Developer: 7 Studios
Release Date: June 28, 2005
The Superhero's Burden
Serious superheroes and their fans choose the superhero life for more than web-slinging. Powers are just part of the package. Take away the ambivalence toward their abilities, dark histories to confront, and convergences of wealth and angst (whatever, Batman), and superheroes live as uninterestingly as the rest of us.
But mashing the angst button doesn't an action game make. In a brawler based on a movie based on an established superhero comic series, the cosmic-powered action is where it's at. Navel-gazing is the stuff of cut scenes.
Activision's Fantastic Four for the Nintendo GameCube does indeed grant you license to smash, stretch, get all see-through and flame on. That's not quite as much fun as it sounds, though, as the Four's super powers prove little match for the arch villainy of monotonous combat, squishy controls and humdrum visuals.
How to Weld, Cosmically
Taking the plot of the 2005 film as an organizing device, Fantastic Four lets you play through several movie scenes and additional episodes that have you fighting other Fantastic Four villains. You race to close the space station's shields as a pre-cosmic rayed Ben Grimm to learn the controls, and the fire truck dangling off the bridge helps you understand the value of teamwork. Mole Man lures you underground, where you trounce his minions before collecting meteorites in Diablo's jungle.
An arsenal of Fantastic powers is at your disposal throughout, as you can switch at will among the Thing, the Human Torch, the Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic. The varied enemies, numerous as they are, stand little chance against your spinning fists and walls of flame.
When you do encounter a more formidable foe or group of foes, character-specific super moves help you put them down, assuming you've pulled off enough combos to fill the super meter. It's also perfectly possible to progress through much of Fantastic Four without ever using a super, giving you little reason to bother with learning the tactical advantages of individual combos.
The most compelling reason to master the Heart Punches and Wishbones is to combat the tedium that persistently threatens to sink the action. Beat up a gang in Brooklyn and find your team. Wipe out a museum full of revivified natural history exhibits, then rendezvous with your team. The mission design rarely exceeds that level of inventiveness.
Fantastic Four does go out of its way to contrive situations wherein proper application of a specific character's unique abilities is required to overcome an obstacle. The ultimate battle with Dr. Doom is, fittingly, the most successful of these situations, as the Thing's brute strength and the Human Torch's flame-wrangling play key roles in advancing through the lengthy, multi-stage fight. Other boss battles devolve into chaotic running about and waiting for shields to drop.
Each character has a button-pushing challenge to beat when presented with a pile of rubble to blast through or a security console to hack. Three of the four require nothing more than precision button pressing and speedy stick twirling. Mr. Fantastic's hacking mini-game is the only thing approaching a state of puzzleness, but only in a four-piece jigsaw puzzle kind of way.
It doesn't help that the story creating the context for these actions piles silliness atop the monotony. While super powers undoubtedly have perfectly valid, practical uses in everyday life – and even protecting humanity from supervillains involves a certain amount of mundane grunt work – welding (yes, you will weld in this game) is not the sort of thing that's going to excite a brawler fan.
Story itself, of course, might not interest a brawler fan in the first place. Still, if you are hoping for a narrative that feels anything like a comic book or film, get over that now. Fantastic Four suffers from the shoehorn factor. Blastaar, Dragon Man and several other Fantastic Four nemeses show up here, but pounding one with your elbow-drop feels much like pounding the others. Don't count on characterization to make the encounters any more dramatic, either. These guys are here to fill in the gaps between the movie's plot points.
In the absence of story, building the intensity of the action would have done just as well to create a more satisfying sense of progression. As it is, an easily dispatched plasma worm tries your patience in the final third of the game. Just as the ferocity of combat should be ramping up before the final level, you find yourself wasting cosmic energy slashing through the mutant plant life that's overrun the space station where the cosmic storm started your adventure.
Maybe There Should Be an "I" in "Team"
Controlling the Fantastics is not as responsive an endeavor as you'd hope for in an action game. The three- and four-hit combos, packing the usual area, knock-back and freeze attacks, are just a matter of sequence and timing, but they feel laggy in execution. Adding the cosmic power-activating Z button to the mix complicates things, and it'll take a try or two before you master your powers. The scheme is learnable, but cosmic powers are complex business, and it may be the tiniest bit stressful for an ultra-casual gamer looking for some easy Fantastic Four action.
A flaky camera teaches you the hard way to avoid corners, though it's a difficult lesson to put into practice in the many tight environments. Moving through those spaces also has its frustrations, trying to land on a Four-spot to activate a character-specific ability chief among them. Four-spots demand precision, but that's not the frustrating part. It's that you often have to be in the precisely wrong spot, sometimes with one leg outside the marked circle, to make them work. In timed missions, it's especially irritating to deal with this unnecessary dance.
The destructibility mechanics play out well, meaning enough stuff is breakable enough to make destroying it fun. Vending machines, building-top air conditioning units and potted plants are all fair game for smashing and using as weapons. Bonus objectives often require you to destroy 10 objects here or 20 there, so smashing the Von Doom Industries office furniture even has some reward if you're a completist.
Working together adds an element of strategy to missions including at least two of the four Fantastics. In the single-player campaign, teamwork consists mainly of running to an ally who's grappling an enemy (voiceover lets you know when someone's got a Doombot by the throat) and pounding the X button to land the team combo. You can also project Sue's shields around other characters, use Reed to heal them and perform other assists when your teammates are in dire circumstances.
A multiplayer co-op mode lets you do all this with a friend, too. Frustration trumps team spirit after a few minutes of battling for control of the camera and running up against the limited area of movement imposed by your teammate's position. You may want to try co-op just to get in a few team combos with a human companion, but you're better off being the only one controlling the Four.
Destruction Should Be Pretty
The environment design is varied enough to keep you interested in reaching the next level, but variation, not sweet eye candy, is the only hook. The Tikal jungle is the first level to reveal more vibrant visuals after a few missions in bland Brooklyn streetscapes. With the exception of the psychedelically rendered SHIELD level, though, you're soon back crawling through decorated-by-the-numbers labs and corridors for much of the game.
Character models and animations mostly disappoint with a slight, weightless feel. Reed's stretching is a minor exception, especially when he lands combos and when he's on the receiving end of the pummeling, but he also provides the most embarrassing, quivering-SpaghettiO super move. Sue's shield is an overturned cereal bowl, and Johnny seems caught in a pretend gallop. Everyone's suit looks nearly worn-through on the backside.
Ben's physical presence satisfies most consistently, in part because he's simply more massive than the others. His talent for fashioning weapons out of debris makes for entertaining visual moments, like swinging a pole to knock a Doombot into a vehicle that rocks from the impact, or tossing a car into a group of Yancy Street gangsters. His belly-flop also commands a solid wallop that makes it an easy fallback move, even if it is more for visual appeal than usefulness in combat.
You Are What You Clobber
The decent smashing makes playing as the Thing the final refuge for those intrepid enough to see Fantastic Four through to the end, as Ben is the best-suited both visually and in terms of gameplay to participate profitably in the destruction. Were Fantastic Four able to replicate that experience in Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch, it would be easier to overlook the control issues and repetitive mission structures … and maybe even the welding.
As it stands, in a game about four capable superheroes, you only look forward to playing one of them. Even then, that minor pleasure isn't because of clever game design or entertaining combat. The highest praise due to Fantastic Four is that it occasionally trades with some success on the universal truth that breaking things is fun.
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