The Perfect Video Game: The Trouble with Sequels

Love them or hate them, sequels are here to stay. Whether it be movies or games, it’s only natural for any profit-driven company to capitalise on an established product or brand name and milk that cash cow for all it’s worth. Yet therein lies the perennial problem, that dastardly dilemma with creating a sequel. Do you set out to bleed that franchise steadily, or do you get ambitious and/or greedy and end up slaughtering the golden goose with nary a second thought? How do you go about creating a sequel that gives the consumers what they want and yet does not bring your brand to a screeching halt?

This month alone, we have three fantastic case studies in the quest for the perfect video game, let alone the perfect sequel. October began with the XBox 360 release of Spider-Man: Edge of Time, followed by Batman: Arkham City and this past weekend, Dance Central 2. While, in my opinion anyway, none of them come quite as close to exquisite perfection, they do serve our needs in deconstructing what works and what doesn’t. That being said, I got to play them all while doing so (which explains why it’s been a fortnight since my last article) and you’ll neve hear me complain about reviewing a game.

Not out loud anyway.

(Now I’ll just put a disclaimer here and say that this is not a game review per se, although there will be times when I’ll slip into reviewer mode. The actual reviews should be up soon enough, assuming I don’t find myself drawn back to Arkham City in the meantime. Ahem.)

So, without further ado, here are five things to ensure you have a winning sequel on your hands.

5. Keep what worked in the original

Although this seems to be little more than common sense, you’d be amazed at how easily game developers tend to forget this in their flurry to throw in a dozen and one improvements. Spider-Man: Edge of Time (EoT) is the biggest culprit here, by tweaking the whole gameplay style to the point where, other than the basic movement and melee functions, everything else is completely unrecognisable from its 2010 predecessor, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. The truism goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and creators Beenox really bit the proverbial bullet here. Similarly, Dance Central 2 (DC2) made a minor boo-boo by removing aspects of gameplay we appreciated, like the percentage of moves perfected in each song.

In contrast, Batman: Arkham City literally picks up where predecessor Batman: Arkham Asylum left off in 2009, such that even though I hadn’t played the latter game in almost two years, it was like riding a bicycle, everything just feels familiar the moment you lay hands on the controller – mostly because creators Rocksteady decided that there was nothing wrong with their critically acclaimed freeflow combat system, and that is true.

4. Don’t produce something inferior to the original

Yet another seemingly obvious point, but one that, thankfully, two out of the three games avoided. Unfortunately, it is EoT that once again comes up short, as its significantly shorter playtime – little more than 9 hours, compared to the 15 hours across several days that I spent on Shattered Dimensions – was just the final nail in the coffin. Other gripes I had was how repetitive the gameplay was, as all of the boss fights could be completed using the same evade-wait-attack combo. This was definitely not the case last year, when each boss fight was unique and had its own strategy.

Fortunately, this is not the case for the other two games, which brings us to our third point.

3. Fully utilise the resources at hand

If you have a sequel, that means there’s a ripe opportunity to build on what’s come before. The great thing about this point is that “resources” could refer to several things, in particular, technology and source material.

It seems strange in hindsight, but there was a time when Dance Central was solely a one-player game, with that now laughable “Dance Battle” mode being little more than two people taking turns to do the same moves. DC2 challenges the already impressive Kinect technology to a whole new dimension, one that was only barely utilised in games like Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports. While the latter games did allow for two players, their advanced gameplay was reduced to little more than doing jumping jacks or running on the spot. DC2 gives two-player gaming more depth, as each player can choose different difficulty levels in the same session, or can have a real dance-off, complete with solo mode and ‘dance any of the 4 moves’ mode, with the revamped “Dance Battle” system.

Arkham City makes fuller use of Batman’s extensive rogue gallery that allows for both challenging gameplay scenarios as well as further insights into the extent of his enemies’ madness. The psychotic killer Victor Zsasz plays a significantly larger role here than his cameo in 2009 and his race-against-the-clock side quest is arguably the most challenging and rewarding gameplay yet. In very stark contrast, EoT utilises almost none of Spider-Man’s foes (supposedly because the more popular ones had already appeared in Shattered Dimensions), limiting the ‘boss fights’ to enemies created for the sole purpose of the game. Gameplay-wise at least, Rhino, Shocker, Chameleon, Doctor Octopus and Alastair Smythe were all established villains who would have been more than appropriate substitutes for those newly created enemies.

2. Fanservice!

Fortunately, despite all its faults, EoT does do something right – fanservice. Recognising that the biggest market to cater to would be fans of the previous installment, or of the source material, Beenox hired legendary scribe and creator of Spider-Man 2099 Peter David to pen the storyline, while fan favourite voice actors Josh Keaton (the voice of Spider-Man in this past decade) and Christopher Daniel Barnes (the voice of Spider-Man in the 1990s) return to bring life to Peter Parker and Miguel O’Hara respectively. Not only do you have a voice cast that thrusts you right into the Marvel Universe, but with Peter David, you know there’ll be lots of intertextual humour – my favourites were the jabs on the Turn Off The Dark musical and one Star Trek reference with the Heisenberg compensators.

Arkham City is no slouch either with the voice casting, once again bringing back Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to voice Batman and the Joker, two characters they’ve become synonymous with for the past two decades. A brilliant easter egg that I just discovered on Halloween was that Calendar Man, found in the Solomon Wayne courthouse, has different dialogue when spoken to on special days! That is the kind of fanservice one can truly appreciate.

1. Ensure there’s room for another sequel!

Finally and honestly most pertinent, don’t kill the goose that laid the golden eggs! Ensure that your sequel leaves room for more editions, or at the very least, ensure that there’s room for DLC, and that it enhances the replayability of the game. Naturally, this is a piece of cake for DC2, which has proven that they’re capable of breaking the mould with each release, and giving us enough DLC in the meantime to keep us occupied.

I’m not sure what the future holds for the Batman franchise, since Arkham City seems to have succeeded in utilising the rest of Batman’s diverse foes. Two side quests – Identity Thief and Watcher in the Winds – hint at the possibility that there’ll be a Gotham City sequel, but I honestly don’t see how that’ll be any different from its two predecessors. Maybe a look into the world of Batman Beyond? In the meantime the DLC being offered is honestly not entirely impressive – more Catwoman levels, a Nightwing skin for the challenge maps, more challenge maps. Although there will be some fans for whom these were designed for, I am unfortunately not one of them.

As for Spider-Man? Beenox is already slated by Activision to be the lead developer for all their future Spider-Man games, and this past NYCC, it was announced that the movie tie-in for next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man will be done by Beenox. So while not a sequel per se, one only hopes that it’ll improve on EoT. In the meantime, I have not heard any news about DLC, and while the alternate suits are a nice touch, they don’t really do much for replayability.

So, what’s the next sequel I’m looking forward to? Mass Effect 3. Of course, I’ll need to play Mass Effect 1 AND 2 first…

About Peter Lin

His teenage years spent nursing a giant man-crush on Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, Peter naturally found himself drawn to many other heroes who depicted strong, manly qualities, including the honour-bound warrior Worf, first Klingon in Starfleet, and the muscular rock hard abs of The Thing.

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