How other superhero games can replicate Arkham City’s success

James Haresign July 31, 2012 - 1:00 pm

Feature: Hollywood has embraced the superhero and thanks to Rocksteady’s take on Batman the games industry is looking to do the same. We look at what makes a good superhero game and, more importantly, what doesn’t.

The possibility of a new Rocksteady Batman game should fill me with joy, happiness and other warm fuzzy feelings. But the rumour that they’re going include the entire Justice League of America has me worried.

Games starring multiple heroes of varying power sets are difficult to pull off well because they place all the heroes on a level playing field. Batman has to be just as capable in a fight as Superman, which frankly isn’t true. Now before any comic geeks call for my head on a platter let me finish. Let’s take the Avengers film as an example because everyone’s seen that, even your culturally unaware, it’s hip-to-be-square nan.

During that last big epic fight over New York, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor are flying all over the city, keeping the enemy contained and taking out the big ships. Meanwhile on the ground you have Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye keeping the civilians safe and choosing their targets more tactically. Everyone is playing to their strengths.

If this was Marvel Ultimate Alliance, a game that is pretty much the Avengers plus friends, the big guns would be stuck on the ground, constrained within a limited area because that’s how far the more street level characters are capable of going. It undersells what they can do. All of them. That’s not to say it isn’t fun – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed MUA and the X-Men Legends games before that – but they don’t show off what the characters can really do. It’s not just Marvel either, as LEGO Batman and Justice League Heroes suffer the same problems.

Getting Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash fighting the same people does them all a huge disservice. Batman sneaks around, slowly taking out hoodlums before getting into a brawl. It’s all about getting yourself into position and slowly taking out an entire room of people without them having a clue where you are.

You spend time setting traps, lying in wait and ready to pounce, paying particular attention to the ones with guns. The enemies start to freak out more and more as you pick them off, getting to a point where they’re scared out of their minds at just what The Batman will do to them. Introducing Superman to that same scenario just doesn’t work. He can just burst through a wall, gunfire bouncing off him and take them all out without even breaking a sweat. Same goes for Wonder Woman and the Flash with different methods.

I’m Batman!

What I’m getting at, and I feel I may be labouring this point a little too much, is what makes Batman special is not the same thing as Superman, Spider-Man or Wolverine. The game has to be designed around what a specific character can do. Bringing any of the other Justice Leaguers into an Arkham title would simply break the entire game.

Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are built for Batman’s sneakiness and detective work. The freeflow combat system in particular gives an immense feeling of being The Dark Knight. Not just in that it’s probably the first time fighting multiple opponents has been done really well, but also in the way it shows off Batman’s combat style. He can stand with ten or twenty thugs surrounding him and he can smash all their faces in, but add even one automatic weapon to the fray and it’s a very different ball game.

That’s something that isn’t true for many heroes outside the Bat family. Even with the extra characters, they all approach combat in a similar way, even if their styles slightly vary. Anyone with a different power set just wouldn’t fit. Same with putting Batman into a hypothetical Green Lantern game, he’d be massively underpowered.

Look at Spider-Man. Us journo types always go on about how 2004′s Spider-Man 2 still hasn’t been beaten for web slinging action. But why not? Part of it is that they nailed the experience of being Spidey. Since then they’ve tried tweaking aspects that always manage to move away from the very joy of being your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man. When development switched to Beenox things looked up. Yes, Shattered Dimensions was linear and corridor based, but the combat worked, the web slinging worked and you felt like Spider-Man again. It seemed to be the first step of a new studio building up to taking the crown away from the Xbox/PS2 game that had held it for so long. But somehow they lost their way.

The recent Amazing Spider-Man tie-in finally returned to an open-world city instead of the incredibly unsuitable corridors, but it is too pre-occupied trying to take on Arkham City than just being a good Spider-Man game. Spider-Man can be sneaky, but not to take on your average criminal – he should be taking them on in hordes, announcing his arrival with a brazen quip. Batman’s fighting style mirrors his attitude to crime-fighting – it’s a clinical, dutiful disposal of the bad guys, whereas Spidey takes his responsibility and has fun with it, something that should be mirrored in every aspect of a game featuring him.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a shitty cash-in

Of course some heroes just make it difficult for developers to make games. Superman is just too damn powerful. Superman 64 did give you everything Superman was capable of, and it was rubbish. That’s because Clark Kent is invincible, super fast, super strong, has X-Ray vision and everything else that your standard model superheroes just don’t come equipped with. It’s surely not impossible to make a decent Superman game, developers just need to let go of the usual design elements and leave the player to do what they want.

Take the Elder Scrolls series or, by the look of things, Dishonored. They give amazing powers to the player and freely admit that with the right combination the player can break the game – the Dishonored devs talk about players discovering exploits gleefully, and you could fly across all of Morrowind with the right combination of skills/potions. This is perfect for the Last Son of Krypton. Stop trying to limit what the character can do and leave it to the player’s imagination to limit them, because if they do it right you will feel like the Man of Steel.

I’m not saying that you can’t have other characters in the game. Take Catwoman in Arkham City. She plays differently but operates at the same level – jumping up the side of buildings instead of just grappling and using a whole range of alternate abilities (just like Robin and Nightwing). Introducing characters like Green Arrow or Black Canary can work, but go beyond those similar fighting styles and the game would start to fall apart.

The trick is to mould the game around your hero. Make a world that is built specifically to how the hero works. Batman’s Arkham games are a shining example of how to make a superhero game great. Developers should be concerning themselves with emulating Rocksteady’s devotion to making a world that suits the hero, rather than the individual mechanics of Arkham itself.

If they show their characters the love they deserve hopefully we can see more superhero games that stand on their own rather than movie tie-ins that do nothing to make you feel super, offering only generic, hollow heroes hiding under a false mask of individuality.

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