Updated: Feb 19
Developer: No one apparently
Publisher: NOT WB ANYWAY
I want my Superman game now and you know what I’d be willing to bet some of you do too. To compound that sense of entitlement you may have also heard the rumors in recent weeks:
Yup...a Superman game was pitched by Rocksteady Games to Warner Brothers and subsequently ignored and you know what that hurts. It hurt a smidge and now, in the wake of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement proving fruitful, I want to use what little platform I have to whine about the supreme lack of the big blue boy scout in the video-game space. For those that don’t know though, Rocksteady, are the studio responsible for this:
They proved over a decade ago that you can design a video-game around a beloved licensed character and not only make it good, but transcend all logic and make a brilliant game in it’s own right. They nailed the feeling we all had in our heads of being Batman and did it all without the required millions of dollars, childhood trauma and psychologically damaged mind that would otherwise be needed to live out said fantasy in reality (cosplayers not withstanding).
The Arkham series of games were game changing. The ripple effect that these titles had on the industry at large, with it's fluid rhythm based combat system and update to the metroidvania style adventure is an impressive feat for any game never mind a single studio on their first project no less. Going from the mostly claustrophobic, yet open ended level design of Arkham Asylum to the gorgeously rendered Gotham City that added the iconic batmobile in Arkham Knight, they continued to innovate on the core mechanics with each installment.
To the point where their level design has been felt in other games. From Just Cause developers Avalanche Studios implementing the bone crunching combat for their Mad Max title (awesome game BTW), the added use of melee weapons that Monolith brought to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, to the clear influence it's mission design and leveling system had on Insomniacs recent PS4 exclusive Spiderman. A rising tide raises all ships as they say and Rocksteady proved they have the talent to step up to Superman's plate. "So why did WB not greenlight them?" I hear myself ask rhetorically? Well I have a conspiracy theory about that...
And Now a Brief History of Superman Games
Look at him just completely... what?...
OK Look, it's easy to point fingers at Superman 64, first as proof supes just wouldn't work in a video-game, and second because it's the exact wrong way to make anything. It's terrible and it should feel terrible. But for something that set the bar so low it somehow hasn't all that much improved 21 years later. It makes sense though right? He's generally depicted as the Blue Boy Scout, never fails, impervious to everything except kryptonite and the hard stuff...
If you haven't assumed it yet already, expect more inside jokes...
And that can be off putting. How do you make someone who can withstand any man made weapon, breathe in space (depending on continuity cause..comics), who can also fly faster than a speeding bullet and what not, fun? There's no way is what most would say, hard to feel connected to an Alien where the stakes have to be world ending as a bare minimum to be invested I hear others grumble. It's not an unreasonable argument but it obviously hasn't stopped folks from trying anyway.
Well a few short years later in 2002, Infogrames took a swing at the big guy with Shadow of Apokolips. A sort of open world spin on the animated series. it got the style right, perfectly eschewing the animated series feel and at the very least played a hell of a lot better than 64 but not by much. It helped that there was a clear source of inspiration to draw from this time. All the voice actors were in place to reprise their roles with Tim Daly's Superman and Clancy Browns infamous Lex Luthor lending to the authenticity....
And yet....here we are....
But again, it didn't work. Controls, while admittedly a symptom of that clunky third person camera era, were terrible and awkward. It didn't get the feel right and that's a tricky thing to pull off in any game never mind one based off Superman. At the very least the intent was there but execution was severely lacking and continued to prove that not only does Supes not work, but awkwardly flying into buildings and trying to stand in the exact pixel perfect position for saving blocky npcs is not anyone's idea of a good time.
This brings us to Superman Returns in 2006 which I believe, is the closest we've gotten to a logical approach. Forgoing a traditional health bar and instead implementing it as the cities overall "health" was an interesting move. If there's too much destruction than logically there is no one left to save and Superman has failed in his job. I for one like this approach, you're now responsible for the public safety and its something tangible that also skirts around Supermans invulnerability...pity that's about where the praise ends. It's another example of how Superman failed to make so much as a dent in the video gaming zeitgeist.
Also the movie isn't very good...
Developed by Electronic Arts Tiburon the Returns game was another swing and a miss, this time a victim of terribly uninteresting game design and mission structure. Flying around was kind of fun but there was nothing to do, you waited for stuff to happen, flew over, punched the thing and then every now and again got to punch bigger things. As a fan, there was a bit of a thrill to taking down a giant Metallo but those moments were few and far between and spoilers a tornado isn't exactly my idea of a good time. This was the last time Superman would have the spotlight with his own game outside of a failed attempt by factor 5 which looked awesome (if you've made it this far check out the story for that here) but the damage had been done, no one wanted to risk it and so here we are.
The Man of Steel has done more favorably when not the main focus. Nether Realm studios has seen great success in their Injustice series, portraying him as a fallen hero, one who, after a story related tragedy becomes a despotic ruler and confirms every worst case scenario Batman contingent. It's a nice conceit and the in-game lore makes it so that heroes like Batman or Green Arrow can last more than say 2 seconds against him. But it's not really Superman is it? It's a version that works in the fiction it's created (it's all fiction I know, bare with me) but as a fighting game, there's a lot of the core elements that make him unique that are missing. Even though the games are excellent and as a DC fanboy the story is awesome, it's not quite the same, but I have my armchair theory as to how you can make it work.
