Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 1)

In my many years of reading comics and playing video games, I've naturally gravitated toward titles that combine the two. Nine of the twenty-nine games I currently own are explicitly based on comic properties. Besides those, two are Viewtiful Joe games, which borrow liberally from comics, and two are Transformers games, which have their own ties to comic books. And that's just for the PS2 and Gamecube; I've played everything from "Batman Returns" to "Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal."

And somewhere in all that, I've played the vast majority of games that feature a certain cape-clad Kryptonian. And I can say with some honesty that I've found something to like in every one of them that wasn't on the Atari.

Note to readers: I have never played "Superman 64."

There are a number of problems involved in writing interesting stories about Superman, since he can't be harmed and can basically do anything. All these problems are compounded when making a Superman video game. Game designers have to strike a balance between capturing the feel and power of the main character and providing a challenge to the gamer. It's a tough tightrope to walk, and some games do better than others with it. In the vain hope that some game designer will see this, I'd like to explore how games have accomplished these things in the past, and what might be improved upon to create a better console game for the Man of Steel.

To start, let me lay my biases out here: I've been playing a lot of "Superman Returns" on the PS2, and while it's not a perfect game--or maybe even a great game--it does some things better than any of its predecessors. I recently started playing "Superman: Shadow of Apokolips" again, my previous favorite of the available titles, in order to get some comparison. There are fantastic aspects to both games, and I really wish I could combine them both (with aspects of some other great superhero games, like Ultimate Spider-Man and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) to create one of the best superhero games of all time. Anyway, noticing some of the differences between the games has given me some perspective on the whole matter.

So, without any more of this already-protracted introduction, let's get started, and let's start at the deep end. The superpower that provides the most problems to game developers is obvious: Invulnerability.

The first and most important thing that any Superman game has to wrestle with is how to convey the character's invulnerability without making him completely unkillable. "Superman" for the Sega Genesis apparently armed all the villains with Kryptonite weapons, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making Superman look powerless. Other games, like "The Death and Return of Superman" and the Superman arcade game, have mostly just ignored this aspect of the character. "Shadow of Apokolips" gave Superman a fairly speedy health recovery, while "Justice League Heroes" waved it away with Batman saying "Careful, these robots can hurt even you" (also, I think Superman did have more health points than the other characters to start with). But "Superman Returns" came up with the best solution, one which respects Superman's personality as well as his powers: instead of giving Superman a health meter, they gave Metropolis one.

Hearing about this innovation was what convinced me to buy the game. It took me a little while to figure out the in-game justification for the mechanism (it's not necessarily counting down to the destruction of Metropolis, it's just a metric of the property damage and loss of life in the area surrounding Superman), but I think it's handled fairly well. In addition to this bar is Superman's stamina bar, which functions as a combo power and health meter--draining it doesn't kill Superman, it just makes him unable to use vision or breath powers until it refills, or it knocks him down for a few moments.

Ideally, giving Metropolis a damage meter should cause the player to have to think like Superman--be careful about using your powers too wildly or you'll end up destroying things, draw battles away from heavily-populated areas, tend to civilian casualties, and so on. "Superman Returns" makes some effort to accomplish this, but there are a lot of problems with the execution.

The biggest problem is precision. If damaging the city is a concern, then the player needs to have incredibly tight control over Superman's abilities. Target lock should be strong, there should be no delay between hitting the buttons and activating or deactivating the powers. Superman Returns has a real problem with this, at least on the PS2, which results in a lot of flying or running into walls at high speeds, heat-visioning things after the target has moved, and punching uselessly at the air. All this ends up leading to Superman doing more damage to the city than he really ought to. This kind of system should require you to be careful with the powers, but when the controls force you to be reckless, the consequence is a bit frustrating and self-defeating.

The civilians are another problem. After most events, there are a few innocent bystanders lying on the ground in your battlefield, calling for help. If you pick one up, nearby (though curiously stationary) ambulances show up on your radar. Run or fly the injured civilian to the ambulance and the city regains some health.

