5 great things that make a perfect superhero game (and 5 that lead to an underwhelming experience)
Superhero games are some of the best power fantasies players can play in the gaming industry. Taking characters from the pages of comic books and bringing them to life is perhaps best done in gaming media, where they are not restricted by a CGI budget and can fully demonstrate their potential.
As history would have it, though, the track record for superhero games has been somewhat up and down. While developers like Rocksteady stole the show with their Batman: Arkham series of video games, Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel's Avengers has been somewhat lackluster in terms of overall experience and main story quality.
Thus, it can be noted that certain aspects may make a good superhero game, while the inclusion of others ultimately detracts from the experience. With the future seemingly entailing more of these games, here is a look at what makes a perfect superhero game and what creates an underwhelming product.
Note: This article reflects the writer's opinion.
Things that make a spectacular superhero game
1) A fleshed-out campaign
While this is true for creating any good game, the point is that a superhero game should have a proper campaign that prominently features the hero or heroes. A properly done campaign should contain players getting to step into the protagonist's shoes and play out a story that feels relevant to the character.
Rocksteady’s Arkham series is a great example, which sees Batman use his combat and detective skills in the campaign in stories that fell in keeping with the Caped Crusader’s themes. A well-paced campaign spanning over 20 hours is ideally a fun romp for players to get well accustomed to the video game’s take on the superhero.
An open-world is a bonus, allowing players to traverse around the map with additional side objectives and missions to follow up on. This can further add to the immersion of the superhero fantasy and increase the overall runtime of the game.
2) Ideas from the source material
A large percentage of the people who will pick up a superhero game will be comic book readers, so it is generally a good idea to brush up on the source material before developers hire writers for a story. While no video game (or movie) should be a rehash of events already seen in comics, certain elements can be picked from them to serve as major or minor embellishments.
This will heighten the details of the game's world, with a few Easter eggs that players can spot and have a little moment of pride for. Or they can play a large part in the narrative, which can be big reveals or a surprising turn of events.
After all, Gotham would not be Gotham City without its gothic architecture, dingy alleyways where parents can get shot in, and secret Batcave somewhere. Details like these heighten the feeling of actually being in Gotham City, which is, quite frankly, an entirely fictional setting, existing solely in people’s imagination.
3) Characteristic traits
One of the most important features of any superhero game is the superhero. Tp bring to life an authentic representation of these characters, it is very important to include certain character traits that make them unique. This does not include a cool-looking costume or their unique superpowers but their human traits.
Peter Parker is always late and suffers from chronic bad luck, two features so well illustrated in Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man that this iteration became the definitive take on the character for many fans. The same can be said for Batman from Rocksteady, a stoic and immovable ideal who keeps his problems to himself and doesn’t like to ask for help.
These traits are a part of the character as their superpower (or lack thereof, for Batman). Lacking these makes any representation feel spurious and unfaithful to the character's legend.
4) Iconic villains
From a story perspective, a hero is not defined by the villains they fight. However, for a superhero game to have an incredible narrative drive, it needs to enlist some iconic villains from the hero’s rogues' gallery, such as in the Injustice games.
That is not to say that superhero games should not introduce their characters. It definitely should. But when a superhero does not go up against a nemesis, it starts feeling uncharacteristic.
A compelling villain, adapted from comic books with believable motives and a great character arc, can steal the show if done correctly. The Joker sufficiently evidenced this in the Arkham series and Doctor Octopus from Insomniac’s Spider-Man game, both quite distinct from each other but ideally take on the role of video game antagonist.
5) Controls to befit the hero’s skill
Finally, gameplay is another tricky feature to get right, especially with superhero games. Sometimes, it becomes a challenge to balance a good engaging system combined with something that works with the character’s arsenal and abilities to create a fun experience for the players.
While a few games have ticked this particular box, many have fallen short in this regard. Good examples are again the Arkham series and Marvel’s Spider-Man, which were renowned for different aspects of their gameplay design. Arkham’s combat system is legendary at this point while swinging as Spider-Man has never felt better in Insomniac’s iteration.
