Welcome To My Nightmare

As preparations continue for the great trek to the PITTSBURGH COMICON, which I expect to see everyone at, I thought I’d chat a little about comic related videogames. Because I get the shakes from videogame withdrawal something fierce, and I’m not bringing the XBOX 360 to Pittsburgh with me. I’ll be to busy conventioning! Yeah, that’s right, you crappy evil spell check program, I said “conventioning.” I don’t care if I made it up, I’m an English major and if I say it’s a word, then you can just take that sassy red line away and stick up your electric, under-programmed virtual rectum.

I’ve been playing video games since Pong, folks. Yeah, I’m old, shut yer holes. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, that I was a youngster in Scooby Doo pajamas (with the plastic feet thingies on them) sitting with a stack of Lil’ Devil or Casper comics while waiting for my parents to give me a moment to try Pong. The funny thing is realizing just how far they’ve come, both comics and videogames, and ultimately I think videogames have charged ahead.

From Pong to World of Warcraft, the video game industry has seen some sweeping changes. Long gone are the bulky Pong units (we had one with the original light gun for shooting skeet, or one big white block on a black and white TV), the classic Atari 2600, the Intelivision, the Colecovision, the Odyssey. Nearly forgotten are the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, the Atari Jaguar. I used to wait HOURS for my friend to load up a nearly next-based Dungeons and Dragons adventure on his Texas Instruments computer, because the game was loaded by a Tape Drive, like a cassette. They didn’t even have floppy discs, and heck, those are gone now too.

Nope, today I’m typing this on a two or three year old eMachine that was purchased primarily to play City of Heroes. The Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game market is huge. World of Warcraft or City of Heroes (and/or Villains) as well as Everquest and others take up a giant share of the videogame marketplace. I’m not interested in debating who’s game is better. It’s all relative. I simply prefer superhero stuff over hack and slash stuff. I don’t think WoW or Everquest would keep my interest. I played through Diablo a few times, but I wasn’t an addict. I’ve played the sci fi stuff like the Star Wars games too, but superheroes are my main interest. And at least right now, there are only two games, in my opinion, that really scratch my itch.

City of Heroes and Marvel Ultimate Alliance duke it out most nights for my post-work unwind period. Both have a lot going for them. I was planning on talking about City of Heroes first, but I think I’m going to swap around, because I’m on meds and it’ll make my life easier.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance is the third generation of Activision’s Marvel game for the home videogame market, building on the X-Men Legends series. I played the first X-Men Legends at a game store for about 10 minutes and was fairly unimpressed. I bought the X-Men Legends II game for the original X-Box and liked it better, but there was a weird thing going on with it–it somehow just wasn’t all that fun. And maybe that’s more me than the game, because I like a lot of characters that aren’t in the X-Men. In fact, these days I hardly even read X-Men at all (sticking on Brubaker’s title, but I’m getting tired of the Shi’ar Space Opera already). I also like a lot of customization, and X-Men Legends II didn’t feature a whole lot of that. Some extra costume options, some bonus parts that changed your stats just a little, but that’s it. Marvel Ultimate Alliance goes a long way to bring the fun factor I was looking for. I’m on my third play through and am already planning to do it again.

What’s the big deal? And why the Hell is a self-professed Ultimate hater giving props for a game with Ultimate in the title? Because it’s NOT an Ultimate universe. The game, or at least my version on the XBOX 360, features a wide cast of Marvel characters with approximately 4 costumes each, some of which are Ultimate, but many are classic costumes. The roster, including unlockable characters consists of Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider, Silver Surfer, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, Invisible Woman, The Thing, Luke Cage, Black Panther, Blade, Elektra, Spider-Man, Spider Woman, Nick Fury, Deadpool, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. That’s pretty well-rounded for the average Marvel Zombie, eh? You have the classic Avengers in Cap, Thor and Iron Man, a foursome of X-Men, the Fantastic Four, S.H.I.E.L.D. elements, Marvel Knights types–something for everyone! And as I said, most of these characters have several costumes. The costumes themselves can have an effect on your choices. Each outfit gives three bonuses you can improve upon as you play and can lead you to having to make some decisions. For example, if you really like the old Western Ghost Rider or the Vengence character, that’s cool, they’re unlockable. But neither costume does what the Classic Johnny Blaze gear does. His costume allows a percentage chance for anyone in the party, including Ghost Rider, to resurrect if defeated. I can’t tell you how many times that ability has come in handy. Other characters costumes or more or less aesthetic choices. For Luke Cage, I always play with the traditional Heroes For Hire Yellow Shirt look. His other three costumes just don’t look that heroic. If I want to see angry black men in various contemporary gear fight, I’ll play DefJam’s fighting games (but not Icon, that looks terrible) or Saints’ Row (also fun, not comic related, movin’ on). Spider-Man has a nice array of choices: Classic Webs, Symbiote Black, Scarlet Spider, and the very recent Iron Spidey. I like playing as Clone Boy Ben, myself. I may be doing myself a disservice, as maybe one of the other suits would give me better defense, or more powerful attacks, but for Spidey it’s just a matter of preference. Same with Cap, I have been skipping the Classic and Ultimate looks in favor of the USAgent outfit, until I unlocked the WWII version! Awesome! It even has the irregularly shaped shield!

