For years licensed properties have met with suspicion. Whether film or comic, many have been smothered by creative restrictions imposed by cautious license-holders; unique abilities and familiar events shoehorned into existing game design.
But, as the current generation of consoles winds down, we're starting to see bolder designs. One of this Christmas's most encouraging works is film-based King Kong, in the hands of visionary designer Michel Ancel, which isn't so much restricted by its subject matter as inspired to think in new ways by it.
Another game that has the potential to change our perceptions is Radical's The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Due out on PS2, Xbox and GameCube this Friday, September 9th, it looks at what made the big-screen Hulk in particular such an awesome spectacle, and transfers that to an open-ended environment with help from comic writers and artists.
We recently spoke to Tim Bennison, the game's internal producer at developer Radical, about what distinguishes Ultimate Destruction from its licensed forebears, how it's been shaped and inspired, and the difficulties inherent to working with such a well-known property.
Eurogamer: What is it about Ultimate Destruction that separates it from other comic book games?
Tim Bennison: Our main goal was to make you feel like you’re the Hulk. We’ve captured the feeling of actually being the main character better than any other comic book game. Someone said you feel like an Unstoppable Freight Train of Annihilation in this game, and I think that’s true.
Eurogamer: Comic book games have been getting better, but for a very long time they were quite poor. Is this a case of developers getting smarter, or the people in charge of the licence wising up?
Tim Bennison: Probably both... Technologies are improving so that we can now give the player the full range of Hulk’s powers and abilities set in a free-roaming world with very few constraints. At Radical we really listened to the response to our first Hulk game and tried to improve upon it in every way. Our partners at Vivendi-Universal Games and Marvel were heavily involved to ensure that the quality of this game far exceeded people’s expectations.
Eurogamer: To continue in that vein, gamers wary of big publishers and licence-holders might infer that you had to make the last game that way in order to prove that something like this was the way to go - are they just being cynical, or is there any substance to that?
Tim Bennison: Not true. The game industry isn’t that cynical! Our first Hulk game was successful in many ways, most notably in the basic concept of letting you smash the crap out of the environment and enemies. We built on that feeling a thousand-fold in Ultimate Destruction. We also made mistakes in the first Hulk game, but at Radical we have a saying: “Never give up.” We analysed and learned from them and this made Ultimate Destruction a much stronger experience.
Eurogamer: We understand you had quite a lot of collaborative help from the likes of Paul Jenkins, Bryan Hitch and others. Why was it important to work with them on Ultimate Destruction?
Tim Bennison: Ultimate Destruction is based on the Marvel Comics Hulk universe, so it was important to work with world-class collaborators to make sure we were pushing our game quality to the highest level, and that the game is a truly authentic comic book experience. This was a real creative collaboration... both Paul Jenkins and Bryan Hitch were heavily involved in this game’s development, and made huge contributions. Paul is an award-winning comic writer whose credits include The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. Paul wrote the story, cinematic script and in-game dialogue, and provided many suggestions around gameplay. Bryan is currently the artist for The Ultimates from Marvel, and he did the visual design for the main characters, hi-res concept art and box art. We’re very happy with how all of this turned out.
Eurogamer: Often when you see two games from similar backgrounds attempting similar things, the temptation is to suggest that the second one to come out drew inspiration from the first. Obviously then, people are wondering if you were inspired by Spider-Man 2. Were you? Or was it just something that came naturally?
Tim Bennison: Hulk is the strongest one there is. You can’t contain him. We realized we had to put the player in a free-roaming, open-world environment in order to really give the player all of his abilities. Spider-Man 2 clearly has a similar game structure, and for similar reasons. We’re big fans of that game, but we like to think we’ve taken things to the next level with free-roaming games of this nature: namely in the destructibility and interactivity of the world, variety of gameplay, depth of combat and raw sense of power you get from simply running around causing mayhem. One example of this level of interactivity is our Weaponization feature, which allows you to take objects in the world and transform them into deadly weapons. With the Steel Fists weaponization move, you can rip a car in half and transform it into giant boxing gloves which turbo-power your punching attacks.
Eurogamer: Speaking of influences, what did you learn from the reaction to the first Hulk game?
