Version tested: Xbox 360
I call them Mysterio Moments, after that notorious mission in the Spider-Man 2 game where you had to scale the Statue of Liberty by swinging from hovering pods: moments where flaws that you'd previously tolerated suddenly combine and suck whatever fun remains out of the experience. And, when the game in question is based on blockbuster movies, that fun is usually already in short supply.
While the latest Fantastic Four game, which predictably takes the form of a four-way smash-'em-up, never quite scales the depths of teeth-grinding horror of the original Mysterio Moment (or indeed the wretched Spider-Man 3 - a game that seems to consist solely of Mysterio Moments) there are still several points where you find yourself wondering just how much playtesting it received.
The first and most annoying comes as the cosmic-powered quartet explore the space station of Soviet scientist Ivan Kragoff. In one of many examples of narrative padding to expand the action potential of the new movie, Kragoff's research may hold the key to tracking the Silver Surfer, a mysterious alien entity plaguing the planet with freak weather conditions and unnatural shininess. Kragoff, it should be pointed out, is also the Red Ghost, a classic Silver Age villain who commands an army of super-powered monkeys. This brings us the wonderful sight of The Thing fighting a rifle-wielding chimp by throwing turnips at it.
But that's beside the point. At one point in this level, Mr Fantastic has to go it alone when a door won't open fully. He squeezes through the gap and must stretch and bend his way past moving security beams, deactivating gun turrets and fighting monkeys, to reunite with his team-mates. All goes well, until you reach a dead end. An elevator takes you down and almost directly in front of you is a red laser fence that inflicts damage when touched. It's too high to jump or stretch over, and there are no obvious switches or junction boxes with which to deactivate it. After about twelve attempts to pass this obstacle, during which I played the same sections over and over, scouring every inch of the level for an answer, I realised what was needed.
On the floor above are several crates. Mr Fantastic can't pick them up - only The Thing has that ability - but by jiggling him near the end of a crate I was able to clumsily shunt a crate over the edge and use it to give me the necessary height to vault over the lasers. Why wasn't I able to do this before? Because the crates are fragile - in fact they contain vital health - and each previous attempt had resulted in them being shattered, leaving me with no way of proceeding.
Indeed, as the thrust of the gameplay revolves around all four characters repeatedly punching enemies, most of the moments where the game stumbles involve the occasional solo missions where one of the heroes is confronted with a convenient task that only they can perform. The Human Torch takes part in some achingly slow chase levels with the Silver Surfer. The Invisible Woman tackles - you guessed it - some stealthy sneaking around a military base. And The Thing...well, it's a melee combat game. The developer obviously realised everyone would be playing as The Thing for the rest of the game anyway, so he just gets a very brief brawl against rock monsters.
For the rest of the time, all four characters run around together, and you switch between them with the d-pad. Energy and health appear around a small icon of each character, and powers are activated by holding the right trigger and pressing the appropriate face button. So, yes, it's pretty much identical in control to Marvel Ultimate Alliance. To be fair, it is a system for team-based superheroics with a proven track record, but by so blatantly calling to mind a superior game this effort does itself no favours. Not only does Ultimate Alliance already boast the same characters - from the main heroes to Doctor Doom and the Silver Surfer - but it also injects more depth and longevity into its dungeon-crawling melee action.
Where Rise of the Silver Surfer attempts to stand out is in the use of Fusion Attacks. When characters are nearby, you can hold the left trigger and unleash a team-up assault by combining powers. The combinations soon wear thin though, and the attacks themselves aren't much more powerful than if you'd simply unleashed them separately. It's a nice enough idea, though hardly revolutionary, but it feels under developed. You can only ever combine two heroes, for instance. There's no ultimate attack where all four can work together.
What's especially weird is that this is a superhero game that doesn't like letting you be a superhero. Even when levelled up to the max, your energy runs out at a ridiculous rate, forcing you to fall back on punch, punch, punch while it refills. The Invisible Woman, for example, can remain invisible for 15 seconds at her highest level. Human Torch can fly for about the same amount of time. The Thing can use his ground-pounding Shockwave attack nine times before his tank runs dry - and as this is the only move you really need to finish most of the levels, it's sadly obvious why such restrictions have been placed on your powers.
This means that the gameplay falls into an uninspiring routine of POWER! POWER! POWER! WAIT! WAIT! WAIT! POWER! POWER! POWER! Health runs out equally quickly, with even the super-tough Thing able to be stopped in his tracks by one laser blast or knocked on his arse by the smallest foe. Not that this matters, since it's virtually impossible to actually die. Run out of health and you switch to another character. Defeated characters revive in about ten seconds (yes, really) and then you just switch back and carry on smashing. This makes the sporadic boss fights particularly easy, since all you need to do is use The Thing until he keels over, swap to Human Torch, fly around evading the enemy for a few seconds, then return to The Thing for renewed clobbering. The game only ends if you're stupid enough to let all four characters "die" at the same time and this is practically impossible to do. Believe me, I actually tried to deliberately kill all four characters and only managed it once.
All told, the occasional Mysterio Moment dead end aside, the game's seventeen sections should take most averagely skilled gamers an afternoon to plough through, at most, and it ends on a shockingly anti-climactic note that I really hope hasn't been taken from the movie. As with any relentless and shallow beat-'em-up, it's more fun as a co-op experience - but you can only play with real live people, with Xbox Live people curiously absent. Elsewhere, even Achievement whores hoping for a rental that will easily boost their total are destined for disappointment. The tasks required to clock up the points are far from difficult, but they do require enough patience to play through the game multiple times, levelling up all the characters and collecting all the secret tokens.
Like most based-on-a-movie titles, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer isn't technically a terrible game. Everything works pretty much as it should - the controls and camera rarely freak out and leave you confused and defenceless - but it's just utterly uninspired and devoid of life. Then again, it's based on typically generic Hollywood output, so perhaps it's foolish to expect anything else.
5 / 10