Assemble: The Marvel Gaming Universe

except, y'know, Captain America

First published as part of our Supporter Program, this feature explores the possibilities of a Marvel Gaming Universe. There is no mention of a Telltale episodic adventure.

If you were to draw a Venn Diagram showing the overlap between superhero comic book fans and people who like to play computer games, it would look a lot like Pacman with his jaws wired shut. That makes the lack of a Marvel Gaming Universe to sit alongside the cinematic vision somewhat odd. There have been occasional action games directly based on the plots setpieces from specific films and a host of tablet and cleverphone efforts, but there’s no single game that stands out as an expression of the shared setting of the films, comics and television series.

How might such a thing work?

DC have fumbled the ball in their own attempts to create a franchise of interconnected films – mostly by making films that other films would be embarrassed to be associated with – but, with the Arkham titles, do have a blockbuster game series.

What’s next for Marvel? An Endless Runner game in which the Hulk chases Ultron while dodging debris? A game in which Iron Man flies through hoops and performs an occasional quick time event to fight a robot? More pinball tables?

I’ve been reading through the earliest of the Marvel Age comics recently, working my way through the sixties, and when I’m not obsessing over the splendour of Paste Pot Pete and Tony Stark’s seduction of Cleopatra, I’m drawing up the blueprint of a glorious game in my mind’s eye. It’s a game that will never exist but I thought the idea was worth sharing, mostly because dreaming about the things that will never come to pass is an ideal way to while away a miserable Monday.

The Marvel Gaming Universe should be a single game, a modular design that can expand and mutate in a manner similar to the convoluted chronology of the comics. It’s a game built with the structure and idiosyncrasies of the medium as its foundation rather than an existing type reskinned and slightly altered to fit around a specific character or setting. Here’s how it might work:

1) The templates are the Geoscape of X-COM and the combat of Freedom Force. The initial release could focus on a single city – as in X-COM: Apocalypse – with the Baxter Building as the player’s base. Missions would pop up on the map and teams or individual heroes could be dispatched to deal with them. To begin with, you’d be tackling regular criminals rather than supervillains but the likes of Dr Doom and Mole Man would show up before long.

2) New heroes, villains and mission types could be added over time – perhaps moving through the Silver Age to the Bronze Age and beyond – and entire Story Arcs could be dropped into the game to coincide with events in the comics or films.

3) Stoy Arcs would be a rare event type leading to branching mission objectives. Civil War, Skrull invasions, the Infinity Gauntlet. World-shattering arcs could be cheekily retconned during the final mission if the designers wanted to adhere closely to the source material.

4) The player would earn Prestige points to spend on new equipment, heroes and base expansions. Build Cerebro to unlock Mutant-related missions – which would then appear randomly – or hangars to open up new parts of the world.

5) Prestige points could also be spent on Origin Stories, which would lead to a character creation tool, with powers and costumes available for purchase.

6) The game would start out as a reflection of Marvel in 1963, with villains, heroes and story types unlocked as the player progressed. Because I am demanding, I would require the art to change as time passed.

7) Combat would be either turn-based or realtime, and both would be well-tuned. All scenery would be fully destructible.

8) Spider-Man would be the best.

9) Gambit would be the worst.

10) Ant Man’s catapult would, as in many of his first comic appearances, allow him to change direction in mid-flight while seeming to fly alongside and flirt with Wasp.

Basically, I want a superhero version of Enemy Unknown, or another Freedom Force game (why not read Kieron on the making of the second game while you’re here?). For now, if I want a Marvel fix, I’m stuck with Lego. It’s not a bad toy to be stuck with but I’d love to play a game that captures all of the splendour and silliness of comic book history, while attempting to play with the weird traditions of the medium’s storytelling in a meaningful way.

With the continuing success of the films and raised awareness of the characters, there’s never been a better time to explore the possibilities.

This feature was originally published last month as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

36 Comments

  1. padger says:

    It’s a shame that the Spider-man games have been so weak, generally.

    (All I really want from Marvel is the old Hulk game from Radical (?) which was a precursor to the prototype games. Update that, and I’m there.)