It sounds like a great idea, but there are a variety of problems with it that need to be ironed out:
  • Stupid Civilians: I realize that crazy stuff happens every day in Metropolis, but people shouldn't be nonchalantly walking through the middle of a battle between Superman and half a dozen hideous monsters. I've had bystanders walk between me and my target while I'm punching them. The start of an event should send civilians either running away or standing around gawking, either of which could put them in danger, but shouldn't result in me having to walk around them to punch the monster.
  • Someone Call 911! Sometimes, especially if you've done multiple events close together in the same region, the ambulances never appear. You pick up your civilian, but you're eventually forced to just drop them on the sidewalk somewhere. The ambulances should always be nearby (and active!) after a battle. Besides that, there ought to be a hospital or three in Metropolis, rather than just a bunch of generic skyscrapers.
  • Where'd They Go? Depending on how far away the ambulances are, chances are you only have time to ferry one civilian over to them before the rest of the injured bystanders up and disappear. This has two major problems: one, it undercuts the thematic component of giving Metropolis a health meter by suggesting that there aren't major consequences to being careless; two, it makes it really difficult to restore the city's health meter after a big battle, since you don't get a chance to help more than one or two people.
  • Butterfingers: This relates back to the problem of precision. It's hard to actually pick up the civilians in the first place. You tend to grab at the air two or three times before the game actually recognizes that you're trying to pick someone up.
  • Let's Take This Outside: There are a few stock phrases that populate superhero battles. "Hit 'em hard and fast!" "This ends now." And, of course, "We need to take this fight away from the city," and variants thereof. It would be nice to have the option and ability to lure and/or carry the villains away from populated areas, to draw fights into parks or dumps in order to minimize property damage.
Some of this would be fairly simple to implement, some would be a little more sophisticated, but they're all necessary to make the "city health meter" work. And the city health meter is the best solution I've found to the invulnerability problem.

I understand the stamina meter, and it works well in Superman Returns. Yes, Superman's invincible, but that doesn't mean he never takes a beating. The stamina meter allows Superman to be knocked down, disoriented, and taken briefly out of the fight. The only problem with it is how quickly it depletes from using heat vision and other long-range powers. It's not as rapid as the super power meters of previous games (Shadow of Apokolips, for instance) but it still occasionally becomes a problem when it doesn't seem like it should be. It needs some finesse, but overall I think it works very well, and is a good complement to the city health meter.

Over the last twenty-odd years, a variety of approaches have been taken to the problem of invulnerability, and most have failed miserably. It seemed for awhile that a quickly-replenishing health meter was the only viable solution, but Superman Returns' primary innovation solved it by moving the focus away from Superman almost entirely. A little tweaking is necessary to make it really work to its full potential, but the foundation of a solution is finally in place. Hopefully the next Superman game will follow suit.

Next in this series: Events and Encounters.


Sea-of-Green said...

At least gamers haven't fallen back on that old copout of having Superman do battle with the bad guy inside the Bottle City of Kandor!

I still think Grand Theft Auto: Gotham City would be the greatest video game EVER.

Eric Garneau said...

I agree with you that Superman Returns has some great ideas (besides the Metropolis health meter, I love how OPEN the game is... you can fly into space if you want!), but I had a bigger problem with the controls than you; I thought they were AWFUL and I couldn't stand playing this game more than an hour or two. Which is not to say that it's not the best Superman game out there, because I can't think of any that are better... Justice League Heroes was alright but I think it made the characters all a little too even, which works fine in the (better) Marvel and X-Men games but not so much in a DC game where Superman and Batman are side-by-side. A few extra HP does not a Man of Steel make.

To the dude above: GTA: Gotham would be AMAZING. That is a great idea.

Derek said...

The problems with Justice League Heroes were many, but I don't think power discrepancy was one of them.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance doesn't suffer from that. Any system that can support a team of Captain America, the Hulk, Miss Marvel, and Doctor Strange can support a team of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Zatanna.

What I'm saying is, the difference between Superman and Batman isn't as big of a problem as it's made out to be.