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March 27, 2014

5 Superpowers That Would Make Awesome(ish) Games

No matter your opinion and biases, can we all just agree that there are too many guns in video games these days?

Look, I know what the deal is.  Video games define themselves by having the player interact with the systems built in.  The programming creates a means for expression that’s almost magical -- and almost since their inception, the one way games have done that in a way no other medium can is through combat.  Conflict.  How you can overcome enemies is an art form in its own right…and that art form is threatened when devs just shout “GUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUNS!” and move on.  

Now, it’s true that how you shoot a gun can be given its fair share of flair and style, but there are two problems: A) that would require a level of -- for lack of a better term -- fidelity that wouldn’t fit DA PLAN, and B) guns take all the guesswork out of combat by nature, especially in a game.  You aim and pull the trigger.  There’s a reason why guns are the weapon of choice in, you know, wars, but something romantic has been lost along the way.

Which brings us (however briefly) to Infamous.

I guess that’s kind of the problem I had with the Infamous games, the first one especially.  Here it was, a game where you have friggin’ lightning powers -- and by and large, every power you got was just an electric spin on the standard video game armory, and turned the game at large into an oft-annoying third person shooter.  To be fair, there was electro-parkour via rail-slides and hovering, but still.  You can do so much with electricity powers, and the first thing that comes to mind is to take that unlimited creative potential and give players a sniper rifle?   

With Second Son out and about, I’m hoping that it manages to get some more mileage out of the concepts therein.  But GameInformer has already explained that you can use the neon power like a sniper rifle, so it’s always nice to see devs taking advantage of the awesome power of next-gen hardware.  But you know what?  I ain’t even mad.  How could I be?  I’ve got imagination.  If devs won’t come up with applications of powers, then I guess I’ll have to.  However hypothetically.  For your pleasure and mine.

Don’t think about how sexually-charged that sounded.  Instead, have a taste of 5 Superpowers That Would Make Awesome(ish) Games.

Out of ten.  Because the number ten.

So let's get started with...

10) Size Alteration
As shown by: Wasp

There was a Cracked article a while back that named a bunch of superheroes that deserved movies before Ant-Man.  I’ve never had anything in particular against Ant-Man like some others probably do, but I do agree with a lot of the sentiments (especially the character in the number-one slot).  That said, in light of the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes I can’t help but wonder: where the hell is Wasp?  She was a fun character in that, and she could be a fun character on the big screen -- and, you know, an ace at ass-kicking.  You have to admit, it takes some gargantuan stones to fight enemies once they’re a thousand times your size.

Games like Shadow of the Colossus and Mr. Mosquito have shown that there’s plenty of juice in putting the player in David vs. Goliath situations.  Hell, that’s pretty much what every other game does with its boss fights.  So a game starring Wasp (or a character LIKE Wasp) could work on that level.  Give you the power to fly, a couple of stingers to pepper enemies, and let you go all in to defend the world from evil.  Or just average thugs, one shot at a time.

But let’s be real here.  It would be easy to just make a game pitting you against giant thugs and leave it at that.  But for the sake of originality, I propose something a little different.  In the same sense that Wasp can go small or large, why not give the player the same choice?  There are plenty of ways to play it; you could start a mission at normal size, and sortie to take on some evil syndicate. 

But then it turns out they planted a bomb -- and in order to stop it, you have to shrink down to bug size and do a Death Star trench run to disarm it.  And then in order to catch the escaping criminals, you do your best Godzilla impression and stomp after them.    We’ve done parkour in games before, but how often do you get to do it while making King Kong look like a dwarf?  Just imagine scrambling over buildings and flipping over monorails…well, assuming you can look past the Square-Cube Law.

That’s a bit of a regimented way to go about it, but there are ways around it -- a way to make a more organic experience.  Picture this: you start a mission at normal size, and you’ve got the standard action game suite: light and heavy attacks, grabs, dodges and parries, and of course your health bar.  But you’ve also got an energy meter (let’s say they’re Pym Particles for now), and by holding one of the triggers, you go up or down a size in accordance with your meter-burning. 

Go small, and you get high speed and mobility.  Go big, and you get raw power and durability.  BUT how you play affects how the game changes.  Are you willing to risk collateral damage each time you go big, and the cries that you’re a menace each time you show your face?  Are you all right with putting your life in danger each time you go small, knowing full well that one or two good hits are enough to slaughter you?

It’s not exactly an easy game to make, I suspect.  But Katamari Damacy showed roughly a decade ago that on-the-fly scaling is possible.  If next-gen consoles aren’t willing to make use of that power and potential, what are they even good for?  Paperweights?  Please -- that’s what my halberd is for!

