Editorial: How to make a GREAT Spider-Man game

Oh Spider-man, Spider-man, if only you could do whatever a Bat can. Then you’d have a game on par with Arkham City. This week, Michael takes a look at the webbed wonder and just why we’ve never seen a truly great Spider-man game. If our Christmas wish comes true, then maybe next year’s movie tie-in will take on board some of his ideas.

As far back as my memory serves, Spider-Man stood as one of the most compelling heroes just shy of Batman. The character represents something the younger generation could level with, as most characters that share his age are sidekicks. Aside from that, he’s intelligent, but makes mistakes and struggles with every day problems (from school to bills). He’s got an arsenal of useful abilities and the memorable cast of villains to go with them. And he can shoot webs!

The mix of his personality, abilities, and acrobatic nature makes him a full of potential for use in a GREAT game. But the community, as a whole, has accepted that the mediocrity being shoveled out is the best it’s ever going to get.

I, however, refuse to accept this. Not many clung to the hope of one day playing a fantastic Batman game, but lo and behold, Batman: Arkham Asylum stealthily arrived and caught everyone off guard. Now, its sequel, Arkham City is garnering universal praise and commercial success. Why can’t the web-slinger catch the same break? This is what needs to be done to finally make the GREAT game the character deserves and his fans will anxiously purchase.

Web-Slinging

I’m going to get this one out of the way now. The coolest thing about the character is his ability to do what many to consider to be an extreme sport across New York City. It’s a mechanic with a lot of potential and the only game to do it right is Spider-Man 2.

Including myself, most fans will cite Spider-Man 2 as the pinnacle to the series of games starring the web-head. It’s a feature that’s easy enough for beginners, but deep enough for those seeking an extra challenge. We use it as an example for what developers should be doing to make a good game. The problem is, Spider-Man 2 excelled with this concept and nothing else.

A rich web-slinging system is not the saving grace that’ll turn the tide. Spider-Man 3: The Game proves as much. It ripped the web-slinging mechanic and somehow managed to screw the pooch worse than Spider-Man 2 in everything else.

Ultimate Spider-Man, Web of Shadows, Shattered Dimensions, and Edge of Time all dumb the web-slinging down to just a way to get to and from each fist-fight. Because, you know, Spider-Man punching someone in the face is the most compelling thing about him, right?

Sharp Dialogue with Exceptional Voice Acting

None of the Spider-Man games can lay claim to sharp dialogue. If they somehow manage to boast acceptable dialogue, they drop the ball with awkward pacing or terrible voice acting.

Web of Shadows is one of the worst offenders in its miscasting of Spider-Man as a nasally, whiny putz that has a voice that suspiciously registers a few octaves too high for the character to possess testicles, if you catch my drift. The dialogue isn’t particularly dazzling either (“You want me? I’m right here! Come get me!”). All and all, the experience left me torn and wanting to hear what was going on while playing it muted with the subtitles on.

Shattered Dimensions features dialogue that doesn’t sound like it was ripped from the template Capcom uses for every Resident Evil game. Unfortunately, the quips are repeatedly delivered in such a rapid-fire manner that I once again found myself muting a Spider-Man game, but this time, without the subtitles.

The movie-tie games don’t fare much better. The only refreshing thing is Bruce Campbell’s quirky and humorous tutorial session. Unfortunately, he’s only present for the beginning of the game and then swiftly disappears into the night to kill some Deadites or something. What we’re left with is Tobey Maguire moodily muttering his lines because his contract held him to it.

Ultimate Spider-Man and Edge of Time are the only two games that boast sharp dialogue (Edge of Time wavers back and forth on this from time to time) and half-way decent voice acting. Or at least as good as dialogue and voice acting can be in a Spider-Man game. Both were written by seasoned writers of the character and the medium he originated from, so perhaps there’s something to be learned from this?

A Compelling Narrative

Tying into sharp dialogue and acceptable voice acting, a compelling narrative is also a rare trait. A worthwhile plot begins with a hook that boosts the audience into an overarching storyline that builds into a final confrontation and then winds down with a resolution.

The movie tie-in games can’t decide what they want to be. All three begrudgingly follow the story of the films, while occasionally breaking free and trying to do their own thing. The original material just doesn’t fly seamlessly. It’s as if the development team accepted their fate, locked in the prison of being tied to another product, and then had second thoughts with its attempts to escape when it was time to hit the showers.

Web of Shadows and Shattered Dimensions escape their shackles as a tie-in product, but with their new-found freedom they go too far. We’re given an ensemble cast of Marvel’s most notable heroes and villains in Web of Shadows, but with a lack of consistency in theme and pacing.

Shattered Dimensions gives us the ability to explore four variations of the character, but all are creatively stretched too thin. It’s the difference between having a personal pizza that’s rich with flavor and the world’s largest pizza that’s bland. The entire thing reads like a dull side-note in the Spider-Man mythos that fails to go anywhere.

Ultimate Spider-Man and Edge of Time both have a compelling plot with precise pacing, and forks in a river that all tie back into one coherent flow. Once again, I’d connect the dots and see that both actually were penned by people familiar with the craft of writing and the character.

Variety

Every Spider-Man games lacks variety. I don’t care how you try to slice it. The movie tie-in games fail to inject enough variation into the objectives, combat, and environments. Spider-Man 2, for all of its praise, still lacks variety with its missions and combat. Spider-Man 3: The Game doesn’t even count as a game.

The Beenox games, accepting that lackluster combat is a flaw of past games, try to focus on the combat and, in turn, manage to make it worse. I appreciate a deeper combat system, but for all of its effort, it forgets that enemies worth fighting are essential. Web of Shadows, Shattered Dimensions, and Edge of Time possess formulaic encounters and enemies that lack variety.

