Sunday, August 24, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 3)

I understand the impulse to make Metropolis a gigantic, sprawling...well, metropolis. It's clear in the game of Superman Returns that the designers were trying to demonstrate how overwhelmingly huge Metropolis is, spread across four islands, the main one (presumably New Troy, though the arrangement of the city doesn't really map well onto any of the canonical versions, nor even the version shown in the movie) having several tiers of urban plateaus. Metropolis is huge.

Unfortunately, Metropolis is also uniform. There's very little in the way of distinctive landmarks, which makes getting around the city a chore. The screen has a little radar and a note of which general neighborhood you're in, but that doesn't really tell you much, largely because there's no clear distinction between neighborhoods. The Spider-Man games have it fairly easy in this regard, since they're modeled on a real city, and thus have lots of recognizable buildings and areas to pull from. Plus, the layout of the city is mostly pre-determined, so there's no fumbling in that regard either. In SR, the only real recognizable places are the Daily Planet and a couple of Planet Krypton and Big Belly Burger restaurants. And even those aren't particularly easy to find; the best way to find the Daily Planet building is to start the game in front of it.

For practical purposes, Metropolis needs some navigation help. I'm not sure if street-by-street notifications would really help, but labeling key locales on the in-game map might be useful. Shrinking the city would certainly help (paging Brainiac); it can be big without being so confusing, and Superman really ought to know his way around.

Including some other major landmarks and areas would be useful, too. The plot of the movie universe makes it unlikely that there'd be a LexCorp Tower, but what about the GBS building? The Daily Star? The Ace O' Clubs? S.T.A.R. Labs? 344 Clinton St.? The Newstime offices? The Avenue of Tomorrow? Props to the game for including Hyper Sector [sic] and Suicide Slum, but the whole point of Hypersector was that it was more futuristic than the rest of the city, while Suicide Slum is Metropolis's industrial and criminal district; there's nothing to show any of that in the game, and both areas are pretty much the same as any other area.

Part of this is the fault of DC Comics for not developing a clear, consistent layout for Metropolis. This seems to be the general consensus in-universe:

(Image taken from here, but I think it's originally from the Metropolis Secret Files & Origins)

Although that's pretty loose. Even that doesn't note where most of the landmarks are located, just general regions. I know that it's useful to writers and artists that the fictional cities remain flexible, but there needs to be some kind of definition.

Personally, I'd like to see them actually canonically define what states cities like Gotham and Metropolis are in, rather than leaving them vaguely floating around New England. The old DC RPG apparently placed Gotham in New Jersey and Metropolis in Delaware, which actually makes the most sense to me (especially since it's been repeatedly established that Gotham is north of Metropolis, and that both are island cities on the east coast). "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" placed Metropolis in New York, which doesn't make much sense geographically, particularly in relation to Gotham.

But even that's not entirely necessary, it'd just make things somewhat easier. No, someone needs to actually draft a rough map of Metropolis, establishing where landmarks are in relation to one another, so media tie-ins and comics can have some idea of the layout. It doesn't seem to hamper Spider-Man much that his city is relatively rigidly defined, it shouldn't be a burden to DC's heroes either.

Following that, the ideal Superman game would include as many familiar spots as possible, and should do its best to make the different boroughs and neighborhoods distinct. If the Grand Theft Auto games can manage it, so can Superman. Also, I'd like to see them incorporate the sort of Easter eggs that litter the Spider-Man games: billboards and that sort of thing with throwaway in-universe ads. There are some generic billboards in SR, but nothing related back to the DCU. I'd like to see posters advertising the soap opera Secret Hearts, or ads for Newstime and Wayne Enterprises and the Super Buddies. I'd really like to see benches promoting the services of the Power Company and Kate Spencer.

Other generic landmarks would be nice; I mentioned hospitals in the previous post, and police stations would be nice as well. In fact, the S.C.U. and Science Police ought to have some kind of in-game presence; it needn't be big, but just having them around to assist (or be assisted) in the random battles would be cool. Also, they could serve the very useful purpose of evacuating panicky civilians from battlegrounds.

Oh, and battlegrounds! I've mentioned a couple of times that I'd like to be able to do the typical superhero thing--"Let's take this fight away from the city"--especially since the city has a health meter. Don't tell me that there aren't any condemned buildings or abandoned warehouses in Metropolis, where Superman can take enemies to in order to fight them with limited collateral damage; it seems like the city's full of them (though not so much as Gotham, which apparently has its own abandoned warehouse district).

Metropolis has been around for most of Superman's history, and it has developed a pretty distinctive character of its own. If the games would treat the Big Apricot with a little more detail, it would add immeasurably to the feel of the game.

Edit: One more minor detail: I was playing the game earlier, just to remind myself of some of the layout issues, and I ended up picking up the Daily Planet globe. It's pretty much impossible to set the globe back in its spot; this is partially due to the really bizarre physics of the ball. See, it handles an awful lot like it's made of plastic and filled with helium. If you drop it, it bounces lethargically around down the block, sending civilians into a panic as it wrecks cars and pavement with each landing, until it rolls to a halt against a building or something. Racing it to the bottom to try to catch it is an exercise in futility; Superman basically has a mid-air seizure as you try to hit the catch button next to the falling sphere. I like being able to manhandle the Daily Planet's most distinctive feature, but I wish it would handle like a giant ball of metal rather than a giant party balloon.

Then again, considering how frequently that globe gets knocked around, maybe the city finally decided to replace it with something less expensive.

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