Version tested: Xbox 360
Sega's previous ventures into the Marvel movie universe have been grim experiences. Both Iron Man and Thor were defeated by clumsy control maps, uninspired gameplay and a generally cheap and hurried feel. Now it's fellow Avenger Captain America's turn to step up to the joypad. The result doesn't tip the balance for Sega's superhero sideline, but it does give it a good shove in the right direction.
A large part of this small victory is down to one simple decision on the part of developer Next Level Games: they've picked the best template. Super Soldier is so blatantly inspired by Batman: Arkham Asylum (with a dash of Prince of Persia for good measure) that the game almost can't help being lifted above its wretched peers.
Where Batman was free to roam backwards and forwards, Metroid-style, through Arkham's gloomy halls and foreboding exteriors, so Cap is able to pass freely between areas as he explores the castle of Baron Zemo. Batman had a system of caves and tunnels that allowed him to quickly return to previously explored locations; Cap uses an interconnecting sewer map.
And just as Batman could slip into Detective Vision to survey his surroundings, so Cap uses his military genius to provide Tactical Vision, highlighting the bars, ladders and ledges he can use to springboard his way around the level.
The combat is even more blatant, a simple yet strategic brawling system that allows you to take on groups of enemies, from simple grunts to snipers and armoured monstrosities, with intuitive flurries of kicks, somersaults and bone-jarring special moves. You direct Cap's attention using the right stick, while quick jabs of face and shoulder buttons select the type of attack you want.
It's never as fluid or muscular as Batman, but it's a very close facsimile and the hand-to-hand fighting is the game's best feature as a result. Cap's iconic shield is used intelligently, able to deflect bullets back to their source and protect against area attacks while also clonking foes in the face for a knockout blow or pinballing from enemy to enemy after a quick throw. It's incredibly effective, but not to the extent that it unbalances the game. You'll use it a lot, and enjoy it every time you do, but you can't use it as a crutch in every encounter.
It's in the bruising two-fisted fighting that the game really stands out from the drab action of Iron Man and Thor. The sight of Captain America springing backwards before taking out steampunk Hydra stormtroopers with well-placed roundhouse kicks, then lunging back again with a slow-motion shield strike to the head of some hulking flamethrower-sporting beast, is pure comic book joy. This is how a Captain America game should look, and while the game as a whole only finds this pulse occasionally, the fact that it even has a pulse is cause for minor celebration from Marvel fans despairing of Sega's stewardship of the videogame series.
Platforming and exploration are less successful. Cap's agility outside of combat takes a serious hit, and he's unable to duck or jump in any meaningful manner while wandering around. This means that the sporadic acrobatic sections are reduced to a single-button version of Prince of Persia's parkour runs. You stand in the highlighted area, then press the A button whenever Cap hits the next landing point. There's no way to miss, no way to fall off and the game won't even let you turn around or drop for most of the time. It's thin to the point of anorexia - gameplay that barely even counts as such.
The game has greater failings than nursery-level platforming, however. This is frequently a laughably cheap-looking game, full of jerky animation, lifeless scenery and plastic character models. The physics are hilariously goofy, with items clattering and flying around as if Cap is being followed by poltergeists. One memorable example of the bargain basement production comes right at the start, as Cap is flying in a transport plane to the castle. Look out of the windows and you'll see that the mountains outside aren't even moving.
Navigation is confusing, and has no on-screen markers or directions, so negotiating some of the more maze-like sections becomes a chore of dipping in and out of the map to reorient yourself. All too often, you'll come up against a dead end where you're left to wander a claustrophobic area, looking for the solitary point where you need to stand to move forwards. Cap can jump down from some places but not others, climb atop some surfaces but not ones of identical height and construction. It's a peculiarly old-fashioned piece of game design in some ways, harking back to the early days of 3D gaming, where invisible walls and illogical barriers were considered a good way to keep players on course.
And yet somehow, like its comic book counterpart, Captain America manages to overcome its weaknesses. The game certainly isn't reborn as a perfect physical specimen, but it's clear that Next Level has tried to do something more ambitious than just cough out another plodding movie tie-in.
As the single-player campaign ticks along, it tells its story confidently and at a satisfying pace. Boss battles resist the obvious 'hit the glowing weak spots' pattern repetition and instead rely on the same combat skills you've been honing, rewarding timing and strategy rather than rote call-and-response mechanics. The collectibles are numerous, but well placed so that you don't have to search too hard to find them. The important ones are even marked on the map, so the challenge becomes a question of reaching them, not simply scouring every corner.
And the things you unlock are often worthwhile. Audio logs and concept art are bland, predictable padding, but a series of standalone challenges (again, a direct lift from Arkham Asylum) give the game some longevity, and bonus costumes (classic comic book and Ultimates variations) confer status effects which make them useful for more than cosmetic reasons.
In the end, it seems that time is Cap's greatest enemy. He's fallen victim to the vicious circle of movie tie-ins. Without a blockbuster movie, it's doubtful there'd even be a Captain America game. Yet if it didn't need to be rushed onto the shelves to meet a cinema release date, the game could have been so much better. There's a sense that with another six months, Next Level could have polished things up and delivered a Captain America game that really delivers on his videogame potential.
But at least this game does have potential, unlike Iron Man and Thor, and if you can make your peace with its clunkier aspects then it's a passably enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Certainly not the sort of recommendation that should send you running to the shops for a full-price purchase, but as a rental or bargain bin gamble it puts it ahead of the pack, where most superhero movie games are concerned.
5 / 10