It's impossible to escape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can try, but there's no end to the movies and TV shows, their big marketing pushes and their disappointing stories. I've been reading superhero comics since, well, I could read, but even I wish they'd just stop. The one positive side effect I was anticipating was the re-emergence of superhero games. But I'm still waiting.
City of Heroes/Villains is the superhero game I will never stop putting on a pedestal. When I made my first supe, I wasn't the MMO fiend that I am now, but it became immediately clear how this shared, dynamic space was perfectly suited to superheroics. There was something infinitely compelling about developing a hero or villain not over the course of a handful of hours, but multiple years. Ever since it closed its doors, I've been adrift.
Sure, other MMOs took up the mantle, like Champions Online and DC Universe Online, but they never quite filled the gap. Now they're both victims of age, with their populations dwindling and mechanics feeling increasingly out of date. There's still joy to be found in creating and developing your own hero or villain, but we're well overdue for something new.
DCUO developer Daybreak has tried to make a Marvel MMO not once but twice. The studio was reportedly working on one up until 2018, when it got canned, and then in 2021 another Daybreak-developed Marvel MMO was announced, only for it to be killed off a year later. After it was cancelled we got a look at the character creator, which revealed a highly stylised aesthetic that would have definitely been divisive but that I confess I dig. But it wasn't meant to be.
While MMOs are a great platform for superhero antics, there have been some notable attempts to capitalise on the superhero obsession outside of the MMO space too; sadly they've not had much luck.
Marvel's Avengers was a massive disappointment when it should have been Marvel's flagship game. Crystal Dynamics nailed the feel of its diverse set of heroes, letting you flit around and blow shit up with repuslor beams and rockets as Iron Man, or stretch and embiggen your limbs to squash foes as Ms Marvel. Even moving across the maps was a hoot, with every hero having their own movement style, like Hawkeye's teleports and Hulk's massive leaps. Sadly, all of this was packaged in a horrible live service game with bland level design and repetitive fights against dull-as-dishwater enemies. It even managed to make MODOK, Marvel's weirdest villain, utterly bland. Support for the game is ending in September 2023.
The latest DC ensemble adventure impressed even less, not helped by comparisons to the far superior Arkham series. Gotham Knights ended up being another tiresome open-world RPG that, by design, never let you feel as effective or powerful as Batman, instead forcing you to play as one of his four mentees, all of whom contain aspects of the Dark Knight but can never match the whole.
Marvel's Avengers and Gotham Knights both failed to capture the fantasy of being a superhero, instead following insipid trends and bogging themselves down with unsatisfying systems. It's understandable why they didn't make a splash: they just aren't very good games. This is not the case with Marvel's Midnight Suns.
Midnight Suns was a revelation when it launched late last year: everything I never knew I wanted from a superhero game. The inventive tactical brawls kept me duking it out with Hydra and demons for more than 80 hours, but what really made me smitten was the social layer. No superhero game has ever recreated the complicated superhero team dynamics to this degree. The arguments, the neurosis, the blossoming friendships and occasional romance—it's such a great source of drama and character development. And these relationships have an impact on the fights, too, going beyond combos and synergies. I always fought alongside the heroes I wanted to get to know the most, knowing that the reward would be a stronger friendship.
According to publisher 2K, however, Midnight Suns underperformed, and since then creative director Jake Solomon has left Firaxis. It seems unlikely that we'll see a sequel. What should have been one of the biggest games of 2022, and the spark to reignite superhero games, has instead been deemed a failure. It's hard to identify the reason for this. It came out during a busy time, and the complex systems and numerous deep layers made it hard to summarise and market, but it was still a Marvel game made by the folks behind XCOM—it deserved attention.
Midnight Suns' failure to make a splash has left me wondering what people actually want from a superhero game, but I guess all I need to do is look at Spider-Man. Even though Gotham Knights was a dud, clearly most people still want a pretty basic open-world romp where they get cool traversal powers and can beat up criminals. I enjoyed both Spider-Man and Miles Morales, but when you take away their preternatural acrobatic skills these games are really just a less gloomy Arkham Knight in a considerably less interesting city. They are solid but safe, and it's a bit disappointing if that's the only kind of superhero game that can gain any traction.
If any developer could improve the state of superhero games you'd expect it to be Rocksteady, but what we've seen of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League so far seems to have left a lot of folk, myself included, a bit worried. The gameplay trailer revealed a third-person shooter where you fly around pouring bullets into big purple weak spots that look like cysts, which does not strike me as a good time. It's also another live service deal, and we all know how that worked out for Marvel's Avengers. It's all just so… predictable, and I'm very tired.
This has been the main issue with nearly every modern superhero game with the exception of the Arkham series and Midnight Suns. They all cautiously try to cash in on the big trends and business models of the day without offering any genuine novelties or surprises. And maybe that shouldn't be unexpected, given how homogenous superhero comics and movies usually are—most of them are incredibly conservative. But they aren't the ones that become beloved. And even with Spider-Man being a big success while Midnight Suns has gone ignored, I'm still convinced that there's room for forward-thinking, unusual superhero games, and that they'll be the ones to lift superhero games out of this mediocre rut.
We've seen this time and time again. The cost in time and resources naturally makes developers and, especially, publishers averse to big risks, so we end up seeing the same tried and tested stuff repeated over and over again. But even when it seems like people are lapping up this gruel, they're really waiting for something new and exciting. Every genre and subgenre has undergone multiple massive transformations, some of them even dying out, while others make dramatic comebacks, and it's inevitable that the current style of live service game or open-world action romps with RPG nods will eventually fall out of favour. And when that happens I will happily point you all towards Midnight Suns.