If there’s one thing the gaming industry loves, it’s a trend. In fact, this applies to the entertainment media as a whole — observe the sudden rush toward sexual fanfiction in the post-50 Shades world, or the recent interest in the Asian music scene inspired by the success of Gangnam Style. This is hardly surprising considering the billions of dollars companies invest in our entertainment, but the whims of fashion seem to me most noticeable in the world of video games. Perhaps this is because we tend to spend more time with our medium of choice – it’s doubtful many people have put hundreds of hours into a single book the way some have with a game like Skyrim – and so the repetition of certain aspects becomes easier to spot.
Whatever the reason, a game which wins the popularity lottery will almost immediately be cannibalized for useful parts. There is a seemingly endless cycle of developers playing follow-the-leader whenever a game becomes popular enough to be worth ripping off, leading to eventual over-saturation as everyone and their mother races to cash in on the new hot topic; cover-based shooting mechanics (Gears of War, the later Mass Effect games, Splinter Cell: Conviction), zombies (Dead Island, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, the now obligatory zombie mode in every modern Call of Duty), motion control (ranging from the wildly successful to…well, the somewhat less so) and a hundred other features so ubiquitous that today they are noticed more for their absence than their presence.
Certain games have even become so widely imitated that they can substitute for a genre. There doesn’t seem to be a specific label universally applied to third-person games with an open world, heavy focus of driving and gunplay, usually with some mini-games dotted around the place. Perhaps the incredibly inclusive “action-adventure” though it seems that almost any game can be placed beneath that umbrella term (with the possible exception of a sim game revolving around setting local zoning laws). However, if we hear the words “like Grand Theft Auto” we know precisely what is meant. Saint’s Row is GTA with over-the-top wackiness. Red Dead Redemption is GTA with horses. The Godfather is GTA with tommy guns and seriously snappy fashion sense. No further clarifier is needed, because players understand that “GTA with [additional feature]” tells them a great deal of what they need to know about how the game is going to play. Similarly, it appears that all MMO games must inevitably be compared to Blizzard’s behemoth World of Warcraft, as if WoW is the genre rather than just a particularly successful example of it. No new MMO game can debut without the mechanics, art style etc being compared to WoW regardless of any similarity (or lack thereof) between the two titles. In our little world, the biggest fish can and do influence the tides of the ocean.
Over time, players get sick of the same thing over and over again with only minimal changes. A perfect example is presented by the FPS genre – after years of World War II shooters the fans grew bored, which allowed Modern Warfare to explode onto the scene and take the world by storm. Suddenly modern combat was the hot thing and everyone rushed to catch up. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, everybody wanted a piece of the pie. Fast forward to the modern day and we see the same backlash building, thousands of “witty” comments about the new Call of Battle: Modern Warfighter game (as if a million senses of humour cried out and were suddenly silenced) and a growing disenchantment amongst former fans. Enter once again the Call of Duty franchise, taking their side-project Black Ops and transforming it from a backwards-looking retro storyline to a futuristic world and a setting resembling a blend of Crysis and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They are hoping that the Modern Warfare lightning will strike again and that Black Ops 2 will be the trendsetter (along with the resurgence of the Halo franchise, which will surely help to push the futuristic shooter as the Next Big Thing) for the new generation of consoles. In a few years gamers will tire of sci-fi shooters, of course, because developers and publishers will ride that trend into the ground and the whole cycle will begin again.
This is all very interesting, you are not doubt saying to yourself, but I’m reading this article for one reason and one reason only – somebody mentioned Batman. So far he hasn’t featured once, and it’s easy to imagine you’re all getting a little antsy, because this is the internet and withdrawal sets in after roughly two minutes without a reference to Batman.
Never fear, chums, we’re getting to that. A few years ago something fantastic happened for Batman fans (everybody), something that after years of sub-par superhero games gamers had given up hoping for. Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and it was brilliant. Not perfect, but closer to perfection than any Batman game before it. As our own esteemed editor has noted, this was the first time a player had ever truly felt like the caped crusader rather than someone wearing his costume. A few years later there was even a sequel, and despite failing to entirely recapture the magic it’s still a fantastic gaming experience. Even more recently, gamers been gifted with another sequel, and that sequel is called Amazing Spider-Man.
Amazing Spider-Man makes no bones about picking up the bat-ball and running with it. Entire facets of the game appear to have been copy/pasted from Batman’s adventures, from the stealth takedowns all the way to a rough approximation of the Riddler challenges.