9) Boomerang Mastery
As shown by: Captain Boomerang

Okay, I’m going to go ahead and make a confession: I freaking love boomerangs.  I actually have (or had) one, but I was (or am) so much of a coward that I never tried throwing it to see it in action.  Thankfully, video games have been there to compensate without the risk of a broken finger.  And indeed, they’ve proven themselves immensely useful in my trials.  Captain America’s shield has a boomerang effect in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and forms the crux of some high-damage combos.  Toss out a banana with Spike in PlayStation All-Stars, and even if you miss you can still open up an enemy with its return trip.  The Strike Raid in Kingdom Hearts makes Sephiroth look like a white-haired chump.  Ninety percent of the enemies in Wind Waker are done once you get the boomerang.

I would assume (to my dismay) that boomerangs in games only work how we wish they would work -- that is, you make the toss, it flies out, it either hits or hovers in a fixed position for a moment, and ALWAYS comes back to your hand.  It’s a reliable, if predictable, relationship.  But that reliability is exactly what makes them so useful; as the wielder of such an awesome weapon, you know its trajectory at heart.  And you can use that to catch foes unaware, or solve problems that would stop a gun-lover dead in his tracks.

So the question here is simple: why not make a puzzle game built around boomerangs?

You can’t even pretend like it wouldn’t work, because there’s a dungeon in nearly every Zelda game built around using a boomerang to clear a room.  So it could be the key mechanic in the same vein that portals were the hot thing in, well, Portal.  Throwing a boomerang to hit a distant switch would be the obvious way to attack most problems, but you could add in the sorts of challenges that only a master-boomer could solve -- things that would have a player using positional advantages, good timing, and strategic thinking to go from one room to the next.

And that’s not all.  In the same sense that Green Arrow had access to a quiver full of tricks, the player could have a set of unique boomerangs to try and handle each situation as it comes.  A light boomer that moves super-fast, but can’t break through walls; a giant boomer that doesn’t travel very far, but stays out for ages and cuts everything nearby like a blender; a rubber boomer that bounces off walls.  There are plenty of possibilities, and even more when you add in different stage layouts and obstacles.  Granted how those would be constructed and approached depends on whether the game would be a full 3D adventure like Portal, or a smaller 2D production a la the DS title Polaris.  But I think it could be done.

I mean, seriously.  This Captain Boomerang guy?  He made time traveling boomerangs.  All he needed was a little imagination.  And a healthy understanding of quantum mechanics, I’d wager.       

8) Astral Projection
As shown by: Negative Man

This is probably obvious by now, but I’m not exactly the ace when it comes to comic books.  So even though Negative Man and the Doom Patrol he hails from have been around for ages, I don’t really know all the nuances…or any of them, really.  As such, I don’t really know how his powers work, or if they even count as “astral projection”.  All I know is that the first time I heard about the guy, my reaction was something along the lines of “WHOAMYGOSHLOOKATTHATHOWDIDHEDOTHATWHATACOOLPOWER!”

From what I can gather, Negative Man uses his power to fire off a shadowy version of himself to harass his enemies from afar.  That’s pretty sweet.  But when I think “astral projection”, I think of going all ghostly and entering someone else’s body -- their dreams, more specifically.  That doesn’t sound like the most combat-ready ability (unless the opponent enjoys a good mid-battle nap).  And you’d be right.  It’d suck in a fight.  But since when were you under the impression that every superpower has to be tied to combat?

Smooth moves, Aizen.  Leave a speech bubble blank, why don't ya?

Here’s what I’m thinking.  Let’s say that you’re playing a mystery game, like L.A. Noire, or (ostensibly) one of the Ace Attorney installments.  There’s a criminal -- and his cronies -- on the loose, and if you don’t stop him, you can say goodbye to your hometown.  The only problem is that you’re one of the first victims, and you’re stuck in the astral realm -- a ghost of your former self.  Fortunately, you can use it to your advantage; by entering the dreams of others, you can gather clues, find the culprit, and solve the case before things get too hairy.

I imagine it would work something like a platformer, albeit with a heavier lean toward story elements (and again, using evidence to press suspects and criminals).  What’s important to note is that the dreams of different people have different sets of rules and logic; the player character is as powerless in the dream worlds as he is in the real world, but in exchange he can use whatever he finds in a dream to his advantage.  Temporary weapons?  Altered gravity?  Calling in the dreamer’s worst nightmares?  All more than possible.  All so you can get closer to solving the mystery…even if that means affecting people’s dreams -- and by extension their minds -- so they can act as you dictate, seeing as how you don’t have the physical body needed.

Did I mention the game would get into some seedy territory?  I would have, but that’s a given, yes?

7) Technopathy
As shown by: Cable

I’m tempted to say that Watch Dogs has pre-empted this entry on the list, because apparently its selling point is (or should be, if it’s doing its job right) hacking into a supremely-wired future and affecting the world to give the player an advantage.  I sincerely hope that it’s the core gameplay mechanic and not just a gimmick; then again, the fact that its big reveal trailer featured gunfights and punch-ups instead of relying on technological guile and expertise has left me a little worried.  Just a little.  By which I mean a lot.

