City of Heroes isn't the only fish in the pond anymore. It had a nice run as the leading (read: only) superhero-themed MMORPG on the market, but now its seat on the throne is being threatened by a number of new entries. CoH's younger brother Champions Online was second on the scene with its release last fall. With DC Universe Online planned for release this year, and the still under-wraps Marvel Universe Online getting closer, it's pretty obvious that this currently niche genre has a good chance of exploding into the mainstream pretty soon.
One thing we've seen since City of Heroes and continuing into Champions Online and DC Universe Online is a departure from the standard MMO gameplay formula in both combat and mission structure. Over the course of my next couple articles I want to take a look at why developers might feel the need to deviate from tried-and-true MMO design in order to deliver an exciting superhero gaming experience.
Without a doubt, one of the largest inspirations for superhero MMO design are, of course, single-player superhero games. It only makes sense that MMO designers look to these to see how to deliver an enjoyable experience in tights and a cape (with actual powers, of course).
Let's look at Batman: Arkham Asylum for a minute. The control scheme for the freeflow combat in the game isn't very complicated. There's a single button for each function; attack, counter, stun. Beyond that, the combat is pretty simple. There aren't any lengthy combos to memorize or timing sequences to nail. All around, it isn't a very deep system. It takes around five minutes to get the hang of and maybe twice as long to master. So why, then, is it lauded as some of the greatest combat ever seen in a video game?
If you've ever sat down and tried to reach the high scores in the more difficult combat challenge maps of the game, you probably already know the answer. You can beat up all the thugs you want and use every cool takedown in the game, unless you can plan four or five steps ahead and watch every corner of the room at once, you aren't getting any closer to that high score. Because of the simplicity the control scheme offers, you're able to spend more time thinking about the other aspects of the challenges. The only way to reach those high scores is to *think* like Batman; plan your entire attack chain before ever throwing a punch. Watch every corner of the room at once so you always know which enemies have what weapons. Be ready for those armed enemies and take them down using special techniques before they have a chance to hit you.
Contrast that to, say, a Spider-Man game. Sure, Peter Parker is a pretty smart guy, but that doesn't really apply to his battles. Spidey's known more for his graceful web-fu (excuse me while I copyright that) fighting style and to faithfully adapt that requires a more branching system like the one seen in Web of Shadows. In that game, you're free to create your own combos with the ability to chain almost any sequence of attacks together and have them flow naturally into each other. The focus there is clearly more on the fighting aspect of the combat.
Compare it yet again to the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, which mainly highlight the concept of superheroes teaming up. The hallmark of that series' combat is the ability to perform joint attacks between characters, called fusion or combination attacks. These consist of heroes using their abilities together in creative ways. One popular combination is the use of Iron Man's repulsor beams against Wolverine's claws to create an area-of-effect attack rather than a single targeted blast, for example.
What's clear in each example I've given is that the combat system is tailored to which experience is being adapted in each game. A Spider-Man game might not work so well using Arkham Asylum's combat setup, as that takes away the very essence of Spider-Man's branching, dynamic fight style, whereas a Batman game with complicated fighting would actually take away from that cerebral experience and devolve into any old martial arts game.
As you can see, properly adapting combat is quite possibly the most important aspect of superhero games. Not to say other elements aren't important, but at the end of the day superheroes are very clearly all about action and throwing around flashy powers. In the next article, I'll take a look at the different ways that's been translated into MMORPGs--and where it needs improvement.