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Comic Books and Video Games: What DC Should Do

Those who know me well know that I have a great love of video games and comic books, and an even greater love of combinations of the two. That love, however, is conditional on said combinations actually being good. Unfortunately, I often find myself disappointed. Since the first bulky arcade cabinet rolled off the assembly line, the comic juggernauts known as Marvel and DC have been trying their respective hands at the challenging art of video game adaptation. Over the years, very few of these attempts have been particularly impressive (I won’t say none, because my memory isn’t that long, plus I heard the NES Punisher game was pretty good for its time).

In recent years, the determined folks at Marvel have stepped up their efforts and released some truly excellent games. Their first success came when they took sandbox-style gameplay and applied it to something other than stealing cars and assaulting prostitutes. Spider-Man 2 remains the only tie-in game to my memory that actually matches the quality of the movie it was based on. The same model was applied to the second of two Hulk games, with equal success. Turning New York City into one big playground through which we could swing or smash to our hearts’ content was a brilliant idea, and brilliantly executed.

Perhaps knowing that they couldn’t satisfy the video game market with just one style, Marvel went on to put out X-Men Legends and its sequel, the unpredictably titled X-Men Legends 2. Capitalising on the team dynamic and countless diverse characters for which the X-Men titles have always been well known, these two games allowed players to tackle the various missions they were sent on with any combination of characters and powers they saw fit. The formula was enough of a success that they followed it up with the logical next step: Marvel Ultimate Alliance. No longer restricted to the X-Men roster, now players draw from all corners of the Marvel universe to build their dream teams. The game even included the option to build a custom team complete with whatever badass team name the player wanted. Marvel Ultimate Alliance cemented Marvel Comics as a successful video game license.

I could continue the list of Marvel’s successes in the video game arena, but I’ve already mentioned all of the titles which will be relevant to this article. Besides, Marvel is not the focus here. I want to look at the other major publisher. Just what has DC been doing to compete with Marvel on the video game market? The answer, sadly, is not a whole lot.

DC’s video game contributions have been few and far between. In the mid-90s they released Justice League Task Force, which was a pretty decent fighting game, for the time. A couple of years before that, they released a game based on the Death of Superman storyline which, again by the standards of the day, wasn’t terrible, but was pretty generic. When the Nintendo 64 came out, DC tossed out a Superman game to go with it. I remember dropping that one after the first level, the controls were so terrible. But since I’m only judging Marvel’s most recent entries, it’s only fair that I do the same for DC.

In the last two years, DC has publicised the release of two games: Justice League Heroes and the tie-in to Superman Returns. I know there were one or two other games, because I saw a copy of Aquaman in a bargain bin once. For the purposes of this article, JLH and Superman Returns are the most relevant.

Superman Returns was apparently an attempt to cash in on Marvel’s success with free-roaming game environments. As Superman, the player could fly around Metropolis at his or her leisure, which should have been a really cool experience, since flying around indiscriminately is unquestionably awesome. Unfortunately, the developers decided to put city-shattering crises approximately once every block and a half, so the free-flying fun ended up taking a backseat to the constant battles against increasingly impossible enemies. Essentially, for a free-roaming setting, the game was far too rigidly structured, and also far too frustrating. As a result, Superman Returns was just another rent-it-and-forget-it title.

Justice League Heroes was another attempt to piggyback on Marvel’s accomplishments, this time mimicking the X-Men Legends. The game centered around the eponymous Justice League as they battled an elaborate villainous conspiracy that ultimately consisted of a guided tour through the DC Universe. Fairly typical for the format that X-Men Legends set down, so one might assume that the formula ought to work. The game, while fun, fell short of being impressive. It seems to me like the developers rushed the production of the game so they could release it in time to compete with Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which was released at almost the same time. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the game is lacking some of the things that make Marvel’s versions special.

The first major failing of Justice League Heroes is the absence of choice. There are a few levels in which you can choose which two (not four, two), heroes you will take into action, but for at least half of the game your duos are predetermined. The freedom to build whatever team the player desires is one of the major appeals of X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance. Another major appeal is the variety of powers that could be acquired and upgraded nigh-indefinitely. Justice League Heroes, on the other hand, equipped their heroes with just a handful of powers each, and only afforded a few levels for each power. Finally, the game lacks the wide variety of playable characters that Marvel’s games offered. Sure, I could play three different Green Lanterns with identical powers, but other than getting to play as Kyle Rayner (who sounded like he was trying to be Batman the whole time), none of the unlockable characters were really worth the effort. Ultimately, Justice League Heroes was a mediocre effort when compared to its competitors.

These failures are made all the more disappointing by the fact that neither of these games are all bad. In both games, the controls were easy to understand and fun to use, the powers were cool, and the graphics were excellent. Justice League Heroes had an excellent voice cast, and a better script than X-Men Legends or Ultimate Alliance, whose dialogue often make me cringe. The games aren’t bad, they’re just, well, half-assed. Either the executives over at Time Warner don’t see the potential market for a good DC video game, or they’re just rushing their games too much. Either way, the only feedback I can give them is Needs Improvement.

I can think of one example of a game that I would buy and play to death. I’m going to stick to the X-Men Legends formula, and suggest drawing from the area where DC has consistently dominated Marvel: cartoons. I propose Justice League Unlimited, the video game. The setting comes with a massive stable of characters built in, so many that it would be impossible to fit them all into one game. Additionally, it has a built-in fan base, as the JLU cartoon is popular among young adult comic book geeks, the same geeks who loved Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Finally, the setting has a distinctive style and an opportunity for some excellent storytelling.

This hypothetical game would be designed and animated in the same artistic style that was the signature of DC’s animated masterpieces for a decade. A cartoonish, cel-shaded approach would help differentiate the game from Marvel’s properties. This would also allow for colourful, flashy powers which would draw in younger gamers, because we all know kids love shiny things and bright colours. And wholesale destruction. But let’s not stop at visually approximating the cartoons, let’s go all the way: bring JLU’s writing staff onboard to write the story and script. That will give us a guarantee of no cringe-worthy dialogue. Cinematic sequences can take the form of cartoon animations, making the whole game into one long, viewer controlled episode of Justice League Unlimited. Be sure not to skimp on the gameplay elements though. We want lots of powers, fully customisable, four-hero teams, and enough action to keep us playing the game over and over and over again.

I have no doubt that this idea would be expensive to produce, but I believe the cost could be turned into profit. It’s effortlessly marketable. Just advertise it in DC’s own comics and sales are all but guaranteed. Further publicity and sales can be gained by taking further advantage of JLU’s massive variety of characters. The X-Box 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii all have online marketplaces. Downloadable expansion packs and patches are already a reality. It would be almost too easy to release the occasional “character pack” of four five new heroes to further expand the players’ team-building options. Sure, the well will eventually run dry, but if the releases are carefully coordinated they could make a mint by the time they run out.

I’m sure this idea has a number of flaws that real game developers could spot, but I’m equally sure that these flaws could be corrected without sacrificing the basic appeal of the game I’m suggesting. The point remains the same regardless: if the companies developing games for DC would step up their efforts, and really try to release a masterpiece, we could see some fantastic games set in the DC Universe. With a little cash, and a little elbow grease, the possibilities are endless.

Next time: How DC can capitalise on the free-roaming environment.


April 21, 2008 Posted by | Games | 1 Comment