Licensed video games are back! The 2010s saw a gradual increase in movie licenses being shopped out onto the gaming front, tying the corporate vacuity of licensing deals with engaging games to play. Cynicism aside, Star Wars returned to the gaming sphere through the EA Battlefronts with, to put it lightly, varying degrees of success. Insomniac presented PlayStation gamers with one of the best superhero games of all time with Spider-Man, and Creative Assembly brought fear back to the Xenomorphs with Alien: Isolation. Going forward, Machinegames (Wolfenstein) finds themselves tasked with adapting a new Indiana Jones title. Most intriguing, IO interactive (Hitman) is in the process of developing the next James Bond game.
For myself, the feeling of intriguing film and TV tie-ins is one that is a bit unknown but exciting. The 90s and early 2000s were blessed with licensed titles that adapted other texts with great results. Bond himself has enjoyed a wealth of successes across that period with GoldenEye in 1997 and 007 Nightfire in 2002 in particular being critically and commercially well received. Both utilised likenesses of Pierce Brosnan with original content, both usd stealth elements and included great multiplayer modes with characters from across the franchise.
Beyond 007 himself, other hits from the 1990s and 2000s include the surprisingly successful Die Hard Trilogy from 1996 which sold over 2 million units, the Harrison Ford-less adaptation of Blade Runner which sold over 1 million units over its lifetime and of course, Star Wars Battlefront II from 2005 remains the gold standard of multiplayer Star Wars games, along with other hits from a galaxy far far away including Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005) and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998). Special mention also goes to the tie-in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), with its relentlessly fun co-op mode being a fond memory for myself in the 2000s.
So what happened to this amazing mass of success stories of licensed games? Well, the late 2000s and early 2010s happened. This isn’t to say that there weren’t games which weren’t successes and it is a bit of an oversimplification, but the period brought about numerous games which either faced critical panning or a lack of sales to consign them to the bargain bin of time. Take 2012’s Battleship, the game adaptation of the film adaptation of the board game, which blended dated first person shooting mechanics with an attempt to trample on people’s memories of a classic board game. Earth’s mightiest heroes didn’t fare much better, with Iron Man 2 and Thor: God of Thunder being uninspired tie-ins. The period was full of titles that seemed to exist merely for some cross-promotion of an upcoming Hollywood release, from Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters and Clash of the Titans to Pacific Rim and The Last Airbender. Even the latter of the 2010s has seen a few notable problematic entries, with the aforementioned Star Wars: Battlefront II from EA being lambasted for its emphasis on microtransactions for pay-to-win mechanics and Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers is currently in a rough state with a rapidly dropping player base and issues for where its future lies.
What’s the point of recapping all this? Well, for IO interactive, Machinegames and the studios that will be tackling these adaptations, they can take lessons from the most powerful teacher of all: History. Not that they may need to. Given the success of the Hitman and Wolfenstein series, the talent is clearly there. But still, the past has shown what works for licensed games and what doesn’t.
To start, many of the best games in this have capitalized on using the characters associated with the license to create weird but awesome matchups not seen on film. Bond’s multiplayer madness in Goldeneye and Nightfire has seen all sorts of his rogues’ gallery battling, from Jaws to Oddjob.
The Injustice games in particular have created intense and mad spectacles with DC’s mass of characters. There are few things as funny or as weirdly engrossing as watching The Flash travel through prehistoric times to throw Superman against a T-Rex’s skull, much to that T-Rex’s annoyance. Even DICE’s Star Wars: Battlefront introduced the Heroes vs. Villains mode to capitalize on the thrill of taking classic Star Wars characters and putting them in slightly messy clashes of lightsabers and blasters. It’s the gaming equivalent of a child bashing two LEGO characters against each other, but that simple joy at seeing those actions unfold is something gaming has historically used to entice players. The idea is innately interesting and has the same principle as the cinematic universe, using characters people have seen and bringing them together. Doing this in a well applied and mechanically solid multiplayer setting can create simple but enjoyable gameplay.
