This week, High Moon Studios and Activision released a new Marvel Comics video game with a hard “M” rating and a zany, off-the-wall, self-refelexive story starring everyone’s favorite Merc With a Mouth: Deadpool.
The game, aptly titled Deadpool, is the latest highly-anticipated effort to bring a beloved(?) comics character into the realm of gaming. Since the current generation of consoles (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii) is on its way out the door, it occurred to me that it might be fun to take a look at what the five best superhero offerings have been in this, the seventh generation of game consoles.
Historically, superhero games have been pretty bad. Only in a few instances over the years have they strayed from being more than movie tie-in cash grabs (not that all of those are bad, as you’ll see), and only a select few of the multitude of titles have really ever felt truly superheroic, putting the powers and abilities of our modern myths literally at out fingertips. The following entries are what I believe to be the five best comics-based video games/franchises of the last seven years.
5) Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2
Back in 2009, a couple of years after the first Ultimate Alliance entry bowed on the end of the sixth generation of consoles, it was hard to get any more excited about a video game before the release of UA2. The premise looked spectacular: many of Marvel’s most beloved characters would be playable, the story would be based on two highly popular comic book story arcs (Secret War and Civil War), and the gameplay mechanics looked like a ton of fun to jump into.
In my opinion, the game delivered, and then some. There’s a reason that the characters, locations, and situations of the Marvel Universe resonate with so many people across the world, and why the films are so successful: it’s because it’s a dazzling place, filled at the same time with brutal, earthbound vigilantes like the Punisher, and cosmic planet-eaters like Galactus. While UA1 was definitely a step in the right direction, its sequel was more polished in every department, from graphical design, art direction, control scheme, on down to the voice acting.
UA2 was a fun, engaging experience not just because it creatively brought to life some good comics stories, but because it put the entire Marvel universe at our control in a pretty definitive gaming experience. For that, I think it deserves a lot of praise.
4) Injustice: Gods Among Us
Yes, this game is still shrink-wrapped everywhere, but it’s hard to ignore the results. Where the fun of UA2 was in picking up every major character and going out into a traditional Marvel tale, the true fun in the Netherrealm Studios fighter Injustice comes from picking up the best of the best that DC Comics has to offer, and feeling their raw power in your hands. A clever fighting game mechanic that in many ways feels like the baby that Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter might have had, Injustice is frenetic, fast-paced fighting with some of the most everlasting icons in superhero fiction – our modern mythology.
Surprising still is its story mode, way better than any fighting game story mode has any right to be, with a multiversal tale pitting the great heroes of the DC Universe with dark reflections of themselves. In this alternate world, Superman has become a vicious dictator, placing the entire world under the control of his regime. When the heroes from “our” DCU enter that alternate world, they immediately side with that Batman’s underground insurgency, and it’s only when the one, true Man of Steel enters that alternate world that the other Superman is in serious risk of being deposed (and of getting his ass handed to him on a silver platter. By himself.).
With a vibrant online community, a slew of downloadable content (which can be a bit pricey), and an experience that allows you to master the powers and abilities of the heroes of the Justice League (and their villains, “ha ha”), Injustice easily ranks as a stand-out superhero experience even in what might’ve previously been considered a limited genre. Trust me, when you punch someone into orbit, then pound them back down to Earth, you’ll realize that it’s not.
3) X-Men Origins: Wolverine
On first glance, this is little more than one of those normally derided cash grabs that attempt to tie into the superhero movie du jour. The incredibly surprising thing about X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that it was a paradoxical reversal of the normal concept: the tie-in video game was better than the movie it’s based on. It’s insanity!
Developed by Raven Software and released on the same day as the film it’s based upon, Wolverine is an unrelenting, bloody, violent, and incredibly satisfying experience that very effectively places you in the claws of Weapon X himself. With voice work provided by the incomparable Hugh Jackman as Logan along with Live Schreiber as Victor Creed/Sabretooth, the story of the game goes through some of what’s explored in the film, while also recreating some beloved elements of classic X-Men continuity. With everything at your disposal, from feral senses, the powerful healing factor, berserker rage, and those ever-loving adamantium claws, the game is definitely a go-to if you want to have an idea of what it’s like to play as Wolverine.