And that’s a real shame, because when you remove Batman from this equation it simply doesn’t work.
As Bill mentioned in his piece, the true magic of the Arkham series is that rather than giving the player a Batman-shaped avatar to play with, Rocksteady managed to put the player firmly in the Dark Knight’s boots. We move like he moves, think as he thinks, sneak around and kick people in the back of the head just the way he does. The games are a triumph of immersion. Sadly the same cannot be said for Spider-Man, whose game plays not to the character’s own strengths but attempts to replicate those of the Dark Knight. When the features which made the Arkham games so great are grafted onto ol’ Webhead, it just doesn’t feel right. In their haste to jump on Batman’s bandwagon, the developers responsible for Amazing Spider-Man seem to have given no consideration to thematic consistency, instead grabbing as much as they could carry and bolting it on where it isn’t required. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders, and why they prove detrimental to the overall experience.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: stealth is not really Spider-Man’s thing. He wears a brightly coloured red-and-blue jumpsuit, is seemingly unable to stop cracking corny jokes for even a second, and has a penchant for exuberantly whooping or yelling “Yeah!” as he swings across the city. He’s not exactly one with the shadows.
That’s fine. It’s part of why the character is so beloved. However shitty his personal life becomes, when Spidey’s on the job he’s a wisecracking smartass who tells terrible jokes and backflips around like a circus clown after half an ounce of coke. Unfortunately, while the hub of Amazing Spider-Man is an open and explorable Manhattan filled with skyscrapers to dive off and cars to ride, all of the missions and most of the boss battles take place indoors. There’s a heavy reliance on the Arkham Asylum style of sneaking around undetected and covertly knocking out thugs.
When gamers play as Batman, it’s because they want to be a living shadow, a dark apparition which strikes fear into the hearts of evil-doers before melting back into the night. When they turn on a Spider-Man game it’s because they want to throw cars at a big man dressed as a rhino, cackling like lunatics all the while. The two characters exist to cater to different tastes. Where Amazing Spider-Man does succeed is in its use of the open-world landscape, where one can swing through the New York skyline and run up skyscrapers before diving into empty air and hooking a webline to a nearby blimp. That freedom, that joy of unconstrained movement, is the essence of Spider-Man. This makes it all the more disappointing when the player is forced back into a sewer or an office block, to crawl along the roof and drop down on the unwary, Batman-style; the game yanks them out of the experience to say, “No, sorry, you’re doing it wrong. Spider-Man isn’t about glorious free form athletics and kicking animal-themed crazies in the teeth, it’s about sneaking around and sucker-punching faceless goons.”
What’s worse is that the way in which stealth has been shoehorned in feels so blatant. The camera was obviously not designed for such shenanigans, and is instead – quite sensibly – adept at panning to cover wide areas, keeping Spider-Man centre-screen while he freeruns around the city. In the indoor sections the safest place to avoid detection is often the ceiling, but the camera simply can’t handle this. It’s incredibly difficult to see where foes are standing with a camera designed for 360 degree vision, as frequently it bumps into the roof or wall Spidey is clinging to and is forced to stop. With depressing regularity, an attempted takedown of an unsuspecting guard results in Spider-Man being turned into Swiss cheese by several other mooks who had been hidden by the poor camera angles. In attempting to hijack Batman’s style, Amazing Spider-Man makes the player forget why it’s such a joy to be Spider-Man in the first place, and the bizarre hybrid feels so much less enjoyable than either of its component parts.
Did you know that the combat engine of Batman: Arkham Asylum was originally planned as a rhythm game more akin to Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero than to Street Fighter and Tekken? At first this little truth nugget sounds ridiculous — a battle system based around dance moves? A glorified quick-time event? That’s not very Batman at all. But a quick look reveals that the combat in the finished game is entirely about rhythm and timing, and often appears paradoxically serene amongst the crunching bones and screams of pain. A skilled player can chain an entire battle in a single unbroken combo, slipping from dodges to gadgets to eye-wateringly painful counters with fluid grace.
Once again, central to this concept is that the player must fight just like Batman – no Superman he, to laughingly weather the blows before throwing a right hook strong enough to crack the earth. No, Batman has to fight like what he is. A normal, powerless human, a squishy bag of liquid and bones held together by thin layers of skin. Timing is critical, as blows must by necessity be dodged or countered with pinpoint precision lest our hero be beaten down into a Halloween-themed pulp.
