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Can comic book games learn from Grand Theft Auto?

Grand Theft Auto continues to get a pretty bad rep. It is, without doubt, a game that has courted controversy to the extent it now revels in it. And to be fair, you can see why. It encourages players to indulge in taboos, whether that be stealing a jet from a military base to go and strafe a warehouse full of rival gang members, or indulging in questionable activities with ladies of ill repute. Not something we set out to do in our day to day lives when we’ve got a brew in our hand at 7am and hoping for another hour in bed.

But escapism plays a key role in video games, and that’s why GTA is so popular: It operates in a world we can all identify with, either from living in a grimy city like Liberty City or having holidayed in, or seen on the TV or the movies, an American dreamland like Los Santos. Then it injects it with just enough outlandishness, to encourage people to live out their fantasies.

That fantasy world is borne out by the sheer money it’s made. Yes the GTA brand has a lot to do with that, but you don’t make £500m through sales in your first 24 hours (if you don’t believe me check this out) by being a bad game. There are many homages, duplicates and imitators of GTA, but none of them capture the same level of interest, good or bad, that the franchise attracts.

“What has this got to do with comics?” you might ask. Well, with the exception of Rocksteady’s Arkham games, it’s pretty safe to say that superheroes get a raw deal when it comes to console and PC adventures. Case in point is Superman, which OutsideXBox points out in this video.

When Lego versions of your favourite characters start getting more attention than your officially licensed tie in, then maybe it’s time to reconsider your approach.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more successful elements of GTA and see how they could be adapted to make their superhero counterparts better.

Open world environments

Image via Activision/Marvel Entertainment

Image via Activision/Marvel Entertainment

Now, this is not to say open world gaming is the cure for everything, but there are times when it is the most obvious way to get the most out of your experience. The Arkham games have embraced this philosophy, giving you an opportunity to plan your strategy before taking on enemies, and the scope to explore your surroundings. Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2 had the same idea, allowing you freedom to swing between the rooftops of New York and approach objectives from a unique perspective each time you tackled them. But those environments still looked the same – city blocks, darkened rooms, bleak warehouses. There is so much more that could be explored. An Avengers game could go to Wakanda, Madripour, Asteroid M – all places with their own unique atmosphere and look. The nearest Marvel got to that were the Ultimate Alliance games, and while they were good, they were repetitive, as well as reverting to needless boss battles at certain points. The Lego Marvel Super Heroes game largely confines itself to New York’s city setting, and is at times too wacky for a serious gamer to have fun with. Same goes for the Lego Batman games, which do traverse to many a different planet, but again don’t treat their subject matter seriously enough. Those that do hit the right note, for example the recent Deadpool game, are way too linear, and don’t give you the freedom to explore the world you inhabit. Let’s not get into the poor adaptations of the Iron Man, Thor or Captain America movies, or the artistic misstep that was the Green Lantern game. Game companies: Treat your players like grown ups, Give them a superhero game that they can have fun with by closely mirroring the movies. The Disney Infinity games come close, but are again confined to New York. GTA takes grown up themes and adapts them to a near real life setting that can be fully explored. Imagine Iron Man in that scenario, flying above the US countryside, or The Flash sprinting along a metro subway? Those type of scenarios are commonplace in GTA, so why not in a superhero game?

RPG systems

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive

Again, this is something that’s been tried, but doesn’t really work. Arkham Batman has his gadgets, but aside from the grapnel boost and the different batarangs available, is largely finite with the tools he can use. The likes of Iron Man, Green Lantern, Thor have skill sets that are naturally upgradable. Again, the Disney Infinity games have a handle on this, providing Iron Man with improved armour and weapons as you earn points, but the game is so easy you don’t really need them. An upgrade system should correlate with the difficulty of the game, so with better weapons come harder enemies – a trait best illustrated in the Mass Effect series, perhaps even more so than GTA, where the different races and planetary defences you encounter require different weapons, ammunition and perks to tackle them. In GTA, the further you progress through the game, the more cash you earn, the more body armour you can buy, the better vehicles you can buy, the better attachments for weapons you can obtain. That equips you to take on more and more difficult enemies and in greater numbers. Imagine that applied to a Green Lantern game, where you could build more impressive constructs to tackle more difficult enemies, or have to master different sides of the emotional spectrum to face different enemies. It’s a system that has only been slightly used by game developers, and deserves more depth.

First and third person views

Image via Rockstar Games

Image via Rockstar Games

Not a significant one, but more of an aesthetic reason. GTA’s current gen upgrade brought with it first person gaming, which, if nothing else, immerses you more in the game. Third person has always been the preserve of GTA, but with the graphical enhancements made by moving up to current gen, it’s allowed Rockstar to increase the level of detail in their game. Visually, it becomes much more impressive, to the extent you can now see the marks on the dashboard of a car if you’re driving it, and can get up close and personal with the weapons, gadgetry and even the animals that form part of of Los Santos. Imagine that transposed to an Iron Man game? Marvel have already shown just how detailed it could be with the “Hulkbuster experience” at some cinemas in the US, where you step into an old arcade style machine that puts you behind Tony Stark’s visor during his fight with the Hulk in South Africa. Add to that the benefits of going first person in a Punisher or Deathstroke game, which do lend themselves to the first person shooter genre, and you have a perspective that many superhero games don’t use, but could take great advantage of.