Bosses can get repetitive at times, but lunging thirty feet with your claws out into an enemy, seeing your holed-up skin repair itself before your eyes, and taking out an entire sentinel as it flies into space makes for a very satisfying game experience, especially considering that a movie tie-in game is not supposed to hold up better than the film it was made for. As awesome as it is, it is definitely for adults only. If you don’t believe me, check out the unbelievably brutal opening cinematic below.
2) Beenox Spider-Man Games (Shattered Dimensions/Edge of Time/The Amazing Spider-Man)
When Spider-Man made his home at Treyarch (developers of Call of Duty: Black Ops) throughout the early-to-mid 2000s, many people were taken by how good they were able to make the webslinger, especially in movie tie-ins. Treyarch was responsible for the games related to all three of Sam Raimi’s films, with 2004’s Spider-Man 2 being the obvious standout. When it was announced that a developer called Beenox, creators of modest licensed works like The Bee Movie and Monsters vs. Aliens, fans were a little skeptical of what they could do with one of comics’ most beloved characters.
So when they released a game like Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions onto the unsuspecting public, it was a pleasant surprise and a revelation for Spidey fans everywhere. Combining four alternate versions of the beloved Marvel hero into one game, Shattered Dimensions featured an original story by comic book writer (and current Superior Spider-Man scribe) Dan Slott, and with each character came four unique styles of playing. I was shocked at how good it was.
I personally felt Edge of Time was a bit of a sophomore slump, just because it felt like a less diverse, watered down version of Dimensions without the more unique, segmented gameplay.
When The Amazing Spider-Man movie tie-in game was announced, I braced for impact, but felt hopeful that a capable developer like Beenox would be returning us to the open-world New York not seen since Treyarch’s Spidey swan song Web of Shadows. Upon its release, I was very happy to see that not only did the open-world return well, but it came back to Spidey better than it had ever been before. Beenox’s effort in this game really makes you feel, well, amazing. Their swinging mechanics, chaining combos, use of the webs, upgradeable powers, diverse missions, and detailed atmosphere really make Amazing a standout experience, and I feel that Beenox’s collective efforts with the ol’ webhead deserve a high spot on this list.
1) Batman: Arkham Games (Arkham Asylum/Arkham City)
Really, was there any doubt?
After enduring some downright terrible games, arguably the world’s most popular superhero had never been given a gaming experience that really made you feel like the Dark Knight. While some games had come close in parts (like Ubi-Soft’s Batman Vengeance, or EA’s movie tie-in to Batman Begins), no game had really nailed it. Until one fateful August day in 2009.
Batman: Arkham Asylum, I think it’s safe to say, absolutely blindsided the gaming community upon its release. When gamers already had their expectations so low on anything with Batman’s name on it, British developer Rocksteady Studios swiftly punched them in the throat and shut everyone up (much the same way Batman himself would). Arkham Asylum was gritty, dynamic, engaging, and an incredible amount of fun, and had nothing but reverence for the entire 70+ year mythology of the Dark Knight to boot. Add on top of it’s incredible design in every category the truth that comes with writer Paul Dini (scribe of some of the absolute best Batman: The Animated Series episodes) and voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (perhaps the most vocally definitive versions of Batman and the Joker, also from BTAS), and you have the most definitive Batman experience ever created in a video game.
At least until 2011.
Arkham City, as a sequel, was bigger in every single department. Batman now had an entire segment of Gotham to travel through, even more of his definitive villains to contend with (like Two-Face, the Penguin, and Mr. Freeze), and even more gadgets, combat craziness, and all around bad-assery. Arkham City, I feel, stands as the best superhero game ever made, and has yet to be topped by anything. In addition to the main story mode, there are several side missions you can embark on embedded throughout the walled off portion of Gotham, and several surprise events and cameos in the process.
Don’t believe me? Check out the game’s launch trailer below, and tell me that it doesn’t excite you. I want to go play it again right now!
So, uh, see you later.
(Honorable mentions include the Lego Batman games and Marvel vs. Capcom 3.)
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