You know how I like to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon? Well, sometimes I like to lie on the sofa with a bar of chocolate and a good book. Other times I like to go for a walk, which reminds me of how much I hate the countryside and the outside world, at which point I go home and head straight for the sofa again, Cadbury bar at the ready. But mostly I think I like leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper, picking up lorries with my bare hands and shooting lasers out of my palms, all done through the power of spandex and suspended disbelief.
Everybody has their own way of relaxing.
I really like the superhero sandbox genre, because if you’re lucky they’ll be some fascinating new take on the whole thing. Running, driving, shooting, occasionally climbing, there are a billion games that offer those kinds of activities, and it’s very rarely new or original.
But playing as a super-powered ponce in tights usually means that driving around in a car is the choice for noobs, when you can always just bounce up into the ozone layer with a single push of your radioactive thighs, and drop down to make a crater in your chosen location. Why use a gun, when you could charge straight at your foe, deflecting his machine-gun fire with your nose, and headbutt him into the next postcode? Why pick a lock, when you could bash it down with single flex of your unrealistic pectoral muscles?
But there’s some things I wish I saw more of in superhero games, things that always seemed like obvious choices to me, points that they so often miss, and we’re going to start with a particular bugbear of mine: what’s the obsession with gliding?
Don’t get me wrong, I guess gliding is vaguely cool, but it always seems so agonisingly close to the more exciting option, that of unrestricted flight. The very few games that allow the player to fly are always really kick-ass, but so many others get all coy when the option is brought up. All the big super-sandboxes contain gliding, yet there would have been nothing wrong with letting us take to the skies that I can see. Let me show you what I mean.
Prototype contained gliding, when there was nothing in the map that would have been ruined by flight. Crackdown 2 opted for gliding, yet another mistake it could add to its roster. Saint’s Row 4, intended to be one of the craziest games in world, only allowed true flying with the “Gat Out Of Hell” stand-alone expansion release, and even then it had to be within the designated areas. And sure, I guess it wouldn’t have made sense for Batman to get that upgrade to his cape in Arkham City, but why not let us get in that fighter jet he has and zoom around in there?
I think there’s something irritating about gliding, because of the fact that it means you constantly fall short of your destination and break all flow of movement. You know what I mean. Leaping from the Empire State Building to the next skyscraper along is awesome, and even if you miss, you land with a crash and can just bounce back up with the next jump. But if you throw yourself towards it and start to glide, it’s slow and painstaking, breaking any sense of flow, and of course, you’re constantly uncertain if you’ll actually make it there, which makes it all the more infuriating on the times where you don’t.
On the regular occasions where you do fall short of the rooftop, you end up scraping your head against the side of the brickwork for a bit, as you slowly and embarrassingly float down like a discarded piece of paper, cursing the harsh mistress that is gravity and wishing that stupid kid could’ve gotten his own balloon back. What an inspiration to the city you are, masked hero. And now your secret identity is safe even without the mask, because you left most of your face peeled off against the east wall of the Chrysler Building.
OK, it doesn’t have to be flying that you swap it out for, but there’s enough games where you can pretend to be a disinterested kite that I think gliding is something we’re saturated on now. Why not think of something new? 2004’s Spider-Man 2, one of my favourite comic-book games of all time and the first truly brilliant super-sandbox, treated the webslinging as something dynamic, and it really was. It was something you actually had to work at, timing your swings and measuring angles to maintain the fastest speed possible, making it very organic and fun, treating it less like a method of travel and more like an extreme sport.
So movement needs to be as engaging as possible. Don’t just give us sprinter’s legs and a hang-glider before you call it a day, go for something a bit more. But what about combat?
To my mind, the name of the game here is power fantasy. Fine, sometimes it’s going to be smart to throw something of equivalent strength at the player, such as a giant monster or another berk with superpowers. But individual human enemies should be as easy to take down as a drunk Essex girl in a nightclub, and I can tell you why.
Combat is often at its most fun when we’re fighting vast waves of highly inferior foes, knocking them down until they have a new appreciation for tenpins in a bowling alley. The numbers make up the difference in strength, and of course, no matter how it goes you’re still going to look like a badass, because even if you lose, you’ve downed forty people armed with assault rifles along the way. One of my favourite sequences in Arkham City has you fight infinitely spawning enemies, but they’re all as substantial as water balloons and go down in a single hit. Now that was fun.
But if you drop next to a mugger with an uzi and barely have time to say “What’s all this, then?” before he turns around and reduces you to Swiss cheese, then you’re going to feel a bit ineffectual. Even if you win the game at that power level, the inevitable city-sized boss fight at the end is going to seem a bit silly, when you know deep down that Smackhead-Joe and his brakka-brakka toy could have sorted it out just as well. So keep the player powerful, or at least the most frequently powerful figure with the exception of big bosses. It makes it nice and cathartic.
And finally? Well, I’d quite like to see some cool new powers. That’s a stretch, I know, I don’t think there are many good ones left, certainly not many original ones. It’s a good thing that abilities aren’t copyrighted by superheroes as they’re acquired, or else things could get problematic. “Well Timmy, you were the perfect distance from that lab explosion to gain superpowers, but I’m afraid that the legal team have advised against the standard stuff like flight, strength and laser eyes, so that just leaves you with the ability to turn your bones into jam.”
Actually, whilst it might be a little tricky to think of new abilities at this point, I still think it can be done. Even reskinning the old stuff goes a long way to giving a new sort of feel to a game, just by how it looks and how it affects enemies.
Say if you’re making a water-themed character, why not tweak the dodge function, so instead of him just rolling to one side like everybody else, it has him turn into water, so an attack passes harmlessly through him? That sort of thing can make a big difference. And swapping out generic energy blasts and fireballs for something else more memorable, like a cheese grater beam or a gun that shoots tigers, is the equivalent of a funky signature at the end of a letter. It might not be enough to truly change our opinion of the content, but we will appreciate the individuality of the experience. And superhero games at their best have always been individual, a new experience that really stands out when swinging swords or using firearms inevitably becomes tiring or mundane.
Basically, that’s the lifeblood of a super-sandbox. Originality. Excitement. Something to throw away all preconceptions and focus on the good time you’re about to have, as you take to the skyline and discover that you want powers that you had never even thought of before.
Think about it – who wouldn’t want to play a game where you’re bitten by a radioactive cactus, or exposed to the energy derived from a basket of beach towels? Everybody would be craning their necks to see what was happening. And I’m not saying that I’m planning a game in which you get the proportionate strength and speed of a Kookaburra. Or a game in which you realise that your power to vomit missiles comes from the fact that your father was a Harrier jet. I’m not confirming that at all. But I bet you want to play them. That’s the true power of the innovative super-sandbox, people want the experience, they want to feel super-human.
On an unrelated note, can anybody help me make a Kickstarter account?