With great power comes a great desire to beat up innocent citizens.
The style of play introduced to video games by the Grand Theft Auto series, though not really popularized until it evolved to the level GTA3 introduced on PS2, is referred to in most articles I have seen as the “sand box” style. The non-linear environment in which your character lives is like a kid’s sandbox, full of toys that you can do whatever you want with. From the first twenty minutes I played GTA3 I knew, like every other geek in America, that this was how super-hero games should be. Naturally, due to the tone of the GTA series, the first things to leap into my mind were The Punisher and Batman. But the first super-hero to get this treatment was Spider-Man in last year’s Spider-Man 2 game. The game was amazing (spectacular, even). Being Peter Parker and swinging around NYC was, in and of itself, enough. Stopping crimes and going on story-line missions was tangential to the real reason to play, which was to just feel like you were Spider-Man. It has been followed up this year by an Ultimate Spider-Man game, which I have yet to play, and by Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which is an exhilarating experience. Video games and super-heroes have finally had perfect synthesis. Almost.
So where to go from here, what is the next step? Well, the massively multi-player on-line (MMO) games would seem to be the perfect model for Marvel Manhattan, as evidenced by the success of City of Heroes. I haven’t played it, but I hear very good things. One of the big early releases for X-Box 360 is an MMO jointly developed by Microsoft and Marvel based on the actual Marvel Universe. Thing is, I can’t imagine that the game play style of this game will really offer what I’m looking for. No, I’m looking for a single player experience, or even more ideally a limited on-line one, where me and a couple friends are the only supers in the big city.
The problem with the current sand box games is the need to even go on missions at all. These are the parts of the game where you are locked into completing some specific task, such as stop the bank robbers or fight Doctor Octopus. I think the most natural step in the evolution of these games is to make these mission goal fully integrated into the sand box environment; the bank robbery doesn’t start because you talk to the guy with the exclamation point over his head, it just happens and maybe you stop it or maybe you don’t. For that matter, it might be Doctor Octopus robbing that bank. You would receive alerts when story line things happen, like Mary Jane being kidnapped, but you wouldn’t control when they happen, you just need to respond. Instead of missions there would just be events. It would be (to use a buzzword) completely organic game play.
My dream version of this, in terms of multi-player, would be a game where you could have four players on-line playing as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Punisher, and Wolverine. The characters would be similar enough in game terms to exist in the same environment but different enough to allow for some individualizing. But this is pure mental masturbation of the geek variety; what would be really interesting about this sort of evolution is that is pushes the envelope and begs the question, “What is a game?”