Friday, June 28, 2013

"Shadow of Apokolips" - Superman Month #3


This shouldn't be so hard! I wanted to celebrate Superman this month and talk about the character's importance and relevancy in our pop-culture and by extension in society. It was easy with the books, it was easy-enough with the movies, but when the time for the games came, I was defeated.

Yes, video-games aren't exactly fertile ground for symbolism and academic studies on allegory, but Superman has a few gazillion super-powers and he first appeared in a book called Action Comics. If there is one thing games are supposed to do well, that's action.

The obvious choice for a retro-review is, of course, Superman for the Nintendo 64, but that game is less celebrating and more a shortcut to a fucking stroke.

Poor Superman never had luck in video-games. Past the primitive stuff on the arcades and the home computers, the first big consoles release was that terrible Japanese-made adventure/RPG hybrid with the overly cutesy characters for the NES. Then we had the 16-bit games, one for the Mega Drive by Sunsoft that played like a broom-stick with a cape getting pummeled by random enemies and that Death & Return of Superman game based on the comics for the Mega Drive and the SNES. It was repetitive and Superman was barely in it.

Then there was that tragedy of the human condition as seen through the cartridge slot of the N64 and then the handhelds. There was the Game Gear port of the Mega Drive game, which actually played better than the console version, there was that original Gameboy release, which was -and I shit you not- worse than the N64 game and a couple of releases for the Gameboy Advance and actually one of them was pretty damned good, especially for a movie-tie-in!

The punchline here is Superman Returns for the GBA isn't even a Superman game; it's a puzzle-game with Superman iconography! But you know what? It's probably the best Superman game, from a purely technical standpoint at least. The puzzles are simple but engaging, a strict timer makes the game challenging and it's got pretty nifty music as well.

But there were two more console-releases, when early in the '00s Warner scheduled two games, one for the XBOX One and by that I mean the actual FIRST XBOX THAT CAME OUT and one for the the PS2 and the Nintendo Gamecube. The XBOX game was called "Superman The Man of Steel", in case you couldn't tell who the game's about by going simply with "Superman" and it was an action game based on the comics. The other game was "Superman: Shadow of Apokolips" and it was based on "Superman: The Animated Series", just like the N64 game.

It was made by the Infogrames Sheffield house back when Infogrames had divisions or, you know, existed. The story was okay for a simple kids game. Most of the original cast from the series reprise their roles, sans Michael Ironside as Darkseid as he was busy at the time being Sam Fisher. The writing was definitely below the show's level. It was focused on Darkseid providing Intergang with Apokoliptan weapons in the shitty prequel game for the GBA, then doing more or less the same for Lex with the goal to kill Superman.

It's pretty basic stuff, though even that could've done better, as Darkseid's plan never amounts to anything and his involvement is merely a cameo; as is Lex's with only three bosses in the game, Livewire, Parasite and Metallo, all of who seem strangely unconnected to the overall plot.

Where the game truly falters is gameplay and mechanics, which is a pity, because it actually has the right idea. No, seriously, the game makes you nigh-invincible to most attacks and grants free control over Superman's most iconic powers practically for free. There are bars for both health and the powers, but they don't empty fast and they automatically refill relatively quickly.

It's still not there yet, but of all the Superman games I've played, this is the closest it's come to making me feel like the Man of Steel and that includes Superman Returns, which also featured similar mechanics and made the player practically invulnerable to everything.

But unlike the ill-fated Superman Returns tie-in, Shadow of Apokolips stands out as a true Superman game because it makes good use of the Kryptonian's powers. It's a tfourteen-level game that requires utilizing Kal-El's abilities, ranging from super-punching the shit out of identical robots, to interacting with the environment and solving puzzles.

It's actually kind of genius in its simplicity. A very basic objective design works on a completely different level, because it involves the use of Superman's flight, speed and often-times heat and x-ray vision, making the main character unique and hard to replace with another stock action hero, as is often-times the case with many second and third-rate super-hero games, especially from the 8 and 16-bit eras.

That's not to say level design is flawless, though. The game's short length only mildly counters its repetitiveness which becomes clear early on, especially in regards to the combat. Furthermore, the brilliant developers behind this wanted to add challenge to the puzzle sections of the game, so they opted for timed missions. A LOT of timed missions.

And they don't let up either; they start hard and they only get harder. There are few more infuriating things than carrying stuff to put into other stuff from one side of the map to the other, only to have the timer run out three feet from the goal, after which you're called to try all over again.

The primary cause of the fuck-ups is movement and camera control, especially in-flight. The game was made before developers started using the right analogue stick for camera control and thus navigating the map to an objective or exploring to find that slot or that button you need to push can be frustrating, especially under a timer. There is a particularly asinine mission toward the end that epitomizes the concept both level and control design flaw and has made me quit the game in the past.

