After the movie-based Hulk game from a couple of years back proved to be so utterly underwhelming we were slightly puzzled why the world needed another one. All it seemed to prove was that stealth-lite and destructive beat-'em-ups don't mix. And that movie-based games are the root of all gaming evil, at least most of the time.
But far from crumbling under the weight of the critical mauling and moving onto Crazy Frog games, Radical Entertainment has hit back in the way only Bruce Banner could - by making possibly the most crazed, angriest action game ever.
Blessed with a feature-complete preview build, we got to grips with the game's opening chapters and found Ultimate Destruction to be every bit as mindlessly entertaining as we were hoping it would be.
As ever, Bruce Banner - a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk - is on the run. Holed up in a secret country lab, the mild-mannered scientist is trying to find a way to reverse the debilitating effects of the gamma ray mutation that causes him to turn into an angry 12-foot tall giant with green skin every time he stubs his toe or gets called mean names.
Banner suddenly finds himself having to make a sharp exit when spy Emil Blonsky and his armed heavies show up to bag the not-so-jolly green giant's research. Busting his way out of the lab to safety, The Hulk escapes, but manages to expose Blonsky to the mutagens in the process.
Forced to find a new retreat, Banner and his allies decamp to a remote church well outside of the city limits. But as well has having to steal some new equipment from various parts of the city, Banner soon has the newly mutated green skinned Blonsky - a.k.a. The Abomination - to deal with.
While this neatly sums up the opening chapter of Ultimate Destruction, the general premise is a lot simpler: run to point A, bust stuff up, grab objects, bust up enemies, and get the hell over to point B while busting up stuff and enemies. If there's ever been a game featuring more hilariously mindless destruction in it, we haven't played it.
Fortunately, there's a highly promising game in there as well. With over 150 moves to learn and unlock, Radical spends a good deal of the opening portion of the game teaching you the basics. Before long you're bounding over buildings, ripping apart cars and using them as steel gloves, lobbing buses at passing helicopters, using trucks as a boomerang, sprinting up the sides of skyscrapers, using giant girders as makeshift golf clubs and generally pulling off the kinds of totally improbable stunts that come as standard issue with angry superheroes.
As is common these days, Ultimate Destruction favours the sandbox city-based approach of GTA. Starting off, you literally jump into the city from your church hidey-hole, and from there you're free to basically rampage around causing as much chaos as you see fit. Rather like Spider-Man 2, the opening city is a sprawling playground of skyscrapers to run up, smash to pieces and make towering leaps off.
Along the way you'll track down hidden comic books or gameplay hints, while a plethora of largely superfluous race and smash side-missions offer the chance to earn some cash for destruction. But while much has been made of the sandbox structure, the main meat of the game follows a linear arc that provides by far the most entertainment.
Out of the eight or so story missions we've encountered so far, most of them are just as simple to sum up as we said earlier. By way of example, one mission tasks The Hulk with stealing three items of equipment from around the city to enable his research into a cure to get back on track. Doing so is effortlessly simple, but smashing things up and evading the law is where the fun comes in. With so many options at your disposal, one minute you're meting out hugely powerful melee attacks, the next hurling an entire fleet of buses, butt-stomping on entire groups of machine gun-wielding police units or simply charging at high velocity through all-comers. While some games measure their destructive urges and mete them out in high-octane doses during boss battles, Ultimate Destruction increasingly feels like one giant boss battle to end them all.
However, in the early stages none of this is spectacularly challenging, with a generous health system that recharges over time, and loads of heath pick-ups dotted around for when the going gets tough. Naturally, the difficulty ratchets up a fair notch once you hit the end-of-chapter boss, and the early parts of the second chapter suggest that the first is little more than a gentle introduction to allow you to get used to the myriad of combos at your disposal.
Appetite for destruction
Even in the early stages a whole plethora of excitingly destructive moves are available to buy, and the game's not shy at dishing out enough credits to unlock them. By the time the second chapter's underway you'll already have close to 30 moves at your disposal, and with 120 to go you can guess it's the sort of game you'll want to play right through to see just how far The Hulk can go.
On a technical level the preview build suggests that there are a few things that Radical need to polish up before it gets thrust out into the world - nothing major, but when the action gets particularly hectic the game does suffer a few frame rate hitches that could definitely do with smoothing over. On the plus side it's one of the few Xbox titles to support 720 progressive scan (with the PS2 also supporting 480p), and import gamers/the modding scene will be delighted when they see it.
Admittedly, the actual graphics engine is somewhat on the 'standard' side in terms of the general character models and somewhat vanilla texturing, but The Hulk himself is a rippling behemoth of a man mountain, and Radical deserves huge credit for bringing him to life in fantastically brutal style. The vast amount of physics-based destruction and wince-inducing explosions are also worthy of massive applause; not just because they're good from a visual perspective, but because the central gameplay mechanic delivers exactly what is says on the tin. Ultimate Destruction.
From what we've seen so far, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is shaping up to be one of the finest realisations of a superhero game we've seen to date, and we're genuinely looking forward to making further progress through the game. Like a supercharged WWE game on ball-busting steroids, it promises to take the free-roaming beat-'em-up to an exciting new place where smashing things in improbable ways to a ludicrous extent is the norm. A smash hit, if ever we saw one.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is coming to PS2, Xbox and GameCube on September 9th via Vivendi-Universal Games.