This doesn’t ring as true for Spider-Man. According to Marvel’s own website, Spidey can lift 10 tons and is “roughly 15 times as agile as a normal human,” and yet he fights almost precisely the same way as Batman. He has his own version of the glide kick with which to initiate combat:
He shares Batman’s early-warning system, the little symbol that informs the player when to counter:
Spider-Man can use his webs to yank away a foe’s firearm the way Batman uses his rope, he stuns with his webs just as Batman does with his cape, and for both heroes chaining longer combos grants access to more powerful moves. Both have some suspiciously similar-looking upgrade screens whereby new tech and moves can be purchased and upgraded despite the fact that this makes little sense for our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, as, unlike his compatriot, his reliance on gadgetry is minimal. Where Batman’s various technological marvels provide genuine benefits, both in combat and in his interactions with the world, Spider-Man’s upgrades mostly feel like an unnecessary afterthought.
Even the way the character is shown to have suffered damage is identical – the gradual degradation of the heroes’ suits, as rips or stains appear to show the heavy-duty wear and tear. This is a particularly shameless pilfering, a mechanic clearly lifted from Batman’s game solely on the basis of “it looked cool.” It lacks, however, what lends true weight to the original; in his games, Batman is trapped and suffering through one ordeal after another, with the suit gaining damage to represent his weariness and reminding the player that our hero is having a seriously shitty evening. Spidey’s, on the other hand, will fall to pieces if he so much as farts in it, though this isn’t the problem it may appear because he can go home and change whenever he wants. The only reason for the addition is because Arkham Asylum did it first, not to aid characterization. Imagine if John McClane got a new vest in every scene – would we have the same understanding of his struggles without the visual representation the iconic undergarment provides? The blood stains and bullet holes he accumulates, just as with Batman’s battered suit, are reminders of the character’s drive and determination to get the job done. All that is achieved by Amazing Spider-Man is to give the player cause to wonder why Spidey doesn’t create his costumes from sturdier material.
So given what is known about the characters, how can these similarities be reconciled if not a bare-faced attempt to emulate a superior game? Batman is a fragile, breakable human; he can strap on half his body weight in padding and showcase a torso that would make pro wrestlers weep, but when all is said and done he’s simply a man with comprehensive combat training and a better-than-average physique. Comparatively, a punch from Spider-Man would feel akin to being hit by a truck. When Batman is annoyed by his fellow heroes, he cows them with a glare. When Wolverine makes smart-ass comments about Spider-Man’s wife, the webslinger throws him through a supposedly unbreakable window. Physically the two are worlds apart, and yet instead of making the most of Spidey’s incredible potential, Amazing Spider-Man’s developers adopted the style of Arkham Asylum point-for-point. While the combat style felt perfect for Batman’s stoic and methodical approach to violence, in Spider-Man’s case it feels more like he’s trying to get himself killed by stubbornly refusing to perform to his full capability.
Again there is a sense of wrongness. Some fights, particularly the boss fights against Vermin or Scorpion, would be an edge-of-your-seat moment were they fought by Batman as our powerless hero throws down with bands of mutants who crowd him and leave him nowhere to run. In comparison, Spider-Man has the speed and strength to make such fights a cakewalk were it not for his strange dedication to crippling his own combat abilities by fighting as if he forgot which game he’s starring in. Once again, the parts are greater than the sum, and the experience only reminds players of the fun they could be having if only the developers would let Spider-Man play to his strengths.
This might seem an odd complaint, given that comic book titles are usually drowning in cameo appearances, Easter Eggs and fandom nods. Marvel has even built an entire franchise of movies by expertly weaving these seemingly small appearances and references together into a coherent continuity. If there’s one thing a nerd loves, it’s continuity, the knowledge of who someone is and why they’re relevant or how important the MacGuffin of this particular adventure has been in the past.
In theArkham games, The Riddler has liberally sprinkled the game worlds with little puzzles for Batman to find and solve. These take several forms, from straightforward-but-often-tricky physical puzzles which utilize Batman’s many gadgets to clever inside jokes. Players are given a clue that relates to the Batman mythos or a character therein and a vague location, and must search the area until they find an object that fits the clue: a flower shop run by Pamela Isley (civilian identity of one Poison Ivy) for example, or a Harvey Dent campaign poster. These are enjoyable not only because they appeal to the aforementioned nerdish need to understand continuity, but because they reveal tiny parts of jigsaw which the player can piece together and understand a little more about the game universe. Being a mish-mash of elements from various Batman continuities (The Animated Series provides copious inspiration, mixed amongst plot threads the player may recognize from classic comic book stories) this is useful in conveying that game-Batman’s history is a long one, of which the player is only experiencing a single night.
