Many speculate there’s such a thing as the “Superman Curse” that has plagued the films, television shows, and the perhaps even the video games for many decades. If we were to look at previous Superman titles we would find that many, if not all, have been ill-received and distraught with mediocrity. When Warner Bros. Studios decided they would revitalize the film franchise in came Electronic Arts stepping up to the plate to break the tradition of awful Superman titles. Has EA Tiburon broken the “Superman Curse”, or is Superman Returns another victim?
While the game bears the name of the Superman Returns film released in the summer of 2006, the actual game’s storyline and content is far from that of the film. EA Tiburon has used the Superman license to dig through decades of comic-book history to implement a wealth of super villains and minions for the Man of Steel to face against. The story begins with a meteor shower raining down on the citizens of Metropolis and with the help of his father, Jor-El, Superman will learn to use his powers to save the city from annihilation. Upon stopping the destruction, Superman will leave Earth to visit what scientists believe is the final remains of Krypton, leaving the world (and his love, Lois) without Superman. After years have gone by, Superman has found nothing left of his home planet and begins traveling back down to Earth. On his way, he is captured by Mongul, a tyrannical leader of Warworld. Mongul forces him to battle against some of his most challenging gladiators, Plahtune and Overkhast (two fictional villains from EA), in Warworld’s arena. Following his battle against Mongul’s gladiators, Superman escapes back to Earth. The story plummets downhill within the first 45 minutes.
What I’ve just presented as the beginning of the story, is as much as you’ll find in terms of the narrative in Superman Returns. The game’s biggest disappointment, considering the wealth of great villains and rich storylines in Superman’s comic-book history. From here on out, the bulk of the game will center on random crimes that will pop up across the sprawling Metropolis. Kal-El will use his super hearing ability to hear and locate crimes as the happen but when multiple events do take place across the city you really are never given a choice. By engaging in any one of these random crimes you lose out on the others that have popped up. This kind of structure destroys any choice players had in the sandbox environment Tiburon created. We never know if one crime is more important than the other. It matters very little when you come to the realization that almost every Metro-event is identical. For the first half of the game, players will battle hordes of Metallo’s robot minions and each event you find will include a random amount and type of robot to face off against. This can become extremely monotonous. Once in a while the game will throw at you a building that is on fire that you must extinguish with the use of your super breath, freeze breath, or the environment to aid you, but other than that the game is severely limited in terms of events. In fact, there are times when you can fly through the whole city without finding a single thing to do.
The game ultimately becomes a chore to finish each chapter so that you can move on to the next type of enemy. The battles between Superman and the robot hordes will eventually lead to a large battle against Metallo, who has garnered enough power to dwarf skyscrapers within the city. Eventually the game unleashes experiments from Project Cadmus which will add variety to the enemy types you face off against, but this is far too late into the game. I had reached 55% completion (with 3 hours of gameplay) when I began seeing something other than robots and if gamers do make it through the first half of the game without throwing the dvd out the window, I will applaud them. These escapees from Cadmus Labs include Bizarro, lizard-like creatures, and two different types of dragons. Their identities and existence in Metropolis are never explained to the player. If you don’t know who Bizarro, Cadmus, Metallo, Mongul, or any other villain in the game are, you’re screwed. This may destroy immersion for some players who are not in touch with the comics or other media versions of the characters.
If you grow tiresome of fighting the same annoying robots and Cadmus experiments over and over, there are a few mini-games and kittens (to rescue) littered throughout Metropolis streets. These mini-games are with Mr. Mxyzptlk, a devious imp from another dimension. Mxy will challenge you to races across Metropolis which are satisfying but are poorly implemented into the game. Once you fail to win, you are not given an option to restart unless you fly back to the Mxy cloud yourself. There’s no way to tell if you’ve completed these missions or if the cloud you are about to go to is a different game. The game does track your statistics in the pause menu but only displays the best times for each mini-game. Aside from the racing mini-games, Mxy also has a few games placed near Superman statues across Metropolis. These games allow you to play the role of Bizarro and save the citizens of Metropolis by destroying their city. For those that love to wreak havoc on the weak, this is a great alternative to fighting crime. The sandbox environment is put to good use with Bizarro, but you are given a limited time before the mini-game ends. From what I hear, EA will be releasing a code on the upcoming Superman Returns DVD to play as Bizarro whenever you’d like, for however long you want. This could be a nice distraction if you happen to enjoy the game enough, not everyone will.
