The best games of the film
Videogames based on blockbusters are often poor imitations of the cinematic originals. So what does it take for a title to make the grade? Michael Plant investigates
Wednesday 05 August 2009
Have you ever imagined the thrill of discovering ancient treasure à la Indiana Jones or yearned to get into James Bond's Aston Martin as he thwarts the nefarious plans of this week's particular evildoer? Our desire to experience what it's like in the fantasy fast lane is the driving force behind the larger-than-life heroes and plots of the films that dominate the box office. And if 90 minutes of cinematic excitement isn't enough, videogame versions of major movies allow players to pick up a controller to become Harry Potter or to fight alongside the Transformers.
Advances in technology such as high-definition graphics, surround sound and sophisticated motion capture should make movie tie-in games more faithful than ever. But are these adaptations ever as impressive as the big-screen blockbusters they're based on? The truth of the matter is that movie-game adaptations are something of an albatross around the necks of game developers and the videogame-buying public alike. Logically, what publisher (the money-men behind game development) wouldn't want to fund creation of the perfect movie tie-in and take a share of the profits so readily available?
The recent videogame version of Ghostbusters, for example, has, according to Atari, already sold over one million units in the US alone since it went on sale in June, while Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is performing well in both US and UK charts as it rides the coat tails of the movie's success. What's more, with films providing such a fertile source of inspiration to draw from and with story, scripting, artwork, character design and locations already provided by the film's script and storyboard, many time-consuming aspects of the game's design are predetermined. The adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince mirrors the film down to the very last Quidditch match and potion mixture. Theoretically, this should leave developers free to create authentic gameplay, capturing the feel of the film. Yet movie-inspired games often flatter to deceive, garnering the reputation that tie-ins are often nothing short of hurried cash-ins. Criticism in one review of Half-Blood Prince sniped that "there are subtle differences (between this and past Harry Potter titles) but liberal use of copy and paste has helped to bash this one out quickly".
"There's a tendency to rush games based on films in and out of development to meet the movie's street date," says Gavin Ogden, the editor of CVG magazine. "Most tie-ins are an extension of the movie's merchandising; you can watch the film, read the book, buy the soundtrack and play the game."
That isn't to say all movie game adaptations suffer this malaise. On the contrary, some of the greatest games ever made have been created on the back of successful film franchises. The most famous examples of titles that have made the jump from film to game are Star Wars: Tie Fighter (1994) on PC, GoldenEye 007 (1997) for Nintendo 64, or The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004) for the Xbox – each one now considered a classic. But what of the current generation of consoles? The graphical processing power of these machines should mean lifelike graphics and involving gameplay become the rule rather than the exception, so why are we not seeing games which truly replicate their movie counterparts? Rocksteady Studios, developer of the forthcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum – itself a promising game combining elements of the recent Batman films and as well as comics – are facing the problems associated with bringing a silver-screen character to home consoles. "Batman is a complex character with the subtle role of a hero just outside of the law," explains Jamie Walker, studio director at Rocksteady. "He is a hero with strong morals, but he has huge issues."
Batman: Arkham Asylum, while not based on last year's The Dark Knight, is still riding high on the back of the hype from 2008's highest grossing cinema release. The game (released on 28 August) focuses on the caped crusader as he infiltrates Gotham City's prison for the criminally insane: Arkham Asylum. "The developers thought of each separate part of the game as sets and designed each set to be completely individual," explains Gareth Williams of BH Press, promoters of Arkham in the UK. He walks me through the game's introduction in which Batman escorts a handcuffed Joker into the madhouse. As Batman is guided through the prison, the game's credits appear on screen exactly as they would in a film, while a sense of tension and apprehension is created by the excellent use of off-centre camera angles and unsettling chatter courtesy the Joker. "Rocksteady has their own motion capture equipment which they used for months," explains Williams. "The amount of motion capture taken is almost unheard-of in the industry – the developers wanted to make the game feel as realistic as possible."
Another well-received release this year has been Terminal Velocity's Ghostbusters: The Video Game; the first foray for the Ghostbusters to home consoles since 1990 saw Sega release their take for Mega Drive. Performing well in terms of sales and garnering a positive reception from critics with comments such as "A hell of a ride" (IGN.com) and "Some brilliant and epic scenes" (CVG.com); Ghostbusters sets a high benchmark for others to follow. Terminal Velocity's executive producer, Michael Fetterman, was never in doubt as to his team's priorities when creating a tie-in of such a famous franchise. "When working with the Ghostbusters license, we knew there were pretty high expectations that we had to deliver on," he says. "Not only did we have to be concerned about the fan reception, but we also had to really show the talent that we could handle their property with the passion and respect that it deserves ... this is a title that could make or break your reputation as a professional studio."
But despite promising turns from Batman and Ghostbusters, 2009 has still seen its share of sub-par releases. A quick look at Metacritic.com, a website which compiles and averages all games review scores, points to blockbuster movie releases inspiring games which have stirred the wrath of critics. Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, Watchmen: The End is Nigh and Wanted: Weapons of Fate have all averaged scores in the 50s and 60s out of a potential 100, so it is clear not all developers are creating high-quality releases. Is turning a quick profit on the base of marketing hype at the bottom of this trend? Michael Fetterman – whose Ghostbusters title is averaging over 80 per cent on Metacritic – sheds some light on why some developers are failing to deliver quality titles to the games-buying public. "Making games is a complicated and difficult business, in fact it's brutal," he clarifies. "Just imagine all of the coordination, talent and effort you have to pour into a high-quality title – and then imagine applying another very thick layer of movie-adaptation-complexity on top ... and you may just begin to scratch the surface of why so many movie adaptations fail."
A quick glance at the titles performing well on Metacritic such as Ghostbusters and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena against those performing poorly, seems to prove the theory that games scheduled to co-launch with their movie counterparts score averagely, while those games allowed to launch "when ready" perform much better – could this be coincidence? Gavin Ogden of CVG doesn't think so. "The best efforts so far are examples where the movie's producers have involved the game developer right from the very start of the project, instead of the game being treated as a cash-in."
Hopefully publishers will learn from these mistakes and allow developers to release titles when they think they are ready. Thankfully Batman: Arkham Asylum is one title that has been allowed that luxury, having had its release date pushed back for three months to allow for quality checking before release. Whether this will become the norm – and whether publishers can be convinced that games can be employed to sell their movies rather than the other way around – remains to be seen.
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