Tim Bennison: The first Hulk game taught us that we had something cool in terms of the destruction, combat style, environment interaction and general feeling of Hulk SMASH! We wanted to build on that feeling you get in the very first gas station level in the first Hulk game where you’re throwing cars at helicopters... only magnify it by a thousand. We also learned that people don’t like being contained in corridors when they’re the Hulk, so we made Ultimate Destruction a free-roaming game in a vast environment. Finally, nobody wanted to play as Bruce Banner, so in Ultimate Destruction, it’s all Hulk, all the time.
Eurogamer: It seems like you've tried to cater to the people who just want to be the Hulk and run around smashing things up, as well as the more seasoned gamers who want skills to build up and new abilities to master later on - was that a conscious effort? How difficult is it to find that kind of middle ground?
Tim Bennison: We were definitely trying to achieve a varied mix of experiences for the player. We designed the control mechanics very carefully so that you can pick up the controller and within five seconds you’re bombing around smashing the crap out of everything. Yet there is also a ton of depth in the move set (you acquire more than 150 moves during the course of the game), combo system and move charging system. We’ve created a fun game that plugs right into the reptile portion of your brain, yet still requires a ton of creative thinking to master.
Eurogamer: The Hulk must be a difficult game to design as a free-roamer, because while other GTA-style titles (and we use the term more as an aggregator than anything) tend to save the destruction for the pivotal story missions, the Hulk spends most of his time destroying things anyway. What sort of missions did you design, and why would people want to focus on them when there's already so much to do outside of them?
Tim Bennison: The story missions tend to have the bigger action set-pieces, with even larger scales of destruction compared to the free-roaming aspects of the game. In addition to destroying stuff, you’ll also be attacking massive enemy vehicles, retrieving large machinery components, and defending installations. Plus, the boss fights are part of the story, and many people are saying these battles are some of the best in recent memory. Completing story missions also gives you large amounts of Smash Points, which are the basic currency of the game that you spend on upgrading your available move set. We have many, many awesome moves in this game like the Shield Grind (using flattened buses as giant skateboards) and Ball and Chain (using the wrecking ball from a construction crane as a giant club).
Eurogamer: Wreaking havoc outside the story missions seems like fun, but fun that might get a bit old after a while. What sorts of things have you included to give people incentive to explore and make use of the Hulk's mighty fists?
Tim Bennison: One of the best things about the game is that there are so many ways to use the Hulk’s powers and objects in the world to complete your objectives or defeat enemies. We give you so many options that you’ll soon be creating your own hugely varied gameplay as you tackle each situation. We’ve also got forty side missions scattered throughout the game worlds with a really varied set of challenges including Hulk Golf, Hulk Football, race challenges, combat scenarios and even hang-gliding. We’ve also hidden a huge amount of unlockable content in the game including collectible Hulk comic book covers, smash point bonuses, multiple playable character skins, an extensive “Making Of” feature, and tons of concept art.
Eurogamer: Do you think that environmental destruction and special effects in 3D world games are reaching their peak on current-generation systems, or is it more a case of people primarily designing for the PlayStation 2?
Tim Bennison: We think we’ve got some great technology when it comes to destruction, character animation, physics, dynamic world loading and special effects. We built a custom engine from the ground up for Ultimate Destruction, and we’re pushing all of the platforms to the max. I don’t think you’ll find any other free-roaming game on current-generation systems which pushes all these elements at the same time.
Eurogamer: Are you likely to work on another Hulk game? Given what you've attempted with Hulk, you must be looking at some of the next-generation technology and licking your lips...
Tim Bennison: There’s no doubt that next-generation consoles have the power to take a game like Ultimate Destruction to entirely new levels of turbo-charged smashing. There’s not much more I can say than that for now...
Eurogamer: Finally, if you could work on one comic book game that hasn't been made yet, which would it be and why would you want to make a game out of it?
Tim Bennison: One thing that’s never been done is a free-roaming, open world action game based on a team of comic book characters. If you could create a diverse, complimentary set of powers and a great multiplayer story mode, you would have an amazing game.
The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is due out in Europe on PS2, Xbox and GameCube from September 9th.