Publisher: Eidos/Warner Bros.
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Release Date: October 17, 2006
It's been a long time coming, but if nothing else, Batman and Superman are finally in a good video game. After the travesties that were Superman 64, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, and the almost-there-but-not-quite Batman Begins, DC Comics' top poster boys can finally rest easy knowing that they both have at least one title under their belts that's great on its own merits, Justice League Heroes.
Heroes opens with a mysterious meteor crashing down in a desert on Earth, glowing with what the kind of power that can only be evil. It's pretty reasonable that Brainiac wants a piece of that action, so he goes on his merry super-villainous way to obtain said meteor. From their Watchtower on the moon, the Justice League can tell that something is causing quite a ruckus and sends Supes and Bats to Metropolis to get to the bottom of it all. Now, if you're anything like me, the beginning of the game won't exactly grab you with its "robots run amok" opening level, but it gets better from there on out. In a nutshell, the important thing to remember is that evil is indeed afoot, and the League is on the job.
If you've played any of developer Snowblind Studios' previous offerings like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and the Champions of Norrath series, you'll be familiar with Justice League Heroes's basic gameplay: hack-and-slash action-RPG fare, this time with the appropriate comic book trimmings. Every level has you guiding your heroes around, smashing in bad guy face along the way. Sure, there's the occasional "save x number of civilians" and "destroy x number of y" secondary objectives, but for the most part, your heroes are going to be knee deep in villains. Defeating the various henchmen that Brainiac sends your way will net you experience orbs and items called boosts.
Boosts are a unique way of character customization that can be accessed via the in-game menu screen. Before I discuss boosts any further, I'll give you a quick rundown of the level-up system. Upon reaching a new level, your hero gains the obligatory stats increase in maximum health and energy capacity, combat damage, etc. They're also allotted points, which you can dole out to further increase the damage and effectiveness of their super powers as well as to further power-up their base stats. Spending a point in any of these areas opens up a slot, and it's in the slots that boosts can be equipped. Boosts come in a variety of flavors, such as damage, duration, range, efficiency, etc., and range in quality level from one to seven, with seven being the best. Equipping the boost to the slot of a particular power or stat will have a certain effect that's pretty self-explanatory.
For the early parts of the title, you're going to be swimming in boosts that are only quality level one or two, and your characters won't be able to carry anymore. Luckily, you can combine three boosts to make one new boost, and oftentimes, it will be of a higher quality than you'll find around the current area. By making good use of boosts, you can make your hero stronger in his specified area of expertise (Superman stronger or The Flash faster, for example), or you can try and fill in the gaps in their stats and make them a bit more of a jack-of-all-trades. The choice is yours, helping to put a little customization in your hands.
From the outset of Justice League Heroes, seven characters are available by default: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Zatanna. Each of them has five unique super powers that can be used by pressing the L1 trigger and the corresponding face button or R1 trigger. Hopefully, you have at least a passing familiarity with what sets each League member apart from one another power-wise, as I won't go into too much detail in that area.
I will, however, point out that not all super heroes are created equal in Justice League Heroes. For example, Zatanna is easily the most powerful of the bunch, hands down, simply because she has two of the most effective powers: healing and polymorph. Polymorph is an area of effect attack that turns surrounding enemies into cute, harmless bunny rabbits with half the hit points of their more menacing forms. Needless to say, this can make it easy for Zatanna and her partner to clear rooms with ease. Healing pretty much does what it says and heals both Zatanna and her partner, oftentimes completely for very little energy in return.
Batman didn't come out as great as Zatanna in the powers department, which is really a shame since he's arguably going to be more popular of a choice. He has a pretty underwhelming projectile attack, and most of his other attacks deliver half the results of what other heroes could've done. For example, he has a flashbang attack that stuns his enemies, which is great, but Green Lantern's plasma bolts stun enemies from afar and cause damage, so no thanks. This wouldn't be that big of an issue if the game always let you pick what heroes you were going to use, but thanks no doubt to the cut-scene cinematics, many levels force you to use two pre-selected heroes, which kind of puts a crimp on your play style.
Heroes looks good on the aging PS2 hardware. All of the main character models are well detailed and look like comic book characters should, were they ripped from the pages and thrown into the third dimension. The environments all look quite unique, thanks to the exotic locales the game takes you to: Metropolis, Mars, outer space, and Africa, to name a few. They're all filled with destructible bits and pieces, many of which can be picked up and wielded as weapons (although the larger items, like cars and buses, can only be wielded by heroes with super strength, such as Wonder Woman or Superman). There is some slowdown when there are upwards of five enemies onscreen at once; it isn't debilitating by any means, but still noticeable.
The game's musical score, which consists of rock tunes, fits the pacing of Justice League Heroes perfectly. This is music that you'll actually want to turn up while playing, which honestly surprised me. On the whole, voice work is pretty strong, but Ron Perlman (of "Hellboy" and Halo 2 fame) phones in another performance, this time as the Dark Knight. I understand that Batman is the antithesis of Superman's boy scout-like optimism, but he's sounded the same in every game he's voiced, as near as I can remember. While the voice acting is good, the lines the actors have to read are not. Most every hero has at least one embarrassing one-liner, from Martian Manhunter's "That felt … good" to Superman yelling, "Man of Steel!" in what sounds like a touch of 'roid rage.
I really enjoyed Justice League Heroes, and not just because I'm comic book nerd. No, no, no. The unlockable, stat-altering costumes for all of the characters? Just a fringe benefit. The gameplay is the kind where you can lose yourself for hours at a time or more, if you play cooperatively with a friend. That's where Justice League Heroes shines: its ability to suck you in and make you forget about the real world's ills while you focus on that rampaging robot problem that Metropolis seems to have every Tuesday.
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