just how much potential a Wolverine game could have. If they made a game that could break free of the few things that held this one back, while improving on the things that worked, and added a great story inspired by the comics, it would be absolutely amazing. (Especially if Steve Blum does the voice. (Skip to 2:07 time mark.))
“In brightest day. In blackest night…”
Alright, this is more what one would expect from a movie licensed game. Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters is a good example of a game that exists for little reason other than to cash in a feature film, with little effort put forth to make the game at all worthwhile. The game itself is actually not terrible. It’s not particularly good either. It’s bland. It’s substandard. it’s the Ann Veal of video games. The real issue, however, is that it’s not really a Green Lantern game. It may look like a Green Lantern game, but is actually just an entirely different game with a Green Lantern paint job. In reality, it is a generic and wholly uninspired beat ’em up with a few on-rails shooter levels thrown in for “good” measure. The game is essentially another God of War clone, but unlike Wolverine, this combat style doesn’t really fit for Green Lantern. The Green Lantern power ring provides a multitude of awesome powers to it’s wearer. The scope of these powers is not even close to being represented in this game. Hal Jordan can create an energy construct of anything he can imagine, limited only by his own willpower. He can fly at near light speed, and fire concussive blasts powerful enough to stagger even Superman. In the game, he mostly just walks around and hits stuff. Though he is able to create constructs, they are really nothing more than different weapons with which to hit things. There are a few levels where he can fly (which he should be able to do any time in the game, because he can), but as I my mentioned, they are just lame, on-rails levels where you just fly straight forward and shoot at the things that are in your way.
Not Pictured: Fun
The game fails to give you the freedom or power that a Power Ring would provide. It fails to capture the feeling of the Green Lanterns and the Universe in which they live. Although, admittedly, this is something that would be very difficult to achieve. The scope of the Green Lantern universe, and the nature of the Lantern’s powers would be very difficult to translate into a game. Perhaps the game would have benefited from an open world, probably set across multiple locations, starting in Coast city and expanding to Oa and perhaps a few other planets . Gameplay could have been similar to in the game inFAMOUS, with a good mixture of melee (construct) and projectile (beam) attacks, as well as strong, large, area clearing, super attacks that require a lot of “Willpower” to use. Hal’s attacks and constructs would start out fairly basic, and through experience he could eventually gain the ability to perform more complex and powerful attacks. Flight would need to be added, obviously. The story could be inspired by the best story arcs from the comics, which has worked so well for the Arkham series. Of course, it would take a lot more than just those few ideas to make the game work as a whole. Perhaps the game would end up as a disaster anyway, or fail to capture the feeling of being Green Lantern, simply due to the limits of current video game technology. Hopefully, somebody will eventually find a way to create a game that can do justice to the Green Lantern universe, because it has the potential to be something incredible.
“…It’s about what you do. It’s about action.”
Like Batman, Superman is another character that has had quite a sordid past in video games. The bad news is, Superman has yet to be redeemed as Batman has with the Arkham games. There have, of course, been some notoriously terrible Superman games, but there have also been a couple half decent one, and for the purposes of this post, I feel it is better to discuss the best efforts for each hero, rather than dwelling on the terrible. Shadow of Apokolips is probably the “best” effort put forth for a Superman game. The game is decent, but even still it is far from greatness. The issue with Superman is that, due to the nature of his character, it can be difficult to make a good story about him in any medium. He is sort of the relic of a bygone era. He was created during a time when good and evil were seen as black and white, and good was always supposed to triumph over evil. As a result, he was created as a morally perfect, nearly indestructible destroyer of evil. Unfortunately he hasn’t evolved a whole lot since then. His absolute flawlessness makes him difficult to relate to, and his variety of superpowers make him far too overpowered for there to ever truly be any danger for him. However, this isn’t quite the problem that this game has. As uninteresting it could be to see a story about a hero that is far too overpowered, actually being able to control that hero and all the powers he has at his command could be quite a lot of fun, at least for a little while. The game does a fairly decent job allowing you to use a few of Supes’ powers, and some of them can be pretty fun to use. Particularly the ability to fly through the city, even if the controls aren’t perfect.
The problem is the combat. Superman has super strength, super speed, and a number of offensive powers which should make combat a breeze against non-super powered enemies, and any enemies that could come close to matching him in ability would result in epic, knock-down, drag-out brawls. Instead, we get slow, lackluster combat, with underwhelming melee strikes and weak superpowers. Most of the enemies in the game are robots, so there is no reason for Superman to hold back. You should be punching these guys through buildings and slamming them through the ground. Instead, you can only knock them back a couple feet, and it takes a lot of bashing (any more than one punch is too many) to take these guys out. Although this is partly due to the limitations of the game’s engine, it is also due to the nature of video games, which is also the reason why the character of Superman may not ever be able to work in a video game. In order for a game to be fun, there must be some amount of challenge. If you had all of Superman’s abilities, there would be no challenge to most of the enemies that you would face in the game. As I said before, the feeling of having so much power would be fun for a little while, but eventually the lack of challenge would become boring.
So his abilities were downplayed to make the game more challenging. Perhaps if the game was set in an open world Metropolis, and used a classic RPG like experience system, where stronger abilities were slowly unlocked with experience throughout the game until you eventually had all of Supes’ best powers by the end of the game, it could actually work pretty well. Even if you were overpowered against most enemies by the end of the game, it would be okay because you so much work to get to this point, and your overwhelming power would feel earned and be quite satisfying to use. Also, there could still be a challenge in fighting Superman’s more powerful enemies, which he logically would be fighting by end game. However, this is not true to Superman as a character. By the time he got to Metropolis, Superman was already quite experienced and in control of the majority of his powers. In order for this to make sense, most of the game would have to be set in Smallville, but that would not provide a very interesting locale or allow for Superman’s more interesting enemies to be involved. Unfortunately, an accurately portrayed Superman character just does not seem to make for a very fun game. I hope that someday, a developer can find a way to prove me wrong, but I find it hard to see how they could possibly make it work.
The main problem for most of the bad superhero games seems to be their inability to capture what it feels like to be that superhero. Whether it be due to laziness, or because the character doesn’t translate well into video games, it isn’t enough to simply put a superhero character in the game that doesn’t actually have the skills and personality of the character they are meant to be and call it a day. You wouldn’t read a Batman comic where Batman ran around shooting guns, not beating up criminals, and doing a number of other very un-Batman actions. If I just wanted to be some random dick in a Batsuit, I would buy my own and run around trying to fight crime at night. And I would get my ass kicked, because the costume alone does not make the hero. It’s not just the powers, the gadgets, the abilities, the power rings, the green skin, or anything like that, either. It’s the whole package. Everything that makes the character so enjoyable to read must be experienced in order to really get into that character’s skin. An good story couldn’t hurt, either. Hopefully, we will have more developers like Rocksteady and Treyarch who are willing to put forth the time and effort needed to do justice to the characters we love, rather than lazily crapping out a terrible game in order to make a quick profit off of a popular franchise. I would throw so much money at any developer who could make a great Flash or Iron Man game, or really any other superhero that would be fun as shit to play as (which is most of them.) Maybe someday, this will all be more than just wishful thinking. Until then, I’ll just keep spending all my time (and money) playing the Arkham games. (Speaking of, Arkham Origins comes out October 25! Wooo!)