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Man of Steel the Video Game?

The Arkham franchise nails the Batman experience. What would it take to turn gamers into Superman?

Walter Hudson


June 27, 2013 - 7:00 am
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Sometimes, the lack of a product proves more noteworthy than the presence of one. To date, we have seen no video game tie-in to the recently released Man of Steel. Given the infamous history of subpar Superman titles, gamers welcome the omission. However, past developers’ inability to capture the experience of being Superman does not preclude modern developers from taking a fresh look at the challenge.

For inspiration, they should look to the Man of Steel’s DC Comics compatriot, the Dark Knight. The experience of being Batman was nailed by Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum. Playing that game and its even more successful follow-up Arkham City leaves the impression that the developers cared immensely about the character and his world. Rather than start with the goal of making a Batman video game, which had been done many times before, they set the bar much higher and sought to convey the experience of being Batman.

No doubt, the development process on Arkham Asylum began with a list of questions. What does it feel like to be Batman? How does he interact with his world? What are his limitations, and how does he overcome them? The answers then informed the game’s mechanics. Batman uses fear against those who would prey on the fearful. That means stealth, surprise, evasion. Batman depends upon his physical prowess and high-tech gadgetry to gain the upper hand in the face of superior numbers. That calls for a deep fighting mechanic and appropriate weaponry. Thus Arkham Asylum was built as a playground tailored to the character.

The challenge of producing a Superman game as successful as the Arkham franchise is accommodating that character’s immense power. When asking what it feels like to be Superman, how he interacts with his world, and what his limitations are, the answers prove much more intimidating. Batman remains mortal, bound by the finite strength and ability of a human being. Rocksteady can therefore confine him to an island, or entrap him within the walls of a city district, without it seeming like an unreasonable limitation. Superman, on the other hand, never met a wall he couldn’t bust through. Imposing limitations in the way video games typically do, with natural barriers, invisible walls, or some other contrivance, just doesn’t work with the Man of Steel. Ultimately, by limiting him, you take away from what makes him Superman.

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Maybe a slightly softer and lighter version of something like the later Grand Theft Auto games, with the player as Superman in Metropolis instead of a criminal thug in Liberty City? Superman doesn't need to steal cars or be a bad guy, of course, but some sequences could require him to travel around in mundane forms of transportation disguised as Clark. The game could also be set up in such a way that, although no invisible wall prevents him from leaving the city, the game ends if he does. ("While you were off gazing at your navel in your Fortress of Solitude, Supes, Lobo arrived and nuked Metropolis for fun. Where are you when we need you most? Loser!")

Just like the GTA games, it could also have lots of satirical background humor based on various in-jokes and mythological gags from the D.C. Universe, such as negative political campaign ads featuring Lex Luthor running for President and trading jabs with Bruce Wayne, and shock jock Leslie Willis on the radio slamming Superman for his job performance regardless of how well he carried out his last mission.

If Rockstar can build a video game city as massive as any of the ones in its GTA series, I'd say an equally complex Superman: Metropolis could be done with a similar engine. The player could work his way up from stuff like foiling muggings and bank robberies to taking out super-villains, rescuing Lois Lane from killer robots, and dealing with one of Lex Luthor's attempts to hold the city hostage with a killer satellite. Kryptonite, while rare, could also be employed on one mission requiring Superman undercover as Clark Kent to go retrieve a special Kryptonite-proof suit without getting Lois Lane suspicious. (In another mission, contact with red Kryptonite could cause massive hallucinations for Superman, requiring the player to try to sort out reality from illusion while freeing some hostages.) Along the way, how well you did on various missions would be determined by how much collateral damage you did and how many civilian casualties there were. If these go over a certain limit or Lois Lane gets killed or the like, it's game over for you. If you succeed with some damage and casualties, you'll also see people coming to carry the bodies off to the morgue, and construction crews busy rebuilding parts of the city you trashed.

For a little extra fun, a certain freestyle mode in the game might allow you to play as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, General Zod, or Lex Luthor while the computer plays Superman. Just think of all the possibilities...
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