Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 4)

Superman has a bunch of superpowers.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. But that's how these things go, sometimes. You never know how they're going to change your favorite characters.

I mean, look at some of the older Superman games; they knew how to treat the character right. On the Atari 2600, Superman could pretty much just fly. I think. It's hard to tell with that game. And then on the Genesis, he could do a bunch of stuff, but really only if he got special power-ups. Otherwise, he could be killed with a few punches by pretty much any enemy. And that's the Superman we know and love, right?

Video games have long had problems dealing with the matter of Superman's abilities. If he has unfettered access to all of them, it can become something of a game breaker, in the same way that many writers have called his abilities a story breaker. Especially invulnerability. Playing an average Superman game could be precisely as tedious and effortless as playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Game Genie with unlimited invincibility.

Thankfully, Superman Returns tackled that particular problem. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of issues left with the rest of Superman's prodigious set of abilities. Chief among these, and one that games have long struggled with, is which ones should be included? As far as I'm concerned, these are the important ones, ranked more or less by necessity:
  • Super-strength
  • Heat vision
  • Flight
  • Super-speed
  • Invulnerability
  • Super-senses (especially super-hearing and X-Ray vision)
  • Journalism
  • Freeze-breath
Most Superman games are pretty good about touching on all of these, at least in some fashion. Here's a brief run-down of how they're often utilized:
  • Super-strength: Superman is strong. Duh.
  • Heat vision: Superman's primary ranged attack; usually some kind of special move, usually drains some kind of power meter, sometimes used only in certain levels (especially flying levels).
  • Flight: Sometimes it's pretty much useless (Justice League: Heroes, JL: Task Force, most side-scrollers) as Superman hovers a few feet above the ground. Sometimes it's only used in specific levels (the Genesis Superman game had R-Type-style shooter levels that were all flying, and Superman 64 is apparently a long flight practice game); more recent games (SR, Shadow of Apokolips) incorporate it as a major, if not the primary, mode of movement.
  • Super-speed: Often ignored; sometimes only present in certain moves (the Genesis game had a power-up where you'd spin around really fast to drill through the floor). In SR, you can run or fly at super-speed by holding down a button.
  • Invulnerability: Discussed at length in the first post.
  • Super-senses: Often ignored or triggered rarely in specific places. SR and Shadow of Apokolips use a radar icon to simulate the combined senses, notifying you of events and enemies in the general vicinity. You can trigger X-Ray Vision in Shadow of Apokolips, but it only works on certain things--specifically, things in areas where you're supposed to use X-Ray vision. Doesn't exist at all in SR.
  • Journalism: I'm using the term loosely here to encompass the set of Clark Kent's specific skills--sneaking about, investigating things, interviewing, gathering information, etc. As far as I've played, only Shadow of Apokolips uses this to any degree.
  • Freeze-breath: Generally present as Superman's second projectile attack. Freezes enemies on contact for a period of time. In SR, it can also be used to put out fires; Shadow of Apokolips basically combines this with the more general super-breath, which can move things.
While I like a lot of the choices in Superman Returns, the power set isn't really one of them. Strength is hard to screw up, their solution to the invulnerability problem is pitch-perfect, and the flight system in the game is almost flawless (I think the next post will be just on flying), but after that, things fall apart a bit.

Speed is the first issue, and this was largely the case with Shadow of Apokolips as well. In the games where super-speed is an option, you usually lose fine control when you move faster. That makes a lot of sense, really; it's how speed often works in the real world, and it's been a mainstay of video game logic since at least the days of Sonic the Hedgehog. Most games try to make each power-up have some drawback as well--something simple, like limited duration, or something more significant, like decreased health or control. It maintains the balance of the game.

The problem is that this really doesn't apply so well to Superman; super-speed applies not only to his movements, but also to his reflexes, senses, and thought processing. It's not quite to the degree that the Flash operates at, where he consciously shunts into speed-mode and everything moves in slow motion, but it's certainly similar. And it would have to be; otherwise Superman would constantly be flying into things by moving faster than he could think or react. Sure, he's going to build up some inertia over time, and that should be accounted for, but it shouldn't be quite so bad as it is in SR, where a short super-speed flight will typically send you careening into various buildings. Super-speed should, at least sometimes, shift Superman into so-called bullet-time (as it has in recent adaptations like Smallville and Superman Returns), where everything else is slowed and Superman is moving at a normal pace.

The problem, of course, is limiting this. After all, if you could shunt into bullet-time whenever you wanted, then there'd be no challenge to any battle. So the player's ability to go slow-mo has to have limited duration or limited applicability, while also having some explanation to justify the limitations. It wouldn't be particularly difficult to do that, especially depending on which universe the game is based on, but even just having the bullet-time mode drain your stamina meter (because Superman has to work hard, physically and mentally, to do so much in such a little time) and ending it if Superman gets hit (because it breaks his concentration) would be enough.

Which isn't to say that there shouldn't be a speedy way to get around, too. There's a place for the SR-style super-speed, where you just move faster, but it needs to have much tighter controls and it doesn't need to include such a drastic loss of precision.

My biggest complaint about heat vision is really just a complaint about SR's sloppy controls. Both SR and Shadow of Apokolips allow Superman to do either a sustained beam or a short, powerful burst that drains a lot of the power/stamina meter, and that's fine with me.

X-Ray Vision and the other super-senses are a fairly major sticking point in SR. I don't mind balling up Superman's senses and representing them with a radar display; it worked well for Spider-Man's spider-sense too. My problem is that there should rarely be a situation where I'm Superman, and I can't see what's happening on the other side of a building, or around a corner. I can see through things, I shouldn't have to search so much for the bad guys. I know that making X-Ray Vision a constant option requires a lot more thought and programming into the locations, which is why Shadow of Apokolips only lets you use it in certain places. Still, at least some token attention should be given to it, and systems now are getting able to handle environments of that level of scale and detail. As consoles improve, the excuses for omitting X-Ray Vision dwindle.

You already know my problems with freeze breath as a concept, but I like having it around as a weapon in-game. It's not usually a problem; it's used fairly creatively in Shadow of Apokolips (at one point, Superman has to move a bunch of floating mines without touching--and thus triggering--them), and it's an essential bit of the SR arsenal. But for some reason, SR decided to make "super-breath" and "freeze-breath" separate powers. I'm not sure why; I've not found a single situation in which super-breath is useful and distinct from freeze-breath. It's a waste of a power slot, which could have been filled by something--anything!--more useful. Superman only needs one breath-related superpower in a game.

Which brings us to Journalism, Superman's overlooked ability. One of the nice things, one of my favorite things, about Superman: Shadow of Apokolips, was that it included levels that you had to play as Clark Kent. These levels usually required you to sneak around, take out video cameras, and use your powers in covert ways as you gathered pivotal information to further the plot. While there are other games that involve Clark somehow, it's never been with such a clear eye toward the story, and I've not seen it used since. Bringing Clark Kent into the game allows for many, many more gameplay options, including recon and stealth missions and types of character interaction that you otherwise wouldn't find. Moreover, it would allow the game to make use of some of the supporting cast, which is sadly missing from SR and many other Superman games.

Hopefully I'll get to the cast in a future post. There's not much left to cover; we're almost home free!

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