Interspersed between every few chapters are cutscenes that will present a side story that brews in Metropolis. A majority of these cutscenes include Lex Luthor and Lois Lane (both voiced by their film counterparts) acting out watered-down scenes from the feature film. It seems strange that EA put so little time into grounding the film characters into the game, they only exist in cutscenes that do not involve Superman’s adventure, at least not until the disappointing final confrontation. I will not spoil this final battle, but if you do make it through the “extensive” 6 hour game you will find yourself up against Nature’s wrath.
The Man of Steel
When much of the game surrounds the battles between Superman and rampant villains, one would hope that the melee combat engine makes the battles worth pursuing. Unfortunately, the combat system is about as poorly done as the rest of the game. With a wealth of combo attacks, there’s plenty to work with against the robots and experiments, but with a dodgy camera and poor collision detection, it can become a nightmare. You will often find yourself punching both a civilian and an enemy at once if they’re nearby each other and Superman’s grab attacks have perhaps the worst collision detection, sometimes causing you to miss an enemy or lift a nearby car rather than the distressed citizen on the ground.
It’s not all bad though. There are a few things EA Tiburon does right with Superman. The last son of Krypton is equipped from the start with all of his powers intact; flight, speed, super strength, heat vision, super breath, freeze breath, and super hearing. All of which have been implemented to superbly. As you progress through the game, most of these powers will enhance and alone become a force to be reckoned with. At its best, heat vision can put a whole street in flames in a single fell swoop. This is perhaps the best recreation of Superman and his powers in any game thus far. It’s a treat to be able to fly through the massive city at several hundred miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier. Unfortunately though, this is the game’s only redeeming quality and it’s not enough to warrant the purchase at all.
Metropolis in the comic-books has never had its own unique identity, unlike say Gotham City, for this reason it is hard to say if the city is accurate but what Tiburon has laid out is perhaps one of the only achievements I can attribute them from this mess. It is truly a sight to see when you hover as the Man of Steel above the city. The draw distance is one of the best on the console at this moment and may rival even The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The character models for both Superman and his villains are all above average, lighting is used to give them a cell-shaded appearance that can look impressive at times. Textures around the city are a mixed bag, at points they look acceptable especially on the buildings in the hyper sector of Metropolis, but there are areas – such as the rocky hills around Metropolis that look incredibly poor. As for the citizens of the city, they fall short of average, lacking detail and leaving much to be desired. The same can be said of the vehicles and other objects laid throughout the city. All of these are presented with decent animations marred by collision detection.
The cutscenes littering the game don’t impress me at all, they come across far too cartoonish in comparison to the visuals of the real-time game and look like EA cut some corners in terms of quality. They often cut in with no transition making for poor presentation for a video game based on a movie that raises the bar in that department. Some could argue that the graphics are not completely tailored to the Xbox 360, and they may be right, but considering the scope of Metropolis I would still say EA has done a decent job bringing the city to life. It would have been nice to see a bit more variety in terms of building design but what is here works well enough. This is easily the best looking Superman game to date, if that says much at all.
Much like the graphics department, the audio of Superman Returns is run-of-the-mill. The biggest blow to the sound of the game is the lack of the John Williams Superman theme. EA Tiburon apparently could not afford the price to license the amazing score for the game and decided to take the cost effective route of creating their own unique soundtrack to the game. What results are hours of unimpressive heroic themes that do not hold a candle to the effectiveness of the movie’s soundtrack.
The sound effects are all well done at least. Sounds are skewed by elevation which works well for the game and all the explosions, punching, and other effects sound as expected. And then there’s the voice over work which is only passable at best. Brandon Routh (Superman) will tire you with his one liners and the likes of Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), and Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen) are only seen in the few cutscenes. As for the voices of the villains, each of them comes off as uninspired. Uninspired is perhaps the best way to describe the overall tone of Superman Returns audio.
When it comes down to it, the meat of the game is Superman’s adventure and is exactly where EA drops the ball. Players will have no choice as to what events they will participate in, the game will move on in a linear fashion and Superman himself will never interact with Lex Luthor or even Lois Lane, which could have made for some interesting gameplay moments. I for one would have enjoyed having to save Lois Lane from disasters across Metropolis or even fight crimes more varied than a bunch of robots or experiments. A plane tumbling to the earth’s surface maybe? How about a regular bank robbery, or even fighting off alien warships from attacking Metropolis. These are just ideas off the top of my head that could have made for more memorable moments in Superman Returns the video game. EA has barely scratched the surface as to the potential of a Superman game. Perhaps, if they had spent more time working on story mode rather than focusing a majority of their time and expenses on flight and the size of Metropolis. Yea, there’s an incredible, lush environment for Superman to engage in, but it is completely barren when it comes to crime for him to face off against. In Superman Returns, Kal-El’s greatest villain is boredom. The curse lives on.
Final Score: 4/10 - Poor (how do we rank games?)