The irony of Shattered Dimensions possessing four separate universes is that it lacks any level of dimension. We’re given three nearly identical characters and settings (sans visual style and minor play adjustments) and one that’s unique. All boil down to the same mission structure of fetch quests and beat ‘em up sessions.

Edge of Time tries to rectify this by taking place in two of the four universes and giving both more of a fluid dynamic. Both offer dull corridors and rooms full of enemies and missions that amount to the same thing. So we’re left with two uninspiring settings rather than the four of the previous game.

Polish

Another thing all Spider-Man games lack. Polish. Why is it that when I web-sling as the titular character, the camera is perfect, but doing anything else leaves me in a state of frustration? The only Spider-Man game to have an awful camera all around is the first movie tie-in game. The rest all boast dynamic and fluid web-slinging cameras that, rarely, if ever falter.

But then I go to wall-crawl, and the camera spins out of control. I try to walk into a building to purchase an upgrade and  it refuses to follow our hero. Lizards are roaming the sewers and I’m having a more harrowing battle with the camera than with the reptilians. I then fall through the floor into a white space and have to restart the mission from the beginning, losing all of my progress.

Navigating through open environments is passable, but closed in spaces are just nightmarish. And don’t even think about trying to do a stealth mission or anything that requires precision without a migraine. Detractors of clipping issues between a character and their environment in the industry didn’t have a finger to point to until a Spider-Man game showed up.

A majority of the deaths in all of the Spider-Man games often are due to a jerky camera, uncooperative controls, and a lack of balance. Its level of tolerance varies per game. Spider-Man 3: The Game, for instance, receives most of my ire because I paid full price for it (clearly, I’m not bitter) and found it to be a mess, which makes it an accurate adaptation of the source material, if you think about it.

These issues aren’t just things that take me out of the experience of a Spider-Man title, but any game.

Identity

A majority of the Spider-Man games of late lack identity. For all of their flaws, the first two movie tie-in games made steps forward for the character in the gaming medium, excluding the third installment, of course.

Visually, Ultimate Spider-Man has a unique identity that’s both distinct and functional as far as story and gameplay are concerned.

Beenox has since resigned to trying “new” things, and by new things, I mean what other games have used. Web of Shadows, moral choice system and quick-time events. Shattered Dimensions, quick-time events, first-person action segments, and stealth sections, à la Arkham Asylum. Edge of Time, time travel… And quick-time events.

Rather than diverge from the follow-the-leader mentality, the Spider-Man as of late is trying out what’s already been done in uninteresting and often worse ways.

A World with Personality

If Beenox intends on aping things from other games, why can’t it at least take something that’s compelling? With that said, Infamous is a good place to start. To date, Infamous 1 and 2 both boast one of the most brilliant examples of how an open world game should be made.

Sucker Punch designed each game with a world that’s sectioned off at the start, but opens up as the story progresses. Every part of the city possesses collectibles that serve an overall purpose. Seeking these items can lead to an increase in abilities, advancement of side stories, and push enemies out of territory to make traveling around easier.

The point is that the Spider-Man games that do possess an open world don’t give you much of a reason to help or appreciate it beyond experience points. Side missions often repeat and their locations are arbitrary. Collectibles are no more than insignificant Easter eggs. It’s a mess of elements that serve no purpose and bores me.

A good open world game is one where you find yourself unintentionally veering off the main path and realizing hours later that you’ve forgotten to eat, perhaps feed your pet turtle, and get on with the primary story-line.

To rectify this predicament, Beenox threw in more locations and made the world smaller with Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time. In doing so, what they have are environments that just repeat themselves and come across as forgettable. Ultimate Spider-Man is the closest the franchise has come to having a world with personality, but even that isn’t without its flaws, mostly due to its simplistic web-slinging mechanic.

Having a sandbox, big or small, is great, but what’s the point in exploring it if traveling is painfully bland and the only thing to discover is sand?

The Hypothetically GREAT Spider-Man Game

So how would all of these elements together be blended into one GREAT game?

Hire a writer. Get someone who has experience with both the character and the structure of a narrative. Hire more than one writer and have them collaborate. Make sure there’s an over-arching plot-line that has pacing and is actually compelling to experience. Don’t skimp out on this.

Give the player a city. Make it interesting. Don’t paste the same structures over and over. Give it some character and give the player a reason to want to explore and help those in it. Add nuances to make it imperfect. Hire more than a handful of voice actors for the citizens. Have one of the people go one about how they were once a web-slinger, and had to quit because of an arrow to the knee or something.

Focus on the acrobatic and web-slinging nature of Spider-Man. Give the player the foundation and gradually build on that for depth. The more players use these skills, the easier it is for them to navigate around the world. Come up with a list of combat moves. Then, test them, and decide on what to include in the final build based on what’s viewed as the most useful. They can be balanced from there, based on what is chosen. Don’t overload the player with items and skills unless they serve a purpose.

Cast an actor with talent that matches Spider-Man’s persona and don’t have the character shout lines over and over in combat throughout the entire game. Have him only speak dialogue that’s pertinent in moments after sections of gameplay, in cut-scenes, etc. Pace these moments appropriately.

Implement an upgrade system not just based on experience, but the progression of the story and the actions of the player. Make them count. Don’t push them extraneously on the player and put quantity over quality.

In all, give the development team a reasonable amount of time to make a game that the web-slinger, his fans, and players in general, deserve. So with that said, does Beenox’s The Amazing Spider-Man game stand a chance? Only if it’s narrated from start to finish by Bruce Campbell.

Header image created by Anthony Clark of Nedroid. Used with permission.

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