    • April March says:

      There was a Spider-Man game for the first Playstation (and also for the N64) that was excellent, and the very first open-world Spider-Man game was also quite good. I haven’t played any other games so I won’t lower my Spider-Man Game Quality average.

  2. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Also, can we PLEASE have a decent Spider-man game for once. Take that franchise away from Treyarch and stop tying it in with a movie and stop trying to copy Arkham’s combat.

    The nemesis system from Shadow’s of Mordor would be perfect for a super-hero game. It would actually make more sense now that I think about it, seeing as how most heroes don’t kill their villains.

    Also, are you aware of this?

    • padger says:

      “The nemesis system from Shadow’s of Mordor would be perfect for a super-hero game.”

      Omg!

      • April March says:

        Only if you get the chance to kill mooks with a chance of them surviving and becoming a super-villain.

        “Remember when you threw me in the water, Genericman? Now I have returned as… MEGAWHARF!”

    • BreadBitten says:

      My curiosity is piqued — how would you implement Talion’s “immortality” to a character such as Spider-Man in such a game? They kill Talion and he comes back every time, I’m pretty sure that street thugs would go all-in if they were able to beat Spidey to a pulp.

      Also, Treyarch hasn’t worked on a Spider-Man game since the third movie tie-in. 2008’s Web of Shadows was developed by Shaba Games while Beenox is responsible for the newer ones (including the new movie tie-ins).

      • HopeHubris says:

        It’s not like superheroes haven’t come back from the dead every other week, anyway

  3. cpt_freakout says:

    Oh man that would be an amazing game! You should shoot an email to Marvel and have Big Robot develop it :P

  4. skalpadda says:

    If you were to draw a Venn Diagram showing the overlap between superhero comic book fans and people who like to play computer games, it would look a lot like Pacman with his jaws wired shut.

    I guess I’m a piece of wire.

  5. amateurviking says:

    OK now seems like a good time to ask. I like Marvelie things and have done since I was a kid but have never actually read a comic* (I’ve read and enjoyed the trades for Watchmen and The Wicked and the Divine but that’s about it).

    Where do I start?

    *does Eagle count?

    • klops says:

      My response would be that stay with the stuff you started with – Alan Moore’s production (Watchmen, Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Top 10 even). There’s tonnes of stuff much better than Marvel superhero comics. And I do not mean DC’s superhero comics. I do not mean superhero comics at all.

      Bad piece of advice, I know. I definitely do not belong to the group that loves both superhero comics and computer games, but getting into superhero genre as an adult is just an idea I cannot comprehend. I’m sure many feel otherwise, though.

      • amateurviking says:

        Much appreciated! Payday tomorrow so I might have a bit of a spree and pick up a few.

    • Scrote says:

      I’m thinking of stuff that isn’t too obscure or difficult to get into, so here are a few somewhat random suggestions that you might enjoy:

      Superheroey sort of stuff that’s not awful garbage:

      New X-Men by Grant Morrison

      Batman & Robin by Grant Morrison

      Preacher and The Boys by Garth Ennis

      The first year or two of the “Ultimates” comics

      Other non-superheroey stuff that’s good:

      War Stories by Garth Ennis

      Dark Horse’s Conan run

      Crossed by Garth Ennis

      Basically anything by Garth Ennis, and most anything by Grant Morrison won’t steer you wrong!

      • amateurviking says:

        Thanks!

        • ensor says:

          I’m afraid I’m gonna disagree with Scrote’s suggestions, especially for a newcomer to comics – Morrison is most effective (or even comprehendable at all!) to those already steeped in both comics language and comics history, and Ennis is an incredibly sophomoric, intentionally transgressive writer, and definitely not for all tastes.

          For “Marvelie” things, and based on your enjoyment of Watchmen, I’d actually recommend Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, which is perhaps the best combination of darker, “modern” takes on superheroes and the joys of their more innocent eras, with the bonus that it’s a lot like a synopsis of the developments of sixty years of superhero comics, all in one series. For actual Marvel stuff, welverin’s general advice (follow writers) is very solid, though as his picks are on the recent side, I’ll throw in Walt Simonson’s Thor, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and pretty much anything by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, and Jim Steranko.