Not to mention, while the mission objectives make a fairly decent use of Superman's set of powers and that's the main strength of the game, the leaps of logic to put the Man of Tomorrow in these situations is sometimes jarring. Between melting reactors and water dams that seem to have been built with no safeguard in place, in case something goes wrong, there is a particularly hilarious mission where Superman has to deactivate the self-destruct mechanism in LexLabs, a process that requires leaving the main hub where the machine is, finding a corridor nearby, releasing two locks and getting a key that looks like a giant energy ball, then transferring it all the way back to the main room, climbing up at the top of the machine again and imputing it there. Did I mention the main hub is run through by giant deadly gas pipes that end up exploding and filling the entire facility with the stuff?

Who the hell thought this was a good idea?! Why would you build an override mechanism so ridiculously complicated? The Black Mesa administration had better sense of securing their facility and that's a place where three-quarters of its staff got eaten because of equipment malfunction!

Special nod has to be given to the visuals and especially on the Superman character model. The game uses the cell-shading technique, which I admit I'm not very fond of and despite its efforts to mimic the look of the show, it comes off a bit bland. The level of detail on Superman, however, is fantastic and the attention put on his animation is stellar. Sometimes it's worth flying around in the game, just to see all the subtle ways in which Superman animates.

With the exception of that puzzle thing, Shadow of Apokolips is likely the best solo-Superman game ever made, but I'm still hard-pressed to call it a "good game". Its difficulty curve can be frustrating and while checkpoints between objectives usually balance out the game's trial-and-error approach, some of those objectives dragon on for too long and each retry forces the player deal over and over with the same annoyances, such as the camera.

Also, the poor writing and the short length forbid the game from being perceived as anything other than a holiday title aimed at children and as such condemns it into obscurity for the super-hero game sub-genre.

But the ideas *are* there. This shouldn't be so hard! In this day and age, when game technology has got so far that Tomb Raider can't make even because of its insane production costs, a character with so many possibilities shouldn't be shoved into meaningless kids titles.

Superman Returns, released in 2006, was the last solo-Superman game we got and even though it suffered from a hurried production schedule that left the game entirely unfinished past the basic playable level, that one also had several good ideas.

So far the best games in which Superman has appeared are Justice League titles, such as the criminally underrated Justice League Heroes, Nether Realm's fighting titles, as well as Lego Batman 2, which had the purest form of Superman in a video-game and it didn't seem hindered by it at all.

That's just not right. Developers like to cite Superman's invulnerability as a problem in making a game about the character, but that's a cop-out excuse. Games may not be art, but they are deeply creative medium that requires innovation and sometimes this innovation will have to come out of necessity. That's how we got Metal Gear for fuck's sakes!

At least three games I just mentioned found different work-arounds to Superman's invincibility, which isn't even that much of an issue when pitted against larger-than-life villains such as Darkseid. Why not have a double-length health bar that's refilled automatically depending on Superman's exposure to the sun? Require the player to fly up and recharge every now and then and grant back a little less health with each recharge. Imagine the possibilities in an open-city environment with regular day-night cycle that would make night-time missions more challenging without the option to recharge. Think of  how smoothly the difficulty curve would rise if in later stages the player found themselves off-world in places with a red sun or no sun at all, like Apokolips.

Instead of a game-over that's ultimately meaningless in video-games these days, require the player to back down from a fight and flee to let Superman recuperate. Every now and then have enemy henchmen look for him when he's weak and defenceless, forcing the player revert to the Clark Kent persona and try to blend in without raising suspicion.

Even without taking the option of an open-world game, have different enemies impact on Superman differently. Standard thugs with AK-47s shouldn't have an effect for him, but troops armed with Kryptonite weapons should reflect various types of damage based on the type of Kryptonite they use. Troops with high-voltage weapons can incapacitate Superman, even if they can't kill him. Enemies who deal in magicks can deal a lot of damage. Silver Banshee, who screams in hypersonic frequencies almost made his head explode once; literally. Then bring in the heavy-hitters, the Brainiacs, the Zods, the Darkseids. Force different ways to take out different types of enemies. Superman doesn't kill, so require indirect methods of elimination for the human enemies who can't take the abuse. And so on and so forth.

As we live in an era when super-hero games are more than just cartoon tie-ins and make their own multi-million mark on the market, the archetypal super-hero deserves a place there as well, simply because there are so many things you can do with a character like him.

Games with super-powered characters come out all the time and Prototype taught us not too long ago that a powerful central character can offer a very cathartic game. It's a loss glossing over Superman, because of a minor hindrance that has been dealt with before successfully. It's a loss for Warner, because it loses money from establishing a household name into a huge market, it's a loss for the gamers that miss out on what could be a genuinely, extremely fun game and it's a loss for the gaming industry that can't innovate to use one of the biggest characters in the audience's collective consciousness and consequently employ a lot of smaller and obscure starving studios.

You want to make a good Superman game? Take Shadow of Apokolips and put it on steroids.

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