A good control scheme allows the player easy traversal of the map and offers an intuitive design, which they can get accustomed to after a few hours into the game. It will be interesting to see what approach Insomniac takes with its Wolverine game, a character whose offensive capabilities are diverse but are generally limited to the ground for movement.
These things ruin the experience of a superhero game
1) Limiting the player
One of the most common mistakes seen in superhero games is when the game limits the players from utilizing the full potential of the hero. One of the oldest examples is the Superman game for N64, which took the strongest hero in the DC universe and saw him fly through circles in the sky.
A more recent example would be Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers, whose shared control layout did not do justice to many of its more powerful heroes. Characters like Thor and Hulk felt particularly nerfed and not like they were being made full use of.
For a better experience, players should get to feel like they’re role-playing as the hero and not feel like they are just taking control of an NPC character with preset moves. A good enemy design, versatile movesets, bigger maps, etc., can all go a long way to letting the players feel super.
2) Focussing heavily on multiplayer
Multiplayer games are fun, and it's not a bad choice to include them in superhero games. Two upcoming titles, Gotham Knight and Suicide Squad Kill the Justice League, will feature optional multiplayer. However, the term optional is vital here.
While superhero games are supposed to be a great narrative experience for comic book readers, fans enjoy a single-player story more, where they can embody their favorite hero and take on enemies. It can be more distracting than when Batman tries to do some detective work while Robin is busily T-bagging the nearest unconscious thug.
Optional multiplayer and offline co-op campaigns are great inclusions but should not rob players of the opportunity to enjoy the game to its full extent on their own. Forcing players to go online to win certain rewards and unlock alternate costumes is quite an irritating move developers can make.
3) Button mashing
Combat is one of the key cornerstones of all games and, as such, also with superhero games. The problem with a well-balanced combat system is why there has not been a successful Superman game. How does one good balance combat when the protagonist is the most muscular man on earth?
Setting Superman aside for now, a superhero game with button-masking combat has no longer place in this time and age. No one enjoys mind-numbing single-button combat, preferring something more nuanced and intricate. A system that allows them to express the hero’s abilities rewards them for doing it right and punishes them for mistakes.
It is worth noting that some of the most successful superhero games have had some of the best combat to date. Batman: Arkham Knight displayed the pinnacle of Rocksteady’s iconic attack-counter system, which many other games have since mimicked.
4) Over-reliance on QTEs
Quick time events (QTE) originate from the game Shenmue and are depicted when a player is required to press a specific button from a sudden on-screen prompt under a small time frame. These occur in the form of small pre-rendered cinematic cutscenes, which in superhero games depict cool actions that would usually be impossible in gameplay.
However, QTEs are some of the most reviled gameplay tropes and are discouraged mainly by a large community of gamers for a number of reasons. This is not welcome for those who take the time to process sudden information. Two, these are cop-out ways to make a game cooler than it is.
In most modern games, QTEs are either downplayed or given a wider time frame in which to act as required. In Insomniac’s Spider-Man games, these can be fully turned off and players can enjoy a cutscene instead of searching for a specific button in sheer panic.
5) Live service game
This entry only exists on this list because of one game and is not meant to discourage any live-service games. When done well, a live service game can be a spectacular experience and can entertain the player for years to come. Games like Destiny 2 and Sea of Thieves prove this point.
However, after the lackluster performance of Marvel’s Avengers, it is evident that players would rather play a full campaign of a superhero game, as their favorite superhero, than wait for months to play three hours of extra content featuring a new hero. It does not help that his game has very little campaign content and is strictly meant to be played online to reap its full benefits.
The warm reception to Eidos-Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a fully single-player game, further cements the notion that a well-written campaign beats a live service game any day. Yet, maybe time will one day deliver with a great live service superhero game, but it won’t be short.