The artistic merits of the game, in my opinion, are a little sneaky. At first glance you’d be tempted to say, “Well, the effects are pretty, but it’s a nearly top-down game with limited camera control and it’s on the XBOX 360. It doesn’t look THAT different than it would on PS2 and it sure ain’t Gears of War.” Well, you’d be right on a couple of counts. It’s got pretty effects, and it ain’t Gears of War, which I beat in one sitting and took back to the store because I don’t play XBOX online and saw no replay value with that game. And for the vaunted graphics and hype for Gears, I am honestly more impressed with the demo of Lost Planet and the Rainbow Six: Las Vegas games for shooters. No, where Marvel Ultimate Alliance is sneaky is in it’s use comic subtlety. I noticed, in Asgard for example, that the artistic style, particularly on the Viking warriors you battle on some stages, have a decidedly Walt Simonson look and feel. Yeah, my friends, that’s what I said, Walt freakin’ Simonson! Not every level calls to mind a Marvel Masterwork, but they all have little touches that really make the game feel the way you’d expect the scene depicted to feel. You go to the Skrull homeworld, for example, and race to stop Galactus (sadly, his herald Aunt May is not in the game, though I didn‘t find Jarvis wondering around Stark Tower until my third play through!) and the world is literally crumbling around your squad of heroes as Galactus marches in the background. There are really good cut scenes too, some of which use in-game models, others use full CGI. I’d have liked to have nothing but the gorgeous CGI scenes, but hey, I’m greedy. I dig the small stuff, the little things that either make a game more immersive or bring to mind a something like my beloved Simonson Thor run and allows my mind to visualize it in that manner.

And the small stuff is in no way ignored. There are references to another masterpiece, the Roger Stern and Mike Mignola “Triumph and Torment” graphic novel featuring the best Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom story EVER. You can run into Spider Woman lounging on Dr. Strange’s couch in the Sanctum Sanctorum (a phrase my spell check surprisingly has no problem with) and chat with her, where she talks a little about her powers and origin, and even jokes about her non-relationship with Spider-Man, all of which feels very fresh, as if pulled from the Bendis Avengers arcs. You’ll travel the Marvel Universe a lot, but surpassingly avoid Marvel New York almost completely. Locations include the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Stark Tower, Atlantis, Murderworld, Mephisto’s Realm, Asgard, Attilan, the Shi’ar Empire, the Skrull Planet, and Dr. Doom’s Castle. Many of them feel as I would expect. I do wish there was even more artistic touches slashed about though. How great would it be to visit Atlantis or Attilan in Jae Lee’s style, or a Mephisto Hell with Mignola’s or even John Romita Jr.’s style? The answer, obviously, would be, “Greater than ten great things!” But hey, that’s what sequels are for.

Or are they? Because I just read something that came as a bit of a shock considering the current home videogame market. The good folks at Raven Software and Activision are putting out an expansion I can download on XBOX live! You folks ROCK! For just $10 (or whatever 800 XBOX Life points comes out to be) I can download, when it’s available, 8 more characters and little touches to the story script and dialogue that will help integrate the characters into the game. The characters are good picks too: Hawkeye, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and the Hulk for the good guys and surprisingly some fairly villainous choices in Magneto, Venom, Sabertooth and Doctor Doom! Man, my next time through the game you KNOW I’m going to rock a Doom, Strange, Thor and Hulk squad. Who’s gonna stop that craziness? I could wish for all my personal favorites, like Jack of Hearts, Cardiac, Taskmaster, Shroud, Forge, or a few New Mutants, Young Avengers or Runaways, but I suspect those really would be a sequel wish. I’ll take what I can get!

The biggest thing I’d like to see added in a sequel would be the ability to create my own Marvel Superhero. Yep, “Create A Character” should be an option in EVERY game possible. I don’t care if it’s just a grunt in Rainbow Six, or a Jedi in a Star Wars game, or a wrestler for the WWE (very average Wrestlemania this year, by the way), I enjoy doing things MY way. Or maybe you’d hadn’t noticed? Suckas! City of Heroes, being it’s own world and not a tie-in to an established mythology like the DCU or Marvel Universe, had to have a robust character creation system, and it does a very good job (more on that in it’s own section). But the Marvel franchise would be even more amazing if I could design even just one character to add to my roster. I don’t mind picking form generic parts, or parts from characters that didn’t make it in the game. I could cobble together something decent either way. Then I’d select some powers from a list, some of which could be unique to the created character engine, like Darkforce manipulation or water-based “Hydro-Man” powers or growth/shrinking abilities. If the game would enable me to unlock costume slots for my character the way I can for the in-game choices, complete with bonuses, that would be dynamite. Give me a reasonable allotment of spaces for a name after all, if Captain America can fit, I should be able to call myself Knightmare, and not just Jeff or something, right? Damn right.

I’m calling it there tonight, the meds are really kicking my ass tonight. I’ll babble on about City of Heroes next time, and then try to tie in my point about comics lagging behind in terms of innovation. What kinds of things would make you happy in a superhero videogame? Destructible environments? Power customization? A decent DC game, period? Something that brings indy stuff together, like a Dark Horse: The Game sort of thing? I’d be interested to read your opinions.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to fumble my numb fingers across the keyboard as I remind you all to GO TO THE PITTSBURGH COMICON, meet the Knightmare himself (ME!) and Daron the Dark Overlord (or as his friends call him, Emo Boy of the LEGION of WUSSIES). Get some sketches, get some comics, meet a crazy good list of creators, and have yourself a blast! I know I plan too…as long as my meds wear off by then…

Welcome to my nightmare.