Bats raised the bar for comic games; here's how Spidey can step it up.
December 17, 2009 - With all the accolades getting tossed around this time of year – platform game of the year, game of the year, graphics of the year, day of the year, etc. – it's only right that we double back and re-congratulate Batman: Arkham Asylum for being the first truly amazing comic book game to ever hit the market. There have been good comic games before, but this one blew the competition out of the water. Now that we're living in a post-Arkham Asylum world, it's clear that more will be expected from comic-based games than ever before.
That means trouble for Spider-Man; the last few webhead games were bad for Peter Parker fans, but compared to Arkham Asylum, they were complete garbage.
Of course, we're IGN – not sadists or soothsayers. We don't want the next Spider-Man game to suck nor can we guarantee that it will. Still, if Activision's looking for advice on how to get the Spidey franchise back on track and piggyback off of the Dark Knight's success, we're happy to lend our two cents.
This is what Spider-Man can learn from Batman: Arkham Asylum.
I know, I know – it sounds crazy. Spider-Man 2 gave you all of New York to play with and it was a blast, so why can't we do that again? The reason is simple: New York is too large for a good open world Spider-Man game on the current crop of consoles. Think about it, both Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows tried for a New York you could swing all over, and it sucked. The games could barely run at spots, there was a lot of pop-in, repetitive enemies, and so on. New York City is just too big and too detailed to be recreated in an open world and not have the overall product suffer.
NYC is too big, just like Gotham City.
Rocksteady knows that fans love the Batmobile. Rocksteady knows that fans would love to leap across the rooftops of the Narrows. Rocksteady knows that you want to pilot the Batwing. The developers of Arkham Asylum knew all of that, but they also knew that something of that scope would be a bitch to pull off. Taking Batman and putting him on an isolated island that he could roam at his leisure gave Rocksteady the ability to create detailed, sprawling environments in a limited open world. At first, being stuck in wing after wing of an insane asylum sounds a bit boring, but think of everywhere you went in that game – the morgue, Croc's lair, the botanical gardens, the Batcave, and your own twisted psyche.
Batman: Arkham Asylum made an epic experience manageable – something Spider-Man developers have failed time and time again to do. Unless you've got a New York model that won't chug when Spider-Man swings through it, crimes pop up, and menus get accessed, dialing back Spidey's digs will benefit the overall experience.
That's a recipe for disaster.
If Arkham Asylum taught us anything, it's that developers need to take these fantastic worlds and make their own stories on their own time. Venom getting Sandman to work with him in the movie came down to some slick talk and a vague threat. In the game, Venom webbed the Sandman's sick daughter so that she was hanging out of a tree and the Sandman dropped to his knees and agreed to help Venom.
Now, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows was an original game and it wasn't that hot, but I think Arkham also shows that publishers need to lay off the "a Spider-Man game a year" setup; these games need to be given time to develop and to be polished. You can't rush stuff to market just because these games sell. On top of that, developers have to accept that gamers are ready for adult tales. Arkham is a game that's a gritty look at the life of Batman; it's not for the kids out there in Batman jammies. Spidey isn't a super-dark character like that, but his life revolves around tragedy – Uncle Ben's death, Gwen's death, a deal with the devil to save his Aunt – and that weight needs to be reflected in games. The paper thin reasons and reactions to being evil in Web of Shadows don't cut it – you need to feel emotions as the game progresses and not feel like you're watching a goofy cartoon.
Arkham Asylum didn't hold back. Rocksteady wanted the ultimate Batman game, so they went out and got the voices that have defined the Batman franchise for the better part of a decade – Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and so on. Now, the voices of Spider-Man aren't as apparent – Are we going with the old Spidey cartoon, the NPH run, etc.? – but there are plenty of people who can pull off Peter Parker 110-percent more convincingly than the sad sacks who have been trucked out recently.
Even still, let's get a mature story for the next game. Focus on Peter's internal struggle to balance Spidey and a personal life – allow us to live his highs and his lows. In these past few games, the situations are black and white, happy or sad. It's way too shallow. Give us a Spidey story with the depth this character deserves. Let's have him dealing with a dying Aunt May, trying to save a kidnapped kid, or fighting to maintain his secret identity. New York being threatened by monsters is hackneyed; draw from this character's history and give fans something personal to enjoy.
Batman: Arkham Asylum went the other direction with this – and the next Spider-Man game should, too. See, over in the Dark Knight's game, there were just a few buttons to worry about – strike, reverse, jump, and stun. You hit the strike button, and Batman did the heavy lifting. He punched, kicked, and more. He felt powerful, and combat was fun. When you started to feel like you could mash the strike button the entire game, the title tossed in the need to reverse attacks and break arms. Then dudes with clubs. Then tasers. Then guns. Then giant enemies. Then upgrade Batman.
Although Batman's system was simple, the game kept you on your toes and made it a formula that was hard to master. Fighting in Batman kept me engaged, whereas I'd tune out fighting in Spidey's games. Hell, truth be told, I dreaded fighting in Spider-Man games. I just wanted to swing.
Creating a game is hard, unforgiving work, and the bar's higher than ever when creating a game based on a character everyone knows in some shape or form. Still, the core of any superhero game – Spider-Man, Batman, Plastic Man – is making the player feel like he or she is the character on the screen. Batman: Arkham Asylum nailed this feeling by giving us control over Batman and all of the Dark Knight's gadgets while dropping us on an open island with a killer story. Meanwhile, Spider-Man games have failed with wonky stories, repetitive combat, and engines that just don't run well.
It's time for Spider-Man to get back on his feet and deliver a title that makes fans feel like they're stepping into the red and blue tights, taking on the bad guys, and catching hell from J.J. Because if Spider-Man can't deliver that kind of experience, Batman has already shown us he can.
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