DC has had its ups and downs in its quest to put together an impressive Superman-themed game, ranging from the horrendous (albeit legendary) Superman 64 to the more recent and mildly better received Superman Returns. Admittedly it’s no easy task to base a game on a character as powerful as the Man of Steel. I mean he can fly, for one. He can exhale strong gusts of wind, for two. He can shoot lasers from his eyes, for three, as well as other crazy-powerful abilities. And all because he comes from a world far, far away.
Whilst both Superman 64 and Superman Returns got so much wrong in terms of what they offered to their players, what both of those previous iterations had right was that – yes, Superman must be constrained in how he can use his powers. He is simply too powerful and therefore playing as him at full-strength in any game will grow monotonous after a short while for anyone but the most easily-pleased gamer. The respective studios’ just needed some guidance on how they went about achieving this. The concept of developing a Superman game gives the production studio in charge of the project an interesting opportunity with which to get daringly creative, so with that firmly in mind – let’s jump straight in!
Have the opening mission take place in the midst of a great battle, much like the opening cinematic to DC Universe Online. I’ll give you one such scenario. The space-station of the Justice League has been destroyed by some unknown alien force, which is now attacking the Earth’s surface with a full-on invasion force. Perhaps the reasons why remain vague at this point. All you know is that Metropolis is one of those cities under attack and that you – as Superman – have at last arrived to sort it out. You make use all of your powers during this sequence to fight your way to the source of the invasion, being introduced to the gameplay and combat style and mechanics as you do so – fusing flight with fighting, making everything as cinematic and explosive as it ought to be. The intro would be not too dissimilar from that of 2009’s Prototype, although without all of the mindless gore. This intro would also serve the main purpose of showing just how overwhelming the strength of the enemy force is. The odds must be devastating. In a Superman game you need to have a rival force of either equal or additional strength in order to even out the battlefield. This is partially why the Superman Returns adaptation was such a flop.
During this opening battle, something affects Superman and causes him to lose consciousness in a one-on-one against the main enemy (whoever that might be), perhaps an experimental form of Kryptonite is being wielded by whoever he is fighting against. As Superman loses his strength the city is brought to its knees. Its greatest hero is powerless. Superman is pulled away from the destruction by another familiar hero before he can be publicly executed by the enemy, possibly Batman or Wonder Woman, and is hidden away to recover from the attack. Meanwhile, the enemy takes over the world in the absence of Superman. The experimental Kryptonite has had a lasting effect on his powers and a full year passes before he regains consciousness. By this point the alien force has conquered the world.
In order to get his powers back to full strength Superman must take out various alien outposts dotted around the city during his eventual quest to liberate Metropolis. Perhaps the minds of the alien threat recognise that Superman is still out there somewhere hidden away and so are using his technology to shield him from soaking in the Earth’s sunlight, thus hindering his powers by perhaps fusing their technology with the experimental kryptonite. I think we can all agree that flight should be available from the offset, but it should not be as powerful as depicted in the movies and comics - although it should still feel and look cinematic enough to feel as authentic as on the big screen. Superman must adhere to realistic-looking ragdoll animation whilst in flight, like in Spider-Man's web-slinging in the game adaptation of The Amazing Spider-Man movies. There should be focus on limiting the actual flight-speed than the act of flying itself, which should be largely free and limited only by objects in the environment (alien shields, for instance).
A Superman game needs a GTA V scale map at the very least, with various smaller towns situated within flying vicinity of Metropolis for you to visit. But in a Superman game, unless you have a very legitimate reason within the narrative, players would not be convinced by the limitation to one setting. Whilst the rural areas give you lots of space to fly around in, the buildings in the urban center of Metropolis ought to be towering. Superman should be dwarfed by the Manhattan-style skyscrapers, making the navigation of the city very different to that of the surrounding rural locations. More skill from the player would be required in order to navigate the urban labyrinth of Metropolis. I’m also envisioning a Metropolis fused with newly-installed alien technology, showing how the alien force has truly dominated the planet, being more akin to Steelport’s appearance in Volition’s alien-invasion epic, Saints Row IV. This would emphasise just the extent of the alien menace as they work to take over the leftover major cities. Like GTA V, the city of Metropolis has to come across as authentic. It has to be a living/breathing city with people going about their routines, whatever their routines are in this post-invasion world. I also think that this Superman game should take a leaf out of the book of the Infamous series, with Superman able to 'liberate' sections of the city and return them to normal.