          For the Wicked + Divinelike, I’d suggest Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Bill Willingham’s Fables, Hellblazer by various writers (including the aforementioned Ennis’ best work), and of course, Phonogram.

          • SomeDuder says:

            lmao its not like we’re talking about an introduction to higher physics or the collected works of Aristotle, its just cartoon drawings of men/half-naked women punching other people around

          • theblazeuk says:

            Ennis on The Boys is intentionally transgressive but his work on The Punisher – and his War Stories – are classics. If you can’t stomach the darker material then it’s not for you, but it’s not sophomoric.

      • Premium User Badge

        Mungrul says:

        On a similar Ennis tip, but with bonus points for being an actual Marvel character, his run on Punisher Max is probably my favourite Marvel series of comics. It’s not strictly speaking part of the regular Marvel universe, what with it being a Max imprint focusing on more adult themes, but the storytelling is top-notch, and it’s somewhat grounded in reality.
        Plus, Barracuda is quite possibly my favourite comic book villain ever.

        Mind you, while Barracuda’s awesome, I think that the trade Kitchen Irish left the longest lasting impression on me; Ennis explores some very British / Irish themes with that one.

        • Premium User Badge

          Mungrul says:

          Oooh, and I’ve just remembered!
          Ennis got to play with Nick Fury a bit in Punisher Max, and continued the theme with a couple of Fury Max books, which while not quite as good as Punisher, are still pretty damn well observed. His version of Nick Fury has cemented itself as the definitive one in my brain.
          He’s an excellent foil for Frank Castle, coming from the same sort of background, and very much gives the impression that he knows if circumstances had been just slightly different, he’d be in Frank’s position.

    • welverin says:

      My recommendations would be based on authors, there are plenty of good superhero books you just need to be careful with what you pick up. Don’t go with particular characters because the quality can is all over the place as creative teams change.

      The authors I’ll pick up (just about) anything they write are: Brian Michael Bendis, J Michael Straczynski, Jonathan Hickman, Ed Brubaker, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis. Mark Waid is pretty safe.

      If you want actual superhero books I’d suggest the Avengers books by Bendis and Hickman from the last ten years or so along with Ultimate Spider-Man, and Brubakers Captain America run.

      What ever you do, don’t worry about ‘catching up’ or trying to follow everything, you can’t and never will (40-70 years of history is insurmountable). Just pick the start of a storyline and go from there (the beginning of a new creative team is typically a good place) and if you find yourself at a lose for what a reference is, just look it up.

    • ensor says:

      Oh, and Eagle absolutely counts as comics. What were your favorite serials?

  6. dare says:

    If only there was a third Freedom Force! Played through the two recently and was reminded how strikingly brilliant they were. But then Irrational went all manshooty with Bioshock, which sadly did nothing for me. Boo.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Yeah, I’d pledge a lot to a Kickstarter to do FF3, or a “spiritual sequel”.

      In early Kickstarter euphoria, I think some of the old Irrational/Freedom Force devs tried to Kickstart a turn based game with a kid teaming up with time travelling monsters to slaughter humans in the midst of real historic disasters (monsters need to eat, the people were going to die anyway). Rather tasteless IMHO, and the campaign failed. Doubtful if it was because of the story though.

    • Premium User Badge

      artrexdenthur says:

      More Freedom Force would be so amazing… Of course, I never finished the second one, I supposed I should do that first :)
      I really preferred the granular use of energy in the original, though… I felt so hindered by their forcing energy to only be used in discrete chunks in the sequel.

    • Jackablade says:

      Did the second one update the mechanics at all? I played the first a little while back and while I love the setting, the general gameplay was a bit on the clunky side. Not bad, just in need of a little refinement to make things play a bit more fluidly.

      • Zekiel says:

        As artrexdenthur said just above, energy was now in discrete bars (so cheap powers took 1 bar, expensive ones took 3) rather than being a continuous scale. I didn’t feel that made much difference, either good or bad.

