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PS2/Xbox/X360 Review - 'Superman Returns: The Video Game'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 6, 2006 @ 1:32 a.m. PST

In Superman Returns: The Video Game, you explore and protect the truly living city of Metropolis, one that is not only expansive (with 80 sq miles and over 9,000 buildings), but also changes dynamically with you as you affect gameplay.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: November 20, 2006

If there's one franchise that hasn't translated well into video games, it is Superman. The iconic hero just doesn't have any luck, from the abominable early Nintendo Superman title to Superman 64, widely considered to be among one of the worst games of all time. Even the recent offerings for the Playstation 2 and Xbox have been sub-par at best. Superman has been cursed by a mix of titles that both fail at being good games and evoking the feeling of "being" Superman. While Superman Returns may not be the greatest game in the world, it does a fantastic job of evoking the feeling of being Superman.

Superman Returns is loosely based on the movie which was released this past summer. After hearing a rumor that his home world of Krypton may not have been destroyed, Superman leaves Earth on a five-year trip to discover the true fate of Krypton. However, his trip is fruitless, and he returns home to a world that has advanced without him. Lex Luthor, his greatest villain, is free and has a plot to use Superman's own Kryptonian technology against him. The big change to the game's plot comes from the addition of villains who didn't appear in the movie. For example, on his way back from Krypton, Superman's ship is captured by Mongol, the emperor of Warworld and forced into a deadly Gladiator fight. Likewise, once he returns home, he has to deal with the likes of Bizzaro and Metallo while Luthor's plan plays out in the background. The appearance of these famous comic villains allows Superman to have adventures not seen in the film.

Unlike the other Superman titles, Superman Returns is a sandbox game in the vein of Spider-Man 2 or The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. The entire town of Metropolis is rendered in insane detail, from the iconic Daily Planet all the way to the parody "Planet Krypton" diner. You can fly so high that the entire city is ant-sized or down to each individual pedestrian on the street. The most important aspect of the city is not its size, however. As is well known, Superman is, if not invincible, very close. Most Superman games simply ignore this, but Superman Returns features a very interesting take on it: Superman is invincible, but the city he defends is not. Rather than a classic "health bar," the city of Metropolis' damage is measured on a meter. As super-villains attack, the city begins to take damage. Injured people and damaged cars may take small chunks off the rather substantial health bar, but exploding gas stations or a super-sized criminal knocking down an entire building can quickly drain the bar. When it hits bottom, the city has sustained critical damage, and the game is over. Luckily, Superman can regenerate the city's health in a few ways. Rescuing citizens in peril or putting out fires can regenerate a small amount of health, and stopping a criminal restores a large amount.

With the notable exception of X-Ray Vision, all of Superman's abilities are rendered in some fashion in the game. The Right Bumper is designed as the "Super Speed" button. When flying or on ground, pressing RB incredibly boosts Superman's forward momentum. When flying, if Superman continues using Super Speed for a long period of time, he will continue to go faster and faster until the city is nothing but a blur beneath him. Heat Vision allows Superman to attack foes from a distance with focused beams of heat from his eyes. His primary ranged attack, Heat Vision is very useful for doing pure damage to foes, although naturally, heat-based foes are immune to this attack. Super Breath allows Superman to use his impressive lung power to blow foes amazing distances. Regular Super Breath can blow enemies into the air to set up for combos, or just to get them away from the city, while Burst Super Breath can launch an enemy so fast that not even Superman's impressive speed can easily catch up to them. Ice Breath is a modified version of Super Breath, which allows Superman to freeze enemies in place, leaving them vulnerable to a quick punch or just keeping them stunned for a moment. Each of these distance attacks comes in handy during the game, with some enemies being more vulnerable to one kind of vision or breath than another.

Of course, the ability you'll be using most often is Superman's amazing Super Strength. The city of Metropolis is under constant assault from the forces of evil, and Superman is the only one who can stop them. While the rest of his amazing powers can aid him in this, sometimes it comes down to good old fisticuffs. While Superman's combat ability starts out fairly impressive, he'll learn new and more powerful moves as the game advances, and his Strength will increase further, allowing him to do more damage. Furthermore, Superman's other abilities can be combined with his melee attacks to perform impressive combos. With careful practice, Superman can blast an enemy into the air with Super Breath, fly up and ram them with Super Speed, and then knock them into the ground in one smooth motion. While the targeting system is a bit wonky, it isn't anything to particularly detract from the gameplay.

One fairly significant area where Superman Returns does fail is in the enemies. While fighting Bizzaro or stopping a tornado is a lot of fun, most of the gameplay is made up by fighting the same few enemies over and over. These enemies have their own weaknesses, and once you discover them, combat quickly becomes a tedious experience, since the weaker enemies usually don't have the health to stand up to an impressive combo. Each plot battle is book-ended by countless numbers of these "filler" fights, making the game's short playtime occasionally feel too long. This evens out a bit later, when there are a greater number of different possible scenarios to encounter, but for the most part, players will quickly grow tired of punching the same robots and dragons over and over.

Be warned: Superman Returns is very short. Most players will probably finish it in four to five hours of solid playing, with about two more hours tacked on for the various side-quests, which are fun but not very in-depth. To make matters worse, a good percentage of these hours are made up by the same tedious and annoying enemy fights. While the boss fights and natural disasters are a lot of fun to deal with, they are the minority among the countless swarms of robots and dragons. Fast Flier missions have Superman racing through a set area of the city in an attempt to get the fastest time, while Bizzaro missions have him transformed by magic into his evil clone, and he must rampage through the city to score a certain number of points before time runs out. After completing those side-quests, all that really remains is finding the hidden kittens scattered throughout the city. For a $60 game, this is just too little gameplay for too much cost, no matter how fun flying might be.

Superman Returns is yet another of the multi-generation ports coming out on both older and next-generation systems, and it shows. While the graphics are not hideous, it's clear that a lot of elements were dumbed down to make the game easier to port to all systems. All of the textures look a bit simplistic, the "reflections" on the buildings don't match anything around them, and the character models are repeated ad-nauseum. Most of the graphical effects (especially the tornados) are quite good, but not quite enough to make the graphics a real selling point by any means. Flying at top speed through the city of Metropolis meets with no slowdown and gives a real sense of speed and power that few games could match.

The theme song to the Superman movies is a classic, and much of the other music is similarly iconic to the Man of Steel. Sadly, none of it is to be found here. While snippets of similar-sounding music is present, the music is mostly cookie-cutter and not particularly great, although it matches the feeling of the scenes well enough. The voice-acting, on the other hand, is just bland and dull. Even with the movie actors returning, most of them sound unsure of themselves, and the quotes sound forced and out of place. With music being such a memorable part of the "Superman" movie experience, it's a real shame that it comes off so second-rate in Superman Returns.

As a game that manages to encapsulate the feeling of being Superman, Superman Returns does an excellent job. As an enjoyable title, it doesn't quite succeed as well. Far too short, with too few extra unlockables and a hefty $60 price tag, Superman Returns is a rental at best. Speaking as a Superman fan myself, I don't regret playing the game, but I would regret buying it. If you're willing to sit through the repetitive filler missions, however, there is fun to be had.

Score: 6.0/10

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