While not directly aping the Riddler system, Amazing Spider-Man has its own version of these puzzles. Peter Parker is a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle (while not a constant through all the various interpretations, it is the job at which he most often finds himself) and at certain points during the game is invited to go and investigate weird events around New York. Similar to his pointy-eared colleague, Spider-Man is given a location and a set of clues, all of which he must seek out and photograph upon arrival. Each individual location (there are a handful throughout the game) is based around one of Spidey’s rogues gallery, such as a rooftop nest hinting at the Vulture or the shredded spacesuit of Man-Wolf atop the Bugle building. While the names are never explicitly stated, it’s a pretty firm nod of the head to established Spider-Man canon. There are three big problems with this:
Firstly, the player never interacts with or even sees these characters. They do not appear in the game, completing the side-quests does not unlock a character bio or a virtual edition of the character’s first comic book appearance. In fact, these characters are never mentioned again after their side mission is completed. It feels very much like a tease. While many of the villains referenced in the Arkham games’ puzzles don’t appear – or at least, not until the sequel – there are more than enough iconic baddies to keep the player entertained. Even those who aren’t starring in the game are shown to exist in a recognizable form. Spider-Man, on the other hand, tussles with four or so versions of his legendary foes in the entire game, often battling the same one repeatedly, and the hints at the presence of others makes that repetition and lack of variety all the more glaring.
Secondly, these missions are totally lacking in challenge. Arkham Asylum called upon knowledge of the character and his foes to understand many of the more difficult clues – the average person is unlikely to know to scan the Ratcatcher’s mask or catch an obscure reference to the Calendar Man – but Amazing Spider-Man removes any need for such. The location is marked on the minimap, the clues are very obvious (there are three for each puzzle, located within a small area where they are the only things that stand out from the background) and in effect the whole sequence requires nothing more than swinging to a rooftop or the street, taking three photographs and leaving again. Certainly fans can work out who is being referenced from these clues, but it adds no depth to the world. The feeling is less of exploration and discovery than it is of routine; go here, take photos, take your XP and go back about your business.
Thirdly, there is no continuity to reference!The fact is that Amazing Spider-Man – the movie – is a reboot of the series and as such has no established canon. In lifting the idea of a deeply referential system from Arkham Asylum, Amazing Spider-Man’s developers have had to invent ways to refer to characters and events which have so far not appeared or have no relevance to the world in which the game is set. The effect, rather than providing that comforting “hey, I get that reference!” feeling as intended, is actually pretty jarring. The game’s bios are stuffed to the gills with nods to Spider-Man canon, crowbarred in wherever possible. Possibly the worst example of this is the character sheet (taken from the game’s wiki here) for the Scorpion, a recurring foe throughout the game:
Of all the cross-species facing off against Spider-Man, none features a more cold, menacing appearance than Scorpion — and for good reason. Normally reserving his genius toward his specialty in nuclear science, Oscorp physicist Dr. Otto Octavius dug into Curt Connors’ research as quickly as it became available to him. Not satisfied with simply infusing human DNA into a highly venomous black fat-tailed scorpion, Octavius also threw in a touch of mysterious, organic “black goo” of unknown origin, which Oscorp had recently retrieved from one of the company’s fallen satellites in secret. The result was Scorpion, an experiment Octavius also would affectionately refer to as “MAC” (amusingly standing for “my astonishing creation”).
Phew. Did you catch all that, True Believers? For those who aren’t well-versed in the webslinger’s world, here’s a handy run-down:
- “Oscorp physicist Dr. Otto Octavius” is probably the most well-known of the references here, being the civilian name of one of Spider-Man’s all-time great foes, Dr. Octopus.
- The “mysterious, organic ‘black goo’” recovered from a fallen satellite refers to the alien Venom symbiote, which merges with a human host to either become a terrifyingly destructive villain or cause Tobey Maguire to dance like a twat.
- Finally, and likely the most obscure for non-fans, “MAC” or “my astonishing creation.” Of the three this is the only one which relates to the character, being a reference to Mac Gargan, the original Scorpion in comics continuity.
That’s three references to separate characters in a single biography, none of which are relevant to the in-game enemy. Does the player ever encounter Doc Ock? Nope. Is the dark secret of the Scorpion that the creature is really a warped and twisted Mac Gargan? Absolutely not. Does the Venom symbiote ever exert control over the host, or does the remaining “black goo” escape its lab to rampage about the city? I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. The pointless, dead-end nature of these references serves only to annoy the player, amounting to nothing more than useless trivia.
