2016 marked another year where the intersection of comics and video games was not unlike a 4-way stop where only cars driven by Batman could go through while the rest of us are given DUI checks. Counting releases on mobile phone/tablet games, more than a dozen games hit the market based on comic book properties; five of which featured or included Batman. As you’ll see a couple of those games were fantastic additions to the lore of the character, it’s just 2016 couldn’t help but feel a little lopsided.
There were a few bright spots which started from LEGO Marvel’s Avengers kicking off the year in January. Throughout 2016, Telltale continued their dip in the Walking Dead pool debuting two titles based on Robert Kirkman’s comics. Even a little-known French comic book called LastMan saw an adaptation fighting game called Last Fight.
Not everything was roses as Marvel went another year without a proper major console big blockbuster game release. No, a re-release of a PlayStation 2 game (Ultimate Alliance) doesn’t count as a proper launch, especially if it doesn’t work right. Once again the house of ideas let another year go by where Disney squandered its purchased library of iconic characters by keeping them chained to mobile phones. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about Marvel’s brighter future later on. For now, let’s take a look at some of the best things about video games based on comics and comic books based on games in 2016. Oh and one monstrosity that should be erased from all phones if not existence itself.
We are definitely starting with the rubbish!
WORST OF AWARDS:
Worst game based on a comic property: Avengers Academy (iOS, Android)
While TinyCo artistically has a good looking game, which adds the detail of a talented voice cast (including John Cena voicing the Hulk), the mobile farming simulator known as Avengers Academy is the most frustratingly abusive thing Disney has ever subjected Marvel properties to since that awful Avengers thing at the Treasure Island in Las Vegas. After a fun to watch introduction into a reimagined world of teenage Avengers characters, there’s nothing to do except set your roster of characters on mining tasks that take hours to complete. Such was my trial of assigning the Wasp to learn all about Hydra in the school library.
I read four comics, cooked dinner, did laundry and brushed my teeth in the time it took for her to accomplish that task, only to get one measly step closer to the overall goal necessary to unlock another character. It’s what Jim Sterling would call a “Free2Wait” game. Either pay up in microtransactions to progress or wait LITERALLY wait for a character to complete objectives you have no control or joy over. I really wanted to like this game, the art style and voice acting gave me hope in the first few minutes of the experience. After about an hour with the game I was hoping to find something that would make me want to keep digging, but it just feels like such a waste of a talented voice cast and phone space. Somewhere in Antarctica; a waterproof phone with Avengers Academy washed up into the flippers of an adorable penguin who committed suicide after ten minutes with the game. Even in the Lord Mar-vel Cancerverse that is Free2Wait mobile games, this is too damn much. I’ll admit, I really wanted to like Avengers Academy, its opening cinematic is quirky and I dig that. Once the money grubbing microtransactions, this game is littered by, quickly beat you into submission any enjoyment is done. Marvel, your IP deserves better and the upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive Spider-Man is a step in the right direction to making the Marvel mobile nightmares we’ve endured into warning stories you tell your space grandchildren years from now.
Worst Comic Book based on a video game: Mirror’s Edge Exordium (Dark Horse Comics)
Look, I like a lot of the comics Dark Horse have done based on POPULAR video games. The Last of Us: American Dreams, Tomb Raider, even World of Tanks are great comics. Some of the properties had the luxury of already being more popular than others, but all managed to show why they deserve to translate into the medium. But Mirror’s Edge? I know the game has its fans, but still, that number amounts to far from even cult hit status. After two commercial flops, it would be astonishing if the game’s publisher (EA) were to devote resources to a third game in the series. Did they think a comic book would help sell after the first games tepid reception?
You have to wonder who at Dark Horse looked at this game and said “yeah, f**k it. This is comic book material”. The series told a slice of back story about Mirror’s Edge protagonist named Faith and her rivalry with another super parkour girl. As a comic book tie-in, it never really advanced Faith’s story into the sequel game, at least in a meaningful way that rewarded fans of the first Mirror’s Edge. For comic book readers who don’t play video games, but might have still given it a chance; you didn’t get a sense what was special about these characters or their city of glass. The story never really proved it had a real reason for existing, other than to appease a partnership deal that might see Dark Horse publish comics based on more lucrative EA properties like Mass Effect or Battlefield in the future.
Mirror’s Edge as a game isn’t all that bad, its first person running action moments were well done but it never had an engaging story or variety to match. Like most games, it just gets too repetitive to invest in. This comic series could have been a lot better, but never managed to translate what was good about the game. It’s a prime example of two different languages being belched out by a Speak-n-Spell with laryngitis.
Dark Horse SHOULD continue to publish books based on video games, hell, Garth Ennis wrote World of Tanks and it was superb. Just be selective of the titles you publish. Not every game makes the jump to comics well. Please, Dark Horse do another Last of Us comic.
Ok so now we get to the more cheerful subjects.
