Finally, eight years after the launch of the final entry in its beloved Batman: Arkham series, Rocksteady Studios has properly unveiled what you can expect from its next game. After years of short trailers and brief gameplay teases, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League got a substantial, 15-minute gameplay presentation during this week's State of Play. And the crowd went, uh, mild.
Rocksteady fans were primed for a trip into the live service realm after a handful of Suicide Squad leaks earlier this year, but that didn't make the confirmation of battle passes and gear scores during last night's gameplay showcase any less disappointing. Yes, Rocksteady's ditching the tighter, single-player focus of the Arkham series in favor of an always-online, loot-driven, live-service game. Single-player is supported, but every mission is built to be tackled with up to four people.
Okay, let me pitch this in the most optimistic terms I can: Suicide Squad could be a game where you play through a well-paced, solidly-built story mode that optionally allows your friends to join the action. Maybe collecting loot will be a satisfying way to power yourself up for engaging endgame bosses and raids. The devs also promise free content updates post-launch with new characters and missions – it could be like picking up a new comic issue every couple months and enjoying the latest adventures of one of the most notable superpowered teams out there.
This is exactly what I pitched myself when I rolled credits on Marvel's Avengers. I liked Avengers. I thought I would keep playing for all the same reasons I listed above. Then I, like pretty much everyone else who gave Avengers a shot, immediately fell off. The loot treadmill just didn't grab me, my friends never ended up playing it, and the content updates were so sporadic that it was tough to stay invested.
I was so burned by the whole thing that I never ended up even touching Gotham Knights, despite plenty of affection for the Bat Family. The Gotham game fared no better among fans or critics than Avengers did, and it feels like two successive failures in the inexplicably large 'co-op live-service superhero action game with loot and RPG elements' genre have pretty thoroughly poisoned the well. How can you get excited about Suicide Squad when two massive swings at the same type of experience have failed to deliver before?
I don't hate the look of the action we saw in the Suicide Squad gameplay demo, either. The big, floaty traversal reminds me a lot of the dumb fun of Crackdown, but here it looks like we've got much more robust movement mechanics that'll let you take down enemies in more exciting ways – which will hopefully compound with your teammates' abilities to make it all even more dynamic.
The thing I don't like to see is how much damage enemies seem to just absorb from your gunshots, and it's here that I start to wonder if the loot treadmill is just incompatible with the fantasy of a superhero game. The Arkham games work as Batman power fantasies because they let you stalk your enemies, plan out your takedowns, and slowly execute those plans as the thugs you're eliminating grow more and more frightened. Marvel's Spider-Man is great because it gives you the feeling of just barely maintaining control as you careen through fights and web-swinging, just like Peter Parker himself.
Those types of experiences fundamentally do not work if you've got to grind out gear levels. Everything's balanced around that grind - you need higher level gear to have any hope of fighting enemies that keep getting progressively larger health bars. When I start to imagine the sort of experience I'd want out of a Suicide Squad game, it's not one where King Shark stops mid-fight to say, 'Sorry, gotta go grind for some loot for a few levels because my gun's not good enough for this boss.'
By design, a live-service game has to eat up your time and offer reasons to keep coming back again and again. Most players only have space for one - or perhaps a small handful - of these games in their lives. I don't need a new game to replace my regular time in Final Fantasy 14 or Fortnite. The superhero games I've loved just let me go be a character I like for a few dozen hours and enjoy the story that unfolds. That's why Batman and Spider-Man worked for me, and why Avengers and Gotham Knights did not.
At one point during the dev commentary video (opens in new tab) from State of Play, Suicide Squad's lead UI artist Helen Kaur says: "If you like story games, if you like RPG elements, if you like co-op games, if you like customizing your characters, if you want to play as a badass, this game kind of has it all." For me, there are enough games out there that have it all. Suicide Squad still hasn't shown me the one exciting thing it does well compared to everything that's come before.
I hope I'm wrong about Suicide Squad, but competition among the best superhero games is getting fierce.