If you would have told us a couple of decades ago that, eventually, the gaming industry would give us a tie-in game like Spider-Man PS4, we wouldn’t have believed you. They say hindsight is 20/20 but looking back to even just a couple years ago, there’s no getting away from the fact that most video games based on popular entertainment IPs were always pretty poor. Typically rushed to shelves in the hope of releasing alongside a larger media tie-in and often developed by a newly-formed or inexperienced team, in the case of 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, these problems can sometimes permeate so markedly that the industry as a whole faces massive repercussions.
Recently, however, there’s been a significant sea change with what players can expect from a video game based on their favorite movie, book, and the like. Gone are the days when Superman 64 failed to let you roleplay as the man of steel – who knew his greatest enemy would prove to be fog? Nowadays, licensers are starting to care about the potential heights their IPs can achieve when translated into a video game, for the most part giving developers the time they need to do right by both fans and the property in question. This trend began with Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham Asylum back in 2009, and its impact is still felt almost 10 years later.
Prior to their domination of cinema screens worldwide, Marvel was arguably public enemy number one when it came to forced out tie-in games. The biggest example being the unabashedly shameful Iron Man 2. Released for almost every console (including Wii, DS, and even Blackberry), the game refused to follow in The Dark Knight’s footsteps from only a year earlier, with it instead being another cash-grab intended to appeal to the broadest audience possible across platforms. Fast-forward to today, however, and everything we’ve seen from Insomniac’s upcoming Spider-Man PS4 indicates it’ll be the stark opposite.
Before we get to one of the most exciting PS4 exclusives of the year, however, it’s worth noting that Arkham Asylum’s impact has been present largely since 2013, with the arrival of PS4 and Xbox One. Though not to everyone’s tastes, Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation proved that when handling the concept of the brand properly, licensed games have the potential to break new ground rather than simply be perceived as passable.
Considered by fans of the franchise to be somewhat of an apology for Gearbox’s abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines beforehand, Alien Isolation trusted itself to do something unique with the unpredictable AI of the iconic eponymous creature. Claustrophobic, tight, and appropriately isolating, the game serves as an interquel between Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s celebrated sci-fi films, successfully letting you immerse yourself into that world thanks to a staggeringly close attention to detail.
It’s Alien Isolation’s commitment to this unexpected and tense style of play that makes it works so well. Even if traversing through it for 15+ hours made the experience irksome for some people by the end. The very idea behind the stalking Xenomorph acts as the game’s core identity so much so that it wouldn’t work without it.
Another game which similarly wears its licenses on its sleeve is none other than 2015’s Mad Max. A game which largely slipped under the radar due to its close proximity release to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max allowed players to run riot within a seething Australian wasteland. In it, players are constantly given the means to upgrade Max’s iconic vehicle the Magnum Opus, and it’s this simplified through line that makes Mad Max one of the great if oft-forgotten licensed games. Much like Alien Isolation, the initial concept is small, but by doing this the wider experience surrounding it can successfully be built off of by the developers.
In the same way that Creative Director David Jaffe saw potential in certain elements of Greek mythology that would make sense as mechanics in a game like God of War, video games based on entertainment IPs work best when their elements are ripe for being translated. In Mad Max’s case, this means using the series’ notable lack of water and gas as health and fuel respectively, having warboy fortresses be the resident Ubisoft-like towers, also using sandstorms act as limited-time world events. For any lifelong fan of the franchise, the game left no stone unturned.
Mad Max also indicates instances where developers might have control of a license but are given free reign to fully make it their own. Rather than remain slavish to some wider media tie-in, Arkham Asylum’s tendons are felt again – in modern terms – with an entirely new take on the antihero and no Tom Hardy likeness in sight. Sometimes this works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But the biggest advocate for the former would have to be Way Forward’s The Mummy Demastered.
A licensed title which has almost absolutely nothing to do with the Tom Cruise-led movie it’s based on, the team at Way Forward are no stranger to working with recognizable brands. This shows in how they had the foresight to remove The Mummy Demastered as far away from the cinematic flop as much as possible. This potentially may have been due to the team’s limited time and resources, but as a homage to 16-bit Metroidvanias with an emphasis on gunplay, post-patch the indie title makes for a much tighter experience than it has any right to be. It’s just a shame that this is a rare instance where the license might hinder rather than help the game.
Simply put, 2018 might prove to be one of the most exciting times to play games in general, but in recent years those based on a license can now, mostly, also sit comfortably under that banner. The suits in charge of our favorite entertainment IPs finally tout at least some understanding about how their brand would best suit a video game, picking the perfect team in Alien Isolation and Spider-Man’s case and giving creatives the free reign needed to make their own mark as with Mad Max and The Mummy Demastered. License to thrill? You bet!