Some of the best also understand how to use the characters most effectively. After all, at the heart of most of these licenses lies infamous characters to use. Understanding the appeal, the themes and the stories that form these characters can inform large stories. For all its faults, Marvel’s Avengers was widely critically praised for its campaign and desire to reinterpret the iconic characters with slight twists whilst keeping heroes like Bruce Banner and Thor faithful to their origins. It even reached into the comics to introduce more fans to Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, using an oft-forgotten hero in mainstream entertainment to provide a new tale with a youthful and exuberant outlook. The gold standard for my money is the Batman: Arkham series, which took great pleasure in adapting as many of Batman’s rogues gallery as possible across the series to provide memorable iterations that stand on their own, impressive given how much the caped crusader has been adapted on screen. Batman: Arkham City’s side missions featuring Hush’s crime scenes, The Mad Hatter’s tea party and Deadshot’s numerous shootings all provide thematic and character-focused distractions that use the characters to build up the world further and change up the gameplay from the usual gliding and Joker sections.
Many have also used a licensed game to introduce new or outside-the-box mechanics in a familiar setting. Middle-Earth proved a worthy setting when Shadow of Mordor introduced its excellent Nemesis system, leveraging the series’ mass of Orcs and creating interpersonal conflicts and a society of enemies with their own lust for power. Few settings fit the system so well as Middle-Earth and its a shame that the recent patent by Warner Bros. may discourage other devs from utilising it. Going back, one of the shining lights from the late 2000s rut was the Batman: Arkham series which also saw the series mash the environmental takedowns of a Yakuza game and the counterplay of the Assassin’s Creed series into a fresher-feeling combat system that would be replicated by Shadow of Mordor. Again, the settings and gadgetry of Batman’s world is a perfect way to introduce these mechanics. This is far less revolutionary than the Nemesis system, but it’s a combat system that grew further and further in complexity as the series went along, introducing team attacks with NPCs and adding further gadgetry for Batman to use. Taking these mechanics and popularizing them in a licensed game can be a way to introduce new ideas in a familiar setting and can raise the quality of the game as a result.
Going back to Marvel’s Avengers, it is part of a trend observed in some of the worst licensed games. The game has recently seen its player count falling faster than War Machine in Captain America: Civil War, which is a shame given the clear love for the license seen by the developers. However, the games as a service model which has been implemented here has clearly not seen players stick around. It’s part of a wider trend of licensed games often using industry fads or systems that are seen as being “big trends” but not properly implementing them. One wonders how Marvel’s Avengers would have been received had it not pursued the games as a service model that has brought success to some but hurt others from their launch like Anthem or The Division 2 or Fallout 76. Beyond that model, consider Thor: God of Thunder’s push of a 3D mode when companies wanted 3D to be the next big evolution for tech which didn’t happen of course. Consider Star Wars Kinect, which was a shallow attempt with few modes that seemingly was merely designed to put the license on Microsoft’s now abandoned motion sensor. Even more maligned is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War which found a way to shamelessly monetize its own Nemesis system with loot boxes and microtransactions with the grind of the Shadow Wars section late on. The best licensed games are made by developers who want to adapt the title with their own creative vision, so let them do that. Don’t use the license to instead push loot boxes aplenty. That’s when to players, the license becomes a license.
When it comes to IO’s 007 Project, I have faith. The Hitman stories were examples of IO handling diabolical masterminds with evil schemes with little subtlety, which actually fits in nicely with Bond’s own villains. Take Blofeld or even Skyfall’s Silva as prime examples of that. The studio has always prided itself on its mechanical skill as well and a Bond game could harken back to classic Nightfire or Goldeneye gameplay with a fresh twist of environmental takedowns and new gorgeous level design. If they could abandon the always online approach that dogged the Hitman titles that would also be grand. But for now, i’m just excited to see that the future of licensed games is promising once again, and hopefully will be free of the missteps of the past.