You would think there would be a lot more technopaths in fiction, given how much technology at large has become such an important part of our daily lives.  Sure, the machines we use have gotten smaller, but the fact remains that there’s a lot that can be done with SUPERIOR TECH, in ways that even someone with a head as large as mine can’t imagine.  But for argument’s sake, I’m going to give it a shot.  Better hold on to something.

That'll make sense to a lot of people.

I have issues with guns, but I don’t have any problems with admitting that there’s an over-reliance on certain melee weapons as well.  Swords are pretty common, and while there’s a lot more potential for differentiation and conveyance via sword styles (Mitsurugi and Yuri Lowell are worlds apart, and in more ways than one), it’s still a little groan-worthy to see games fall back on swords.  So for the sake of making a high-octane action game, what’s the solution?  Well, how about giving the player control of the world’s greatest -- but still incredibly weak -- mechanic?  And instead of having him engage in pure melee combat, why not make him build machines on the fly that he can command and pilot at his leisure?

I’m surprised that no one has ever bothered to crib off one of the PS2 Fullmetal Alchemist games -- wherein you can walk up to a pile of junk in the middle of a battle, press a button, and turn it into special weapons, items, or assistants to turn the tide.  (Probably because the game wasn’t all that great.)  So you could fuse that with something like, say, The Last of Us; scramble across a hot-and-heavy field to gather parts and build some drones to fight on your behalf.  And after that, you rush past -- getting in a few cheap shots with your wrench -- to reach a pile of junk, turn it into a walking turret, and push back against your attackers.  It can go even further than that, of course; for starters, you’d be able to make your own blueprints before a fight, so when you start a stage you can deploy machines from the get-go. 

Alternatively, you could stockpile the parts and creations on the field to build a giant robot.  Because…well, do I really need to justify giant robot?  Didn’t think so.

6) Shapeshifting (into animals)
As shown by: Beast Boy

Sometimes I wish they’d make a new Bloody Roar.  You’d think it’d be feasible now, considering the fighting game renaissance that Street Fighter 4 helped usher in.  But it’s my understanding that Bloody Roar 4 killed the franchise -- which is kind of a shame, because being able to turn into a kung-fu tiger that could do his best “Your head asplode” impression was something plenty praiseworthy.

That in mind, I think Bloody Roar kind of cheated a bit.  Sure, turning into werewolves and werelions was cool, but nature is deadly enough without relying on fantasy tricks and gimmicks.  (Don’t ever Google Portuguese man-o-war.  Ever.)  So why not harness that power and potential?  Didn’t the low-key hype around Tokyo Jungle show that there’s a market -- however small -- for people that want to play as animals?  I say it’s time to indulge those fantasies.

Not those fantasies.

So, you remember the start of Far Cry 3 where you’ve managed to escape from captivity and have to scramble through the jungle to avoid Vaas and his gang of human traffickers/jerk bags?  Imagine that again.  Think back to it -- how you went through that sequence and barely managed to escape.  You’re scared, alone, and frustrated; it’s when you’re at your lowest point, and you realize that being a well-meaning human -- being human, period -- just isn’t enough anymore.  And in that moment, you understand why you were captured, and why those bad men were after you: because you’re one of a rare few that can turn into an animal at will.

Far Cry 3 tried to turn you into a predator symbolically, but I propose that it be done in the most literal sense possible.  Get an animal to accept you or submit to your will, and you can transform into it as long as you’ve got the stamina for it.  And once you do that, you can use those animal forms to avoid your pursuers -- or strike back at them when you’ve got the opportunity.  Draw strength from the land by consuming its flora and fauna, just as the other animals do; traverse the land, air, and sea with whatever beasts you best; cooperate -- and clash -- with people who have the same power you do.  Decide what kind of animal you want to be -- whether you’ll hold on to your humanity, or cave to your instincts and base desires.

As long as those base desires involve tentacles.

And there you go.  Those are just five examples of how you can use superpowers to come up with new…well, new-ish gameplay mechanics.  Are they 100% practical, or even possible?  Probably not.  But like I said, the new console tech should be able to at least come close to pulling some of these things off.  Relying on old standbys and tricks is only going to work for so much longer -- and with superheroes being such a big part of our culture right now, there’s no better time to start critically thinking about how a different tool set can make for a different game.

Don’t believe me yet?  Well, just stick close.  I’m not done yet; there are more powers out there, and more ideas that can spring from them.  Are they good?  Who knows?  But at least they exist.  Theoretically.  In the sense that I can gab about them vis a vis a Word Document.

Also, can I just say that humankind and the ocean were never meant to meet?  Seriously, the stuff that’s down there is horrifying.  But don’t go doing a Google search to see it with your own eyes.  You’ll thank me later.  Trust me.

I mean it.  

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