BEST OF AWARDS
Honorable Mention: Batman: The Telltale Series (PC, PSN, Xbox Live)
We’ve talked about Telltale Games take on the Dark Knight to nausea because there’s little doubt this is, in fact, the best story told in any video game of 2016. Telltale took so much of Batman’s lore and mutated it. The Waynes have their history rewritten, Oswald Cobblepot is about the most European sexy he’s ever been, the very political structure of Gotham is unlike anything we’ve seen. These liberties play into a story that felt fresh. That’s very hard to do with a character that’s been scribed or adapted by the likes of Frank Miller, Scott Snyder, Geoff Johns, Denny O’Neil, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan just to name a few. Unlike any of those comics or films, you the player genuinely felt like the editor of Telltale’s story, even more than in their Walking Dead or Fables games. Did you save Harvey or Selina? Were you a brutal bone breaking vigilante or Gotham’s white hat knight? Telltale’s game carved out its own relevancy and we can’t wait for season 2 when Batman will take on his most infamous adversary. While the Comics Beat way is to value story above all else, the reason it isn’t THE game of the year came down to the mechanical flaws that hobbled the landing. System crashes in episodes 4 and 5, missing character models, and cutscene playback skips were reported by many on twitter. If you look up “invisible man Batman episode 5” on YouTube you’ll see Batman fighting a set of teeth and eyes. It’s chuckle-worthy but definitely unintended. While tech problems aren’t for this site to examine, it’s hard to ignore that Walking Dead and Batman weren’t behemoths that require powerful systems to run properly. They’re on iPhones for f**k’s sake. Telltale should have this running smoothly on a PS4 or Xbox One and we hope by Guardians of The Galaxy in 2017 they get these launch quality control issues figured out. Despite technical hiccups, Batman: The Telltale Series is a story people who love comics need to see for themselves.
BEST Comic Book Game of the Year: Batman Arkham VR (PSVR)
Yes, the ratio of games based on Batman to ANY other comic book character is uneven, to say the least. To be honest, we should be getting tired of seeing him in movies and games (Which I’ll go into more detail about soon). However, there is absolutely no denying that despite how short the game was, Batman Arkham VR laid out the blueprint on how to utilize big name properties to tell immersive stories in virtual reality video games. We can’t describe the feeling, and videos don’t do justice to, the moment you look out over Gotham in VR. Every grimy rain-soaked detail feels as deep an experience you can get in first gen VR. Then there’s the astonishment of changing into the costume once you go through the floor of your mansion. Yes, you read that right. You play the piano and open your entrance to the Batcave. Once you put on the Batsuit and look at yourself in that mirror. You. Are.The. Freaking. BATMAN! And it is awesome!
Storywise, Arkham VR feels like a rated R episode of The Animated Series. That’s far from a bad thing. Investigating Nightwing’s murder to its kind of Shamalany conclusion fits nicely into the narrative created by Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy of games. While Telltale did the overall better Batman story of 2016, Arkham VR isn’t hindered by its own tale on any level. It’s a departure from the brutal beat ’em up action Arkham is known for to an exquisite cerebral point-and-solve detective game.
The game’s $20 price tag is a bit deceptive as PlayStation VR comes with a high entry cost that not many are willing to shell out for yet. But the game itself shouldn’t be judged on that detail. In a way, it adds value to the argument for VR being more than a gimmicky add-on. Not because of it’s quality, level of detail, or story, but for the fact that this is THE game you show people who are skeptical about virtual reality gaming or for that matter, people who don’t play video games at all. Every time I get to put the PlayStation ice bucket on the heads of my friends or family, seeing the way their jaws drop on the Batcave elevator ride never gets old.
Best Comic Book based on a video game: Overwatch #10 (Blizzard)
Blizzard’s wacky online shooter is a lot of people’s choice for game of 2016. And for good reason. In a landscape littered with games featuring brooding soldier-boy characters who watched way too much Full Metal Jacket, Overwatch from Blizzard was a GD breath of fresh air. While playing shooters online isn’t my personal jam (that’s more a Zachary Clemente thing, go see him on Twitch TV), there’s no denying this game has an uncanny flair of color and bombastic action that’s addictive. Where it stands above the rest is the design of its world and memorable characters. While you only get story slices of its poster children like Reaper and Tracer in the actual game, Blizzard took it upon themselves to expand the stories of all the characters in their self-published Overwatch comics. A series worked on by industry professionals like John J Hill and Richard Starkings’ Comicraft.
Written by Michael Chu and drawn by Miki Montillo, issue ten is particularly landmark for its bold move of proudly confirming popular character Tracer to be in a same-sex relationship. A character in a hit thing being LGBTQ isn’t the most newsworthy detail about the move. The game’s comics have now been banned in Putinland (Russia) as part of its traditionalist propaganda. Coincidentally, Overwatch the game is mega popular overseas, which includes Russia. The ballsy move of telling the story you want to tell, at the risk of having a hand over fist money making property pulled from an entire county, should be rewarded with our prestigious honor. If you fancy, you can go over to read all the Overwatch comics on the official site here.
It isn’t just a controversial move that makes the Overwatch comics the best of the year. For something that’s essentially an afterthought of a product, they’re crafted more professionally in comparison to what most long time publishers pass off for comics these days. Expert panel layouts, real emotion drawn by artists, complimentary colors that enhance mood; this is a legit comic book and it’s essentially being given away in the hopes you’ll buy the game or its merchandise. Kudos to Blizzard for at least giving people something of quality we don’t have to buy an additional season pass to get.
Well, that’s 2016. Next year already has tons to offer fans of comics who play video games. Guardians of the Galaxy, Injustice 2, Marvel vs Capcom, Walking Dead, Conan, and hopefully the return of a quality Spider-Man game. With new hardware like the Xbox Project Scorpio and Nintendo Switch also coming, more talented studios who have comic book fans leading them could have more opportunities to make the games we’ve always wanted to play based on our favorite characters. That is, if their license holders have finally learned to let the best studios do their thing.
Since I didn’t get you guys anything for the holidays, I decided to give one of you a chance to play Telltale’s new Walking Dead game on PC. If you’ve got STEAM then here’s a key for a season pass which will give you access to A New Frontier episodes 1-5 as their available. (FCFS Enjoy!)