Sunday, November 25, 2007

There go my Heroes

In hindsight, that would probably make a better title for the post about the next season finale of "Heroes." Of course, there's nothing to say I won't use it for that too.

So, I've been playing Justice League Heroes on the PS2, and I've quite enjoyed it so far. The game's certainly not without its flaws, but I'm playing through a second time (got to beef up those unlocked characters and see the alternate costumes), which I don't usually do immediately after beating a game.

In fact, the last game I started playing a second time immediately after the first was Marvel Ultimate Alliance, easily one of my favorite superhero video games of all time. Given the similar game mechanics and subject matter, comparing these two games is inevitable. Unfortunately, that's not so great for JLH.

The biggest, most obvious difference is in the size of your teams; Ultimate Alliance gives you four-hero squads, while JLH, probably because of its multiplayer feature, limits you to Dynamic Duos. I applaud the decision to include a two-player option, but limiting the teams to two heroes makes the game feel a heck of a lot more like "Brave and the Bold Heroes." Allowing for larger teams might have required some creativity or flexibility with the multiplayer option, but it would have justified the latter half of the "Justice League" name.

One of the neat ideas in MUA was the team bonus: by combining characters who fit thematically (all women, all spies, etc.) or historically (the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, etc.), you'd get some benefit to your stats. While this obviously makes the most sense with larger teams, there's really no reason that it couldn't have been adapted to the two-person system in JLH. Superman + Batman = World's Finest bonus; Hal Jordan + Green Arrow = Hard-Traveling Heroes bonus; Batman + Huntress = Gotham Knights bonus; and so on. I really think the only reason you wouldn't include such a feature in JLH is that the number of character options might give you more bonus-combinations than normal ones.

Don't get me wrong, JLH has a nice assortment of characters. You start with a pool of seven, ranging from the obvious (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) to the slightly more obscure (John Stewart, Zatanna), and you can buy six more by collecting icons in the game. Unfortunately, I've been spoiled by the sheer number of characters included in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, where in addition to playable characters, you run into all sorts of other superheroes and supporting cast members in the game. MUA is chock-full of easter-eggs and shout-outs to the fans, which really enriches the feel of the universe. JLH has only a fraction of that (though the messages on the Watchtower recorder are fun). And some of the choices made are a little on the odd side; for instance, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner, and Hal Jordan are all separate characters with separate voices and dialogue (albeit with the same powers), but Jay Garrick is just a costume for the Flash. I can't for the life of me figure out why they did that, unless it was to save on game size or something, but how much space do a few new lines of speech really take up?

As great as it is to be able to unlock new characters and some cool costumes (black suit Superman is teh awesome; biker suit Wonder Woman, less so), the game isn't exactly new-character-friendly. There are very few missions where you get to choose your own team (and their costumes), and none of them happen until fairly late in the game, which means any newly-unlocked characters are at a severe level disadvantage. MUA offered frequent chances to change your team's composition during missions, allowing quite a bit more flexibility, and making new characters a little less disadvantaged when they entered the fray.

The story is neat (though it borrows liberally from a couple of JLU plots and "Rock of Ages"), and with Dwayne McDuffie at the helm, it's no wonder that the characterizations are pretty well spot-on. Unfortunately, the game is rather short (and rather easy, for that matter), and a bit repetitive. While I don't necessarily have a problem with all the punch-'em-up action against largely indistinguishable grunts, drones, and robots, I do wish there were a bit more problem-solving. The bosses are tough and varied, but I couldn't help but wonder, in this Justice League game, where all the Justice League villains were. There are two Superman foes (Doomsday, Brainiac), a Flash rogue (Gorilla Grodd), a Firestorm villain (Killer Frost), and Darkseid. The only League villains are The Key and Queen Bee, and arguably the unnamed White Martians. Where are the Weapons Master, T.O. Morrow, Starro, Amazo, Kanjar Ro, and the host of other villains with names ending in "o"? It's not as though the existing villains were picked because of name recognition (the Key? Really?). Picking almost exclusively the enemies of individual heroes rather than the League's villains only contributes to the feel that this game is more "DC Comics Presents" than "Justice League."

Like I said, it's not a bad game; I've had quite a lot of fun playing it (both times). I just hope that DC's next Justice League game takes some hints from MUA, and provides the fans with larger teams, a larger cast, a longer story, more flexibility, more Justice League villains, and greater immersion in the universe. I'd also like to see a Legion of Super-Heroes game along the same lines. So get on it, DC!


Derek said...

I don't see why DC doesn't just blatently rip off the X-Men: Legends/Marvel: Ultimate Alliance gameplay system.

After all, that system was simply ripped off of another dungeon crawler (can't recall the name off the top of my head) and at least they could be sure they were building off a solid system.

Plus, it's great for keeping all the characters at about the same effectiveness. A game that can make a Hulk/Invisible Woman/Electra/Doctor Strange team and have everyone play an equal part could surely bring together the godlike powerhouses and street-level vigilantes of the DCU together.

And I see no reason - in this next-gen, Blue Ray age - why the roster should be limited to ten, twenty, or even thirty characters. A slight sacrifice on graphics or something, and you should be able to play just about anybody.

*really wants to play a Question/Mr. Terrific/Booster Gold/Blue Beetle (II or III) team*

Derek said...

Ooo! Or, they could do a crossover game. Crisis War!

It'd never happen, but how much fun would that be?

Anonymous said...

Good suggestions all around, Tom. I think I would have looked on this game a lot more favorably if it hadn't been released at the same time as MUA, which blows it out of the water in every single way.

Also, the voice actress doing Zatanna really got on my nerves.