Version tested: Xbox 360
They say that one of the signs of insanity is to keep repeating the same futile task, expecting the outcome to be different. I'm worried what this says about my mental state as, despite years of experience to the contrary, I still get my hopes up for each new movie tie-in. Especially superhero movie tie-ins. Maybe this will be the one, says the little voice in my head. Maybe this will be a great game and a great use of the character. This time. Maybe.
Iron Man, an abysmally implemented spin-off from the highly enjoyable movie, is just the latest game to crush my na´ve hopes into so much twisted metal.
As always, the story of the game takes the bare bones of the source material and then replaces all those bits where people talk, and develop character and plot, with more shooting and blowing up and shooting. In this case our hero is ultra-rich industrialist Tony Stark, whose capture by Afghan rebels makes him change his mind about using his engineering genius to produce instruments of death. Instead he creates...well, an instrument of death. But this one is a really cool flying mechanical suit, and he uses it to destroy the other instruments of death he made, so it's sort of okay.
Here's where the gameplay comes in. After a perfunctory couple of training levels which rattle through the clunky Mark I suit in Afghanistan and the silver Mark II at Stark Industries, you're off in the familiar red and gold Mark III armour on your crusade to rid the world of the weapons you created. The game uses long-standing Marvel foes A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and organised crime network Maggia to elongate this process, each of them providing a near endless stream of tanks and helicopters to blow to bits with Stark's arsenal.
To aid in this destructive quest your armour comes equipped with repulsor rays, a secondary explosive weapon, and the powerful chest-mounted unibeam. Meeting certain objectives in each level earns you more money with which to upgrade the different aspects of your armour, although the effects are mostly negligible and the different upgrade abilities only unlock at set points in the game. Isn't Stark supposed to be a billionaire genius? I'm pretty sure he could buy or build whatever upgrades he wanted, whenever he needed them. But then, that wouldn't fit into the linear videogame template and this clearly isn't a game with fresh thinking in mind.
To begin with, and as anyone who tried the demo will attest, it's the controls that make Iron Man a singularly unpleasant experience. You spend much of your time in the air, but the game seems to go out of its way to make movement in this space an incomprehensible fiddle. The left trigger makes you hover, but pressing it all the way down simply sends you rising inexorably into the sky. You need to press it halfway to actually maintain a steady height, an arbitrary distinction which takes some time to master. There's no way to control your descent, so you have to let go, freefall and hover again when you think you've reached the perfect height.
Forward motion is even worse, with Iron Man's speed a strictly binary choice between a complete standstill and rocketing forwards. Simply navigating the levels becomes a chore, as you ping-pong wildly off the scenery, drift upwards or tumble down as you try to keep enemies in your sights. I actually found myself wistfully pining for Superman Returns, a dreadful bland little runt of a game that at least managed to get the flying part right by making it immediate and simple. Eventually, after four or five levels, you do reach a sort of grudging truce with Iron Man's controls and find a compromise that at least allows you to move about with some sort of accuracy.
Fighting, then. The right trigger handles your repulsor rays, but if you want to aim freely, you need to - yes - hold the trigger halfway. Pull it all the way and Iron Man automatically locks on to whatever is in sight and starts shooting at it. Once it blows up, he locks on to the next enemy. This means that it's quite possible to be shooting at something you're not even facing, and unlike the stupidly complex movement it renders the combat element ludicrously simplistic. Your repulsors are powerful enough to destroy pretty much everything in a few shots, even before you upgrade them, so all those additional combat options - rockets, grapples, unibeam - are left to gather dust.
The only time they prove vaguely useful is when the inevitable boss fights occur, at which point the repulsor blasts which were slicing through heavy tanks mere moments ago suddenly fail to make much more than a scratch on a slightly larger vehicle just because it's the boss and that's what boss fights are like. Even then, perseverance rather than skill wins the day.
So movement is horribly complicated and combat is laughably simplistic. It's a desperate combination of frustration and boredom, and by the time the game forces you to careen around the outside of a giant nuclear reactor, destroying waves of gunships before they cause damage, while also flying through small rings to protect the reactor from a constant onslaught of missiles...well, it's just not fun. At all. The only additional content takes the form of One Man Army, a series of simplistic arena battles in which you have to destroy 80 enemies within ten minutes. Doing so unlocks different Iron Man suits from the comics, but as these can't be upgraded and can only be used in yet more arena battles or to replay old levels, there's not much reason to bother.
Iron Man himself looks decent enough, if stricken by that weird luminescence that lazy developers slap all over metal objects these days, but the rest of the visuals are of a consistently shoddy quality. The cut-scenes are routinely awful, spoiling Robert Downey Jr's wry voiceover with a Tony Stark character model that looks more like a tribute to Jeremy Beadle constructed from papier mache and balloons. Levels are large but entirely featureless, while the generic enemies all bear the low-detail appearance of cheap assets designed to be used across all formats. Animation is rudimentary, and especially poor should you try battling on the ground. According to the loading screens, the game allegedly uses the Havok physics engine, though I have no idea where. Cars parked on streets are glued to the floor and the only things you can destroy - enemy vehicles - all explode in exactly the same way. When even the most hurried superhero games can at least offer a certain amount of scenery destruction, this fake unmoving gameworld feels outrageously cheap.
And so rather than allowing you to feel like an armoured avenger, Iron Man's videogame outing merely offers the chance to lurch awkwardly around the sky like a drunken wasp while holding down a button to blow stuff up. The idea that people might turn to this ham-fisted misfire in order to relive the boundless fun of the movie is quite depressing. What's the next big movie game? Hulk? Hey, maybe that'll be good...
3 / 10