The All Star Approach
For those that maybe aren't familiar with the comics, All-Star Superman is, to this humble casual, one of the finest runs on the character ever. Written by Grant Morrison and beautifully drawn by Frank Quietly, All-Star took the core of the character, stripped away all the 80 years plus baggage of continuity and carved out a small corner of the DC Universe in an attempt to revitalize and "re-modernize" him, while not losing anything that made Superman who he is in the process. it's brilliantly written and constructed and on honest to goodness timeless comic classic that anyone can jump on to.
The reason I bring this up is because Morrison wanted the book "to distill everything we like about the characters into one simple package" and is something he very much was up to the task of doing. This is also something Rocksteady (who are the gold standard) understood. They took everything that was good about Batman, distilled the elements down to some core ideas and workshopped the hell out of them. The mistake most attempts, in my opinion, have made is in either doing way too much and getting none of it right (ala Superman Returns) or doing way too little and forcing him to fit the game you're making (Injustice). Superman is more than just punching the big guys and being obnoxiously up beat about it.
While the comic run had spectacle it was more character based, dealing with his sense of duty to the earth and morality, ultimately showing his vulnerabilities as a person, not just an omnipotent alien. Again, that's not as simple to translate into a game as a slapping contest between Supes and Darkseid, but it's not impossible (*cough* The Last of Us *cough*) to implement, I for one can identify with someone who feels like they don't belong and Superman has so much untapped potential here. Before trailing off further, I think this is a prime example of presenting the character correctly in the same way that Arkham Asylum (also written by Grant Morrison BTW) inspired the first games namesake.
Superman: (Gameplay) Truth
OK so let's pretend we've got the character stuff down, we have all our super ducks in a row on the key characters, places and maybe even an overall plot but now is the hard part, gameplay. For this I want to take another leaf from the comics but also reuse the same design philosophies that the Arkham and even Assassins Creed series use in their games.
Superman: Truth, written by Greg Pak with pencils from Aaron Kuder, takes a more unusual approach by setting the very people he swore to protect against him all the while dealing with a lack of powers. What I like most about this run is that Kal-El is now having to deal with something that was never an issue for him before (in this continuity anyway), mortality. He's at his most vulnerable to his enemies so he has to figure out a smarter way of approaching dangerous situations and deal with a society that for one reason or another, distrusts him at this time, who will not listen.
Now we have a character who cannot rely on just his physical strength anymore, who is experiencing a loss of control and has to fight his way back, both within himself and to restore his image as protector and what not. Sound familiar? Main character put in a tough situation, using any and all tools available to overcome obstacles? Not only do we have a story reason to depower our boy blue, but we now have a gameplay reason that works in conjunction with the story so that the player can learn to power up and grow as their character does. Just like unlocking different gadgets to overcome puzzles in Arkham and learning new skills to take down targets in Assassins Creed, so too can Superman re-acquire his heat vision, ice-breath (maybe even flight if you want to be cheeky) and so on.
Game Consoles and The Man of Tomorrow
So we've got the story, characters and mechanics (loosely) figured out but how are we supposed to run it? What's the scope? Well that's a lot tougher to answer and I'm being saucy enough armchair developing as it is but we're in too deep now and this has gone on long enough, let's take it home.
The biggest obstacle, through all of this, has been technology. It just wasn't there to build something that could match the fantasy that the DC poster boy offers, the ultimate power fantasy really. We've come close twice now in recent years with a cancelled pitch by Factor 5 studios who were aiming big with massive city wide battles and destructible environments intent on capturing the scale and power that hadn't been reached previously. Then Microsoft promised cloud-based destruction on an unprecedented scale in their own super-powered fantasy action game Crackdown 3 which fell flat on it's face and had to actually scale back the scope because again, the tech couldn't match the ambition.
As we wait on the eve of the next console generation, the promises of cloud-computing and all the teraflops you could ever want. Maybe now, finally, we'll get the Superman game we deserve. Perhaps the promise that Sony's PS5 will abolish load times will allow developers to create a world worthy of the character or with Microsoft's apparent bid for WB Games, maybe there's no better time to bring the original superhero back into the sun. A Superman For All Seasons if you will...Anyway, if you've gotten this far, thank you and fair play, I've rambled and whined and moaned but if there is one thing I hope you take away from this is that it isn't beyond the realm of possibility to treat one of DCs greatest heroes with the same love and reverence his dark knight equivalent has enjoyed for decades. Superman is more than a cliche and in the right hands he has just as much of a chance to elevate and push gaming forward as any character, comic book or otherwise.
First image taken directly DC comics website here
Second is a screen grab of twitter get over it
All-star Superman image taken from Amazon listing here
Superman: Truth image taken from DC comics website here
Superman 64 image taken from press kit here
Shadow of Apokolips footage captured and edited by me and uploaded here
Superman Returns image taken from press kit here
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