Superheroes and Open-World Games: The Perfect Combination

Gamers love superheroes. Whether it’s DC, Marvel, Dark Horse or manga, the idea of being powerful and being able to challenge some freak-of-nature foe in a superhuman standoff has always had an epic and enthralling appeal. The superhero subgenre has led to countless films, TV shows and video game adaptations, but a recent trend for the field has definitely changed things for the gaming community. Superhero games are steadily becoming involved with the open-world genre of gaming. Batman, Superman and even fresh new original superhero series are expanding beyond level-to-level progression and breaking down the walls of game design. But why is that? Why are we expanding to a fully explorable city instead of simple mission-to-mission design? It’s simple, really; superheroes and open worlds, when combined, epitomize each other’s visions. Together, both sides are downright unstoppable.

With Grand Theft Auto III blowing the doors off the open-world genre, it convinced many developers that it was the way to go. Licensed games were no different; every property under the sun was running toward mission-based open-world gaming. The age of the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox was already familiar with superhero games like the ill-fated Batman: Dark Tomorrow, but as licensed games became steadily more prolific with mainstream media as film tie-ins, the walls were beginning to break down. The film tie-in game for Spider-Man 2 (developed by Treyarch) was one of the most prolific superhero games to adopt an open-world format. All of the acrobatic movement skills that Spider-Man earned throughout his comic book history were fully available for players to use. Being able to leap off a colossal skyscraper, shoot a web mere feet above a gruesome fall, and swinging around the corner like a slingshot was liberating for series fans, who found the goofy “magic web” motion of past games to be both ridiculous and awkward. The ability to approach confrontations in town and save civilians on the fly synched up with Peter Parker’s day-to-day adventures as a superhero, rescuing people and stopping crimes. You really felt involved with the city itself as its guardian when you could freely explore it without being bound by hindering objectives.

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Another innovative superhero game that made its mark during that generation was The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction from Radical Entertainment. Ultimate Destruction marked a tremendous improvement over the previous Hulk game (the movie tie-in simply called Hulk) in allowing its titular hero to freely explore the city and demolish anything in his path. Similar to Spider-Man 2, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction offered free-roaming design with multiple missions to complete across the city. Even better was the “unstoppable movement” element, which allowed The Hulk to climb up buildings, run up walls, and charge jumps to leap far distances. This allowed for a significantly improved sense of mobility around the city, while also realizing the idea of being a superhero: completing feats that a normal human being could not.

Both Spider-Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction each offered a powerful component in making a superhero game great. Spider-Man 2’s involving and engaging setting allowed the player to experience the mythology and source material personally, while The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction contributed the idea of performing superhuman actions, giving the player a sense of power. Both of these elements were in their prime in the freedom of an open-world, one that you can explore at a solid pace while still demonstrating acts of superhuman abilities.

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These two components furthered the evolution of superheroes in open-world games with the next generation of consoles. 2009 brought gamers two fresh new open-world games featuring superheroes, though neither of them had any license attached. The Playstation 3 earned inFAMOUS from Sucker Punch, while the PS3, 360 and PC all got Prototype (another game from Radical Entertainment). These two fully original open-world games continued the tradition set forth by the previous generation by giving increased mobility and a narrative that involved the player in its mythology. Both inFAMOUS and Prototype featured protagonists with a lot of character (despite their different places in their respective stories), creating a fresh new approach to superhero games that was not bound by already established licenses. Combat in both games was more frequent than in past games, with Prototype’s gory bloodbaths and inFAMOUS’ interesting use of parkour for ranged combat and cover-based skirmishes. Furthermore, the games kept the superhero abilities on full display; inFAMOUS’ Cole MacGrath used his electricity-based skills to shoot, bomb and snipe enemies, while Prototype’s Alex Mercer kept the bloodiness at a good high. Mobility was improved, albeit less substantially in the past, with Cole’s parkour and electric gliding skills and Alex’s running, jumping and gliding (similar to how The Hulk moved in Ultimate Destruction). The games were becoming bigger and more expansive with the improved tech, allowing for more to explore and more exciting methods of doing so. The narratives behind both games were not as memorable as those established by superhero icons, but the idea behind the concept, keeping players engaged in a big world to explore, was still alive.

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The superhero game and the open-world genre were steadily becoming inseparable pals, but it wasn’t until the over-the-top antics of Saints Row IV where the idea could achieve a near-perfect sense of synergy. The introduction of superpowers to Saints Row IV was what set the game apart from its already goofy predecessor Saints Row: The Third. Colossal leaps, mach-speed running, energy blasts, skyscraper climbing and practically every fundamental element that made past superhero games so enjoyable culminated in a goofy and nonsensical setting. Huge worlds, constant upgrades to skills and an inescapable sense of superpowered energy grabbed the sandbox ideology by the throat and made it its own. It harkens back to playing with superhero action figures in the sandbox, where you controlled how they fought, regardless of what reality intended. You felt free from those constraints; your imagination was your only limitation.

From its inception, the superhero concept was one of transcending the limitations of being a human. Characters like Superman, Spider-Man and even Batman all had the similarity of having some sort of advantage beyond a normal human being. That idea of breaking the mold of reality and challenging those limitations is what made their series so interesting. The sandbox genre, similarly, was one of feeling free and using your imagination to do things your way, instead of in some narrow, linear method. Grand Theft Auto III encouraged moving around Liberty City at your own pace, not anyone else’s. Combining the norm-challenging concept of a superhero with the free-roaming nature of the open-world genre; it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. These two ideas complement each other perfectly.

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And the influence is only becoming more congruent. inFAMOUS: Second Son looks to expand upon its predecessor’s fundamentals with the same kind of smooth mobility seen in its challenger Prototype, while improving how the superpowers are used. Like before, Second Son aims to tighten up the narrative, refine its mythology, and give players a fresh new universe to get involved in (just like a superhero comic series). Even more so are multiple branches of superpowers, giving main character Delsin Rowe more choices in showing off his new skills and superhuman abilities as a Conduit. It’s no surprise that so many superhero licenses are being used for open-world design in games. The ideas go hand-in-hand, refreshing the way that gamers experience their fantasies of breaking through reality’s hindrances and feeling powerful, while giving players the ability to be involved in a brand new world outside of their own.

Because let’s face it: if you can shoot fireballs, run along walls or glides miles above a busy highway, you don’t want some voice telling you that you can’t go that way and blocking you off with an invisible wall.