Whilst this in itself would be a massive feat to take on as we all know that Superman (of the comics and films) is fully capable of traversing the entire planet in one fell swoop whilst at full strength. I suggest that the alien invasion force target Metropolis first in order to take out Superman first, the only person who could have realistically challenged them, and have therefore have made the city their base of operations after the initial attack. With the aliens in control of the world, their hub is Metropolis. This is the City 17 of the post-invasion world. This would mean that everything which happens to the rest of the world, which has also been conquered, is determined from the decisions that the alien leaders make from Metropolis. The city is the focus point, the beating heart of the alien machine. This is how the action of the game would be focused here.
Lots of side-quests/customisation!
It wouldn’t be Superman if there wasn’t crime to fight. I suggest looking to games such as 2004’s Spider-Man 2 which, although repetitive, offered some fun in terms of side-quests. The developers of a Superman game ought to take the same formula and expand it.
I’d recommend putting together a separate team just to focus on this side of the game, whilst the other focuses on the story side of the campaign. In a world where Superman was already dethroned and has to fight his way back to the top again; it would make sense for the character to need to reinvent himself. I would therefore recommend giving the player full access to the structure of the Superman suit, enabling them to change it up however they’d like to – manipulating the colour scheme, changing the size/style of the ‘S’ emblem, adding/taking off the cape, etc. These things would not go unappreciated, and would really personalise the gaming experience by adding in a gameplay element most commonly found in RPG’s.
Perhaps not as dark as the Arkham series, but the story would have to be just dark enough to put Superman in genuine danger. I think that the only thing capable of making the Man of Steel as vulnerable as he would need to be in order to make the gameplay interesting would be the aforementioned systematic, cataclysmic alien invasion, either led by Brainiac or surviving Kryptonians (such as General Zod, or perhaps even a new villain exclusive to this game). At least a year would take place between Superman falling unconscious during the opening battle and then regaining his consciousness in a vulnerable state without fully-strengthened powers. This Year-without-Superman gives the alien force enough time to take over the world almost completely and therefore this gives Superman (and therefore the player) a massive threat to overcome. In the year he was asleep, it is likely that Superman was reportedly killed during the opening battle. I imagine the members of the Justice League to be the secret leaders of a resistance movement who kept Superman alive during the year he was unconscious, working against the enemy in secret having established a rebellion of sorts - aiming to reclaim the planet. Such a storyline and such a setting would certainly distinguish this game from any Superman experience which has come before, with its post-apocalyptic setting and placing each of the iconic characters in new roles, and would keep it separate even from the Arkham series itself.
I’m sure whoever would be writing this titan of a game would be well-versed in the Superman mythos. Whilst the motives of the antagonistic invasion force might be initially unclear, it would be very interesting to have some of the DC villains of Metropolis placed in a similar situation of vulnerability by the invasion. This could even see a temporary alliance forged between the Justice League resistance members and their long-time enemies in order to combat this larger, worldwide threat. That said, I would advise not to utilise all of them. The story might lose its way if the writers are trying desperately to force in cameos from all of the franchise’s major players. Also, whilst it's possible that Brainiac could be the main enemy leading the alien invasion I would steer clear of that as DC Universe Online covered it quite well enough. Although I'm almost certain that are other enemies equally as menacing who could fill his place, it might also be interesting to develop a new original enemy character exclusive to this game.
Since this is a comic book adaptation, by right it already fits into several continuities. It also fits into just a few, depending on how much of a risk the writers would dare to take. For instance the opening cinematic to 2011’s MMORPG DC Universe Online, which involved the killing of just every major Justice League member, was one of the boldest things DC games have ever shown, and was a powerful way to set up the game and pull in new gamers. It’s no surprise that Injustice: Gods Among Us seemed to embrace a similar thing later on by having the same heroes and villains brawl it out in an array of dark, destructive settings. What I’m basically saying is that – since this Superman game will inhabit its own continuity anyway – the creative team should not be afraid to kill off some of the major DC characters. It has already been done in the Arkham series. Why not Superman?