The State of Superhero Gaming

When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out in 2009, it really was the best superhero video game ever released, and raised the bar for every other one forever. Now, as we approach the release of Beenox’s The Amazing Spider-Man on June 26, the first game in a few years to be free of that series’ yearly iteration cycle, gamers are all aflutter. Will we finally, as all advance hype indicates, get the Spider-Man game we’ve always wanted?

Batman and Spider-Man have an unusual pull on most gamers because they are the superheroes whose origins to which we can most closely relate. Spider-Man was a skinny nerd, awkward with girls, and gifted with a sudden, marvellous ability that let him rise above his tormentors. And while most of us are not the sons of murdered billionaire parents, there is something about the quality and expression of Batman’s anger that appeals to us — a thoughtful vigilantism. Both are, for gamers (and movie-goers, it seems) the most human and relatable heroes. So, understandably, we’re very particular about the videogames that purport to put us in these superheroes’ tights. And the way they control is at the height of these concerns.

To reference another game that involves forces that could be seen as superpowers, 2002′s Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is widely regarded as the finest execution of Star Wars lightsabering in any videogame, including LucasArt’s recent Force Unleashed releases. Its responsive system gave you the ability to turn on a dime and jump out of any animation. It came with various stances, so you could adjust your fighting style depending on your enemy. Your avatar could flip, twirl, dodge and attack, just like in the movies. But more importantly, the control of the character was just like how you thought it would feel. That’s key.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast trailer

Batman: Arkham Asylum won so many awards for Game of the Year because the team at RockSteady managed the difficult task of creating a game that corresponded to how we thought it would feel to be Batman. It was the perfect storm of story, gadgets, stealth and brutal brawls. It wasn’t play-acting. In the game, you were Batman, and could do all the cool things you saw Batman do in the comics and the movies and in your mind. Maybe even going back to all the times you played at being Batman when you were a kid, when you were Batman for Halloween, when you made a fake utility belt, wore a cape, made a batcave out of cardboard. They tapped into all of that, and that’s why I will always love them.

And so, dauntingly, Beenox is releasing The Amazing Spider-Man in the long skyscraper-sized shadow of 2004′s Spider-Man 2 by Treyarch, whose controls gamers feel, are perfect.

When Spider-Man 2 was released, it was a revelation. I spent hours playing that game, not even bothering with any missions – just swinging around the city. I felt like Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan. Interestingly, Treyarch didn’t simplify things. They made swinging hard. If we look at the continuum between something like Tony Hawk’s 1-button activation of death-defying tricks and Skate’s carefully micro-managed system where every button controls a different limb, Spider-Man 2 definitely fell more on the Skate side. I still remember the elegant hand ballet of having to depress a trigger, hit a button and move a stick in sequence to get the most effective swing. It was difficult to master, at times frustratingly so, and more like driving a standard when most cars are automatic. But the degree of control you had when you finally mastered it was breathtaking and incredibly satisfying. You thought to yourself, “This is what Spider-Man would have to go through for every swing. Amazing.”

All indications are that Beenox’s upcoming release aims to do away with that complicated system. Web-swinging is now a one-button right trigger affair, whose webs no longer attach to anything real (i.e. the side of a building) and instead, cling to the clouds. Or, you may opt for the much vaunted “Web-Rush” system, a mechanic that slows down time and allows you to plot out a course to a possible perch, toward which your Spider-Man will dutifully go.

The Amazing Spider-Man trailer

I can see why these chose to do this. The Spider-Man 2 controls had its drawbacks. The need for webs to attach to something tangible, like the side of a building, inevitably led to you swinging toward it. Swinging wasn’t a smooth affair. It was more like a sailboat than a motorboat. You tacked from swing to swing. Still, I can’t help but feel that something is lost in the simplification. All I can do is hope the rest of the game more than makes up for it.

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Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle FictionsPedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.

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