        Apart from that I can’t recall any difference, but it was a long time. I seem to recall the second one very slightly more fun gameplay-wise, but slightly less fun story-wise. None of the new heroes quite equally the brilliance of the best of the originals.

  7. wyrm4701 says:

    I miss Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. That was the perfect Marvel game, and still is, if their recent offerings are anything to judge by. Customizable characters, fast action, multiplayer, and a wicked strong story. Worth mentioning that the story was not based on any silly comics crossover event. It’s the perfect Marvel game, in that I could play as Spider-Man, punk rock Storm, Beta Ray Bill, and 70s Ghost Rider all at the same time. And when the difficulty spiked and three people on that team died, I soloed the entirety of Asgard with Classic Spidey. Because that game was the best.

  8. Steve Catens says:

    Freedom Force still the best comic book superhero game ever made, in my opinion. It understands its source material perfectly, and loves it. It’s funny and colorful, not grim and joyless. It’s a blast to play with destructible everything. You can rip a lamp post out of the ground and knock someone through several buildings, which should be standard in any superhero game. The custom hero creation rules are intoxicating, and would have made a game in themselves with a bigger budget and more art assets to customize your hero with. Why there haven’t been a dozen games like it since is a mystery I will never understand. I would so much rather play with my own unique superhero creations than a licensed game.

  9. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Hmm. Maybe have an X-Men game which has has combat aspects from Baldur’s Gate / X-Com / Star Wars Republic Commando. You start from your base (which you can improve and train the superheroes in), you can recruit new heroes and when encountering a threat assemble a team and move out. In combat you could have it real-time with pause on ‘ticks’ (basically similar to a small part of a turn in a turn-based game), so if you pause you know what ‘tick’ you’re on. You could set behaviours and give commands, and then let things play out, take command of one superhero or direct all superheroes from above.

    • SgtStens says:

      an X-Men game which has has combat aspects from Baldur’s Gate / X-Com / Star Wars Republic Commando.

      There was X-Men Legends, I remember it for Xbox/PS2, I believe. Pretty much Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance with X-men. Fun game, wish more ARPG’s were like this, button-mashy instead of pathfind-clicky.

  10. Buzko says:

    Nobody’s mentioned Marvel Puzzle Quest? Sure, it’s a mobile port and has microtransactions, but they’re relatively benign. I’d been itching for some more Puzzle Quest goodness and it scratched it pretty well. I don’t know the comics well at all, but a friend does and she loves the fact that they have She Hulk and Squirrel Girl and so on. I understand the story, such as it is, is based on the Dark Reign event from a few years back when Norman Osborn got to run SHIELD.

    Also, if it’s not too late to give recommendations, people should check out Runaways (Vaughan more than Whedon) and Gillen’s Young Avengers (especially if you like WicDiv). Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery run was also pretty good, if a bit more reliant on knowing the universe. Also, Warren Ellis’s Nextwave is pretty much the perfect superhero comic.

    • Zekiel says:

      Personally I thought Marvel Puzzle Quest was great addictive fun. Then I realised that “addictive” is exactly the right word, and its not a good thing. (Why is that games sell themselves on being addictive???) I never spent any money on it, but I realised that I was playing it in preference to doing other things (like playing better games) just to get rewards in time-limited scenarios. So it had become the classic Skinners box thing where I was playing for the rewards, not the actual gameplay itself. (Not that the gameplay is necessarily bad or anything – just that I wasn’t playing it to have fun, but because I felt I ought to.)

      • Buzko says:

        Exactly the reason I stopped playing, but I did have a good time for a while before that.

  11. ssh83 says:

    What about Marvel Heroes (https://marvelheroes.com) ? I’d say it stands up with its own set of innovations as good as Path of Exile but in different ways.

    • MacTheGeek says:

      Marvel Heroes is my favorite ARPG right now. But I can understand how some people might prefer a turn-based tactics game in the X-COM style.

      The 1990 PC game “The Punisher” featured a mission-centered storyline with 2D top-down design and turn-based gameplay. It didn’t hold a candle to X-COM, but I remember having fun with it.