Friday, August 22, 2008

Supermonth: The Game of Tomorrow (Part 2)

Continuing with the discussion of the necessary elements for a good Superman video game, today we'll be addressing the random encounter/event system.

I really like the trend in games like Ultimate Spider-Man, in which you are free to roam the city, and you get random alerts that you can choose to respond to--crimes in progress, people in danger, etc. It adds to the feeling of actually being a superhero--helping people in need, foiling crimes, patrolling the city, that sort of thing. In general, it makes the game feel a lot less linear.

There are some problems with the way the encounters are implemented, though. The biggest problem with these in Ultimate Spider-Man is a lack of variety; the biggest problem in Superman Returns is that there's very little control over triggering the events. In USM, you're basically on top of the event before it really starts progressing; in SR, the screams and sirens start if you happen to accidentally pass within a few square miles of the dot on the radar. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if not for one of the things I like about SR, which is the Metropolis health meter. In USM, you can trigger an event and ignore it without any real penalty. In SR, if you ignore a triggered event, mass destruction will ensue to the city, essentially penalizing your health. There needs to be a little more choice involved, and that's easily enough accomplished by tightening up the trigger radius. As with so much of Superman Returns, otherwise decent gameplay is muddied by sloppy controls.

Superman Returns really tries to give a bunch of variety. You fight dragons, robots, mutants, Kryptonite-powered aircraft, giant aliens, and the occasional supervillain. And sometimes, a combination of those. There are tricks to most of them. Some of the robots are very, very fast, others explode violently when hit, others are immune to heat vision and can avoid freeze breath. There are two types of dragon; both are tough to take out physically, but one goes down with a bit of heat vision and the other with a little freeze breath (they are, naturally, color-coded). You can't use the long-range powers on the mutants or they'll grow larger and stronger; if you punch Riot, he splits off a duplicate.

The problem is that, despite the variety of events, fights generally come down to freezing and punching. That's the best way (as far as I've found) to beat the robots, the Kryptonite ships, Riot, most dragons, etc. It's my basic fall-back strategy, but it works a bit too well and too often. I find myself rarely pulling out the heat vision (because it seems to be more dangerous than the freeze-breath) and never pulling out super-breath (which just blows things away without appearing to actually do anything).

The only exception to the fights in these random encounters is the building fire. Every once in awhile, you'll have to put out some towering inferno, which you naturally do by blowing on it. Freeze breath works fine for this, which suggests to me that super-breath is utterly redundant. Apparently you can also pick up and move around the fire trucks to put out the fire, but it's unnecessary and seems pretty tough to do, given the sloppy controls. The infernos represent the only reprieve you get from battle in these events, and they're a bit on the bland side. Where's the rushing into the building to rescue trapped children and pets?

I'd like to talk about how other Superman games have done the random event system, but in my experience, this is the first one to do so. It gets a lot right, but all the random robots and faceless monsters really make me wonder where the familiar villains are. Mongul and Metallo show up in the main plot; Riot pops up now and then in the encounters, but Superman has a long list of villains that would be great for this sort of thing, and would add a lot of variety to boot. Let's see some bank robberies (as in USM) by minor supervillains like Loophole and Barrage. Let's see some creativity to the beat-em-up battles, like being able to stop the mutant rampage by finding Dabney Donovan or Simyan and Mokkari and taking out their control system. Where are the deadly toys and lethal pranks? None of this would be any harder to implement than what's in the game (and similar games) already; there's really no excuse.

The other problem with the random events in SR is with the civilians. Harming the civilians decreases the city's health, and I like that. If the controls were tighter and allowed for more options, this would provide a great way to make the player have to be creative with their powers. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to move a fight to a more sparsely populated area. Even that wouldn't be a problem if the Metropolis populace weren't the dumbest, most oblivious people in the world. They don't run away from a fight, they just wander around aimlessly. Occasionally, they will wander right between Superman and the monster du jour. While Superman's in mid-punch. I know this is the big city, and they're used to this kind of thing, but no one should be that blasé. In USM, people run away as soon as Spidey starts punching, and those are New Yorkers.

So, naturally, any battle leaves several innocent bystanders lying in the street, crying for help. Superman can pick up individual civilians and rush them to nearby ambulances, and doing so restores some of the city's lost health. The usual problem of sloppy controls means that Superman typically grabs at air three or four times before actually finding the injured person next to him, but once they're in hand, he can rush them to the EMTs and drop them off. Then, he can rush back, where he'll often find that enough time has passed that the rest of the injured people have disappeared. If, by some chance, you happen to trigger another event while ferrying civilians, you'll find that the ambulances often don't move between events, requiring even longer trips to rescue bystanders. And sometimes, just sometimes, the ambulances never show up or disappear entirely, leaving Superman to uselessly carry around civilians and drop them off on the sidewalk.

If rescuing civilians is going to be a priority, then it needs to be a priority. Superman should have time enough between events to aid in the cleanup. It doesn't need to be unlimited time--there could even be a clock or counter on screen--but he shouldn't have to choose between saving injured people and stopping another event, just because the triggering radius is too large. Civilians should have a better AI, and ambulances should always be nearby. Moreover, there ought to be hospitals and police stations and such, as a stationary alternative for rescue.

Of course, those would require that Metropolis be a navigable city, which at least in SR, it isn't. Next time, we'll be exploring what Metropolis should be in the ultimate Superman game.


Diamondrock said...

A local shop has the Superman Returns PS2 game (which I figure is a version of the one you're talking about, if not the same) for about $10. Is it worth my picking up?

Matt said...

I think that, in this console generation, games like this should take a lot of cues from Grand Theft Auto IV. Liberty City -feels- like a real city, and bystanders act like people would.

The problems I had with Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, and Ultimate Spider-Man were the random events. Basically there were five or six of them that you would ALWAYS see, and one or two that would show up sometimes, depending on where you were in the city (i.e., being near water could trigger a mission where you have to save people on a boat, made all the more frustrating by the fact that Spider-Man can't swim). There needs to be more variety in these kinds of things, or after an hour you're just bored. I'm glad to see that Superman Returns, for all of it's flaws, tried to fix that if nothing else.

Personally, I would love to see a Batman game with all of the variety needed in a game like this and all of the care, detail, and polish put into GTA. A free-roam Batman game that was actually good would make me a very happy man.


Tom Foss said...

Diamondrock: The PS2 version is the one I have; apparently the XBox 360 version lets you fly into space. At $10, I think it's worth it, provided you can get past the annoyances. Once you have a handle on the sloppy controls, it's actually pretty good. And I think I got it around $15 with shipping on eBay.

Matt: Absolutely agreed. I was going to mention GTA at some point in this post (with regard to how missions proceed) but realized it was redundant, but I agree totally. If Metropolis or Gotham were styled like Liberty City--a fictional locale that nonetheless feels like a real place (no doubt partly because it's based on a real place).