Unlocking the Rhino’s character bio reveals that, contrary to what Spider-Man (and by proxy, the player) believes, not all cross-species are mutated animals; the poor Rhino is actually a low-level Russian mobster surrendered by his employers for shady genetic experiments. The bio even goes so far as to mention that some witnesses have claimed to see “traces of humanity in his eyes.” Very touching, yet totally worthless information. The player might think this would be a plot point or some kind of reveal, but outside of the character biography it is never mentioned again. Spider-Man never even discovers that he’s fighting something more than a mutated rhinoceros. It’s nothing more than an info-dump on the player, a very transparent attempt to add depth to a character where depth was never required. By referring to the character’s comic book origin (early on, Rhino was just an Eastern-Bloc thug in a powered suit) and attempting to give the player an “Aha!” moment, the game adds unnecessary characterization to an enemy who is restricted to merely appearing once or twice, breaking some stuff, and being swiftly defeated.
Yet again, the conclusion is that what works for Batman does not work for Spider-Man. Where the riddles of the Arkham series serve to add a little polish to the game world and nods to established continuity, Amazing Spider-Man delivers its Easter Eggs on a silver platter only for the player to find them underwhelming. Pointless references to non-appearing characters do not deepen the storyline or grant any understanding of the world Peter Parker inhabits, they come across as both another attempt to filch mechanics from Arkham and a transparent grab for the nostalgia gland that so many geeks possess.
One thing I did like was the addition of retro, vintage comic books as collectible. I found myself going out of my way to collect pages, often putting off going to bed for another hour so I might find enough to unlock the next issue. But with a genuinely absorbing and enjoyable nod to the franchise’s history like that already present, why did the game need to throw in some bare-bones riddles and references to unused characters? Because Arkham Asylum did it first.
Despite all this, in many ways, Amazing Spider-Man is not really a bad game. It’s enjoyable despite the niggles, and when the developers allow it to work as a Spider-Man game it truly shines. However, it is not a game that perfectly captures the spirit of the source material the way the Arkham games do, although the potential is clearly present in the open-world sections. By taking mechanics that worked for one character, the game cheapens what it could have been and ultimately leads to a lack of immersion, the constant nagging sense that the player is not experiencing the Marvel universe as Spider-Man would; we experience it as a mish-mash of two characters, characters who do not and can not compliment each other.
By itself, this would just be a disappointment. But, as discussed, this industry loves to follow a trend. Now that Batman has become the new standard bearer for superhero games, the first one “done right”, it’s likely his success will be copied more and more. It’s pretty easy to think of plausible reasons for developers to crowbar in elements they liked – a captured Hulk reverts to puny Bruce Banner necessitating a Solid Snake-style stealth escape, neutralizing guards as he goes. Superman uses his x‑ray vision to ape detective mode and discover hidden secrets or weaknesses. Green Lantern loses his ring, Iron Man is robbed of his suit, Hawkman must glide silently from the sky to silently take down criminals. While these might fit better with the power set of the character in question than any of the mechanics in Amazing Spider-Man, they would still clearly be attempts to replicate the Arkham games and should therefore be discouraged. Let players fly around joyfully whacking things with Thor’s hammer, don’t make them sneak around hitting ice giants from behind. Thor just don’t roll that way. And could you really picture Captain America, bastion of integrity, play-acting as stealthy dirtbags like Sam Fisher?
The world of superheroes contains legions of distinct, rounded characters who’ve had decades to develop personalities and methodologies. If they all suddenly begin to act like Batman, they’re just not fun anymore. Batman and his games are fun because his world and the way he interacts with it have a particular feel which is familiar and entirely unique. Batman is Batman. So please, on the off-chance you’re reading this right before heading to a development meeting where you’ll pitch a game that’s “like Arkham Asylum, but you play as Power Girl,” think twice. Let these characters be themselves – don’t force them into a mold that was never made for them. Remember the backlash against Call of Duty once public opinion began to turn – the franchise began to accumulate “haters” determined to tell anyone who’d listen how the games had always sucked, to pick as many holes in the series as they could. The same will happen to Batman. If, in a few years, everything gamers find annoying and repetitive about superhero games can be traced back to the Caped Crusader, then as unimaginable as it seems the Internet will turn on him.
Nobody wants that. It’s not such a big thing to ask, developers – please just don’t make us hate Batman. We may never forgive you.