Superman Returns

December 26, 2006

Pity the Man of Steel. While most of his popular metahuman colleagues have appeared in at least one decent game by now, Superman, arguably the greatest superhero of all, has been stuck in clunker after clunker. Now comes Superman Returns, which… doesn’t break the curse. It’s not nearly as bad as the notoriously awful Superman 64, but it’s yet another chunk of kryptonite plaguing his video game career.Superman Returns is supposedly based on the movie, and a few CGI cutscenes recreate a few of the flick’s sequences. But that’s it. No controllable slugfests with Lex Luthor and his goons, no nail-biting Lois Lane rescues, nothing. These scenes are just pointless digressions from the actual events of the game, in which baddies not in the movie such as Mongul, Metallo and Bizarro randomly show up and give less motivation for their hatred than a sub-par pro wrestling rant. Conversations with supervillians almost literally unfold like this:

Supervillian: I’m going to pummel you, Superman!
Superman: Not if I pummel you first!
(Pummeling commences)

The “plot” is voiced by Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh, but Routh sounds about as enthusiastic as a guy filing his taxes. With clunky lines like “go back to wherever it is you came from,” who can blame him?

At least Supes has most of his powers. He soars high above Metropolis, dashes through the streets at lightning speed, picks up and hoists the heaviest of objects and blasts things with heat vision. He even has the ever-cheesy super-breath, though it’s only used to blow out fires and fight a tornado. (Yes, one of the boss fights is against a tornado.) For a few minutes, flight and super-speed can be downright exhilarating. But once you slow down or land, you’ll be struck by how featureless and boxy the city looks.

That’s just the start of the problems. Like recent Spider-Man or Hulk games, you roam an open-ended environment and undertake missions. But you won’t know where missions are triggered until you wander in their general area, and if you get too close to one it starts automatically, whether you want to undertake it or not. Most missions boil down to pummeling some brain-dead enemies, blowing out the occasional fire, or challenging the surprisingly unimaginative Mr. Mxyzptlk to races around the city. What’s worse, you’ll have to finish a sizeable number of sub-missions before you’re allowed to save. Screw up once and it’s back to the very beginning of the chapter.

Not that Supes is in any danger of croaking, since kryptonite isn’t exactly available at your local Kwick-e-Mart. No, Metropolis itself serves as a life bar. Should the city take too much damage, our hero goes into a game-ending super-depression, possibly crushed by the thought of all those impending property damage lawsuits. Yes, you can accidentally speed up your own “death” by cutting lose and hurling a bad guy into a building. Pulling your punches all the time simply isn’t fun. Then again, playing as Bizarro and smashing things isn’t much better, as the overly-complex attack combos (same for him or Superman) aren’t as effective as simply mashing one button.

The list goes on. The camera swings around and often leaves you staring at cracks in the sidewalk, you can only lock onto enemies if they’re already standing in front of you, switching between ranged powers is cumbersome, Superman runs as if he were wearing a full diaper, there’s nothing to do outside of missions other than rescue kittens, etc. Oddly enough, the music sounds quite good, with orchestrated ditties that are downright inspiring. Too bad the rest of the game inspires nothing but an urge to power off your console.

Score: 2/5

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