Non repetitive side missions

Image via Lego Games/Marvel Entertainment

Image via Lego Games/Marvel Entertainment

Come on – who enjoys a good old side mission? Fetch that and bring it back. Blow this up. Jump through that. Drive to here and pick up this. They’re fun the first couple of times, but be honest, how many times do you find yourself eschewing the grind of the above in favour of just ploughing through the story? That is of course, providing you’re playing an open world game. If not, as is the case with many a superhero game, then you’re forced down the linear path. The Thor and Green Lantern games bear little if no resemblance to their movie plotlines, and you’d think that would give them the freedom to explore other parts of each character’s mythology. You’d be wrong. Boy would you be wrong. Just keep bashing bigger frost giants, and then just keep bashing tougher Manhunter robots, in the hope that a digitised Chris Hemsworth or Ryan Reynolds leaping up and down is enough to float your boat of an evening. Even Marvel’s better games, like the Lego series, have you unlocking different characters by driving to things and picking them up, or flying to things and blowing them up. GTA V is much more accomplished at this, and while some do repeat themselves, like drug trafficking or stealing cars, the challenges faced when completing them – whether that be the number of enemies, the terrain or the activity itself – become increasingly difficult, making each one different and therefore refreshing when you come to play them.

Changing your character’s appearance

Image via Warner Bros Entertainment/WB Montreal

Image via Warner Bros Entertainment/WB Montreal

At the beginning of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has 43 different suits of armour. In the comics, Spider-Man has been through more costumes than Lily Savage. In their games? Tony Stark is stuck with one. Peter Parker gets seven in Amazing Spider Man 2: The Game. Why stifle these men and their commitment to fashion? Why suppress the threads man? Seriously though, if any genre was ripe for variety, it’s superheroes. Mass Effect pulls it off brilliantly, as does Saints Row, as does the Rainbow Six series, as does GTA. The Batman Arkham games have this right, offering a huge variety of skins as downloadable content. Yes they’re at an extra charge, but people would and do pay for them, if they were creative and faithful enough to their movie, TV show or comic book counterparts.

Co-op play

Image via Bungie Games

Image via Bungie Games

Pretty simple one really, and also one that Rocksteady are incorporating into Arkham Knight with the ability to team Batman up with Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman. Many superhero factions, be in The Avengers, X-Men, Justice League, or Suicide Squad all work together in teams, so why can’t they do it in video games? With each character having a speciality, it’s an ideal way to put together a huge gamer base that could crossover into multiplayer too. The Marvel Ultimate Alliance games came close to this, but you’d think with modern, current gen systems, it’d be easy to adapt those scenarios to a third person game. The most recent example, Destiny, is still finding it’s feet, but makes great use of people playing together to accomplish missions, each using a speciality to succeed in their own unique way. Apply that to a Justice League game, for example, with Superman’s strength, Wonder Woman’s power, Batman’s ranged attacks, Green Lantern’s artillery, The Flash’s speed and Martian Manhunter’s stealth. Just think how entertaining that would be, and leads us nicely into…

Reliable and engaging online experience

Image via Rockstar Games

Image via Rockstar Games

Online is the altar where many of the major game developers worship these days. Gone are the days when the main focus was a lengthy single player campaign, now the money is to be made from challenge maps, paying for better weapons if you want to level up quicker, buying downloadable content to use online and season passes that allow discounts on other content. There is money to be made from the online gamer. That said, the online experience is now better than ever (unless you’re continually shot in the back of a head by a 13 year old kid on a Call of Duty challenge map). Games like Destiny, and Grand Theft Auto’s heist missions, allow players to come together from all over the world to play together, and it’s something that superhero games haven’t ever got right. The Arkham games have made a point of NOT including multiplayer in their universe, because they wanted to capture the isolation of Batman. At least the ones made by Rocksteady did. Arkham Origins, made by Warner Montreal, including a multiplayer Player vs Player system, where you could play as henchmen of The Joker or Bane. So, a multiplayer Batman game, where you can’t play as Batman? That sounds… tiresome. And you know something, the servers were deserted within weeks. That tells it’s own story. But, imagine a multiplayer Avengers game, where you could compete on a huge GTA style server, completing challenges, with a roster of characters in the hundreds for you to pick from? Someone playing as Thor on that server? No problem, you can play as Iron Man, with your own missions to complete, and the ability to join missions that other players are playing in. Marvel and DC have the depth of characters to do this, and it’d be great if they actually did.

So there you have it, how superhero games can take a leaf out of GTA’s book. It’s not to say that Rockstar’s juggernaut is the most family friendly vehicle out there, but if Marvel and DC could put that aside, and use the principles of what it’s achieved, then they could conquer a market that so far, has been a thorn in many a hero’s side.

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