Superman Returns

E3: Clark Kent goes next-gen.

This summer will see the return of Superman to the big screen, complete with a new cast, a new storyline and a new script (though there will probably still be a bit where he struggles with the superhero's eternal predicament of having to conceal the fact that you can make lasers come out of your eyes from the person you're trying to get off with). Inevitably, the movie's release will be accompanied by the launch of a videogame tie-in - and Electronic Arts is doing the honours, bringing the man of steel to PS2, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, GBA and Nintendo DS.

The question is, will we also see the return of the infamous curse of Superman? No, not the one which is supposed to have brought tragedy to the lives of Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Richard Pryor, but the one which has ensured that every Superman game ever made has been completely rubbish.

Well, not if executive producer Chris Gray has anything to do with it. "We're very confident that we've finally created a Superman game to do justice to the character," he says.

"I think it's a combination of technology, Electronic Arts wanting to do the best game we can, and really paying attention to the issues that have plagued the games in the past."

The problem, Gray explains, boils down to the fact that Superman - unlike most videogame characters - is by his very nature invincible, and comes equipped with a huge array of super powers right from the start. Because of this, "People are always asking us, how do you make it challenging? The answer is, well, he may be invincible, so he doesn't die easily, but the city is always in need of protection - so you fail as Superman when you let Metropolis suffer."

High flyer

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These pics are from the trailer - EA has yet to release any in-game screenshots.

Which means there's no health meter for the man of steel himself - instead, you're shown how much collateral damage is affecting the city of Metropolis at any time. In order to keep things on an even keel, you've got to fly around the city on a free-roaming basis, completing objectives in any order you choose, and in any manner you wish - something which Gray says is key to the way the gameplay works.

"You're always playing off this idea of, 'Do I attack the super villain, or do I go and rescue someone who's in jeopardy?' We've been very careful about designing game mechanics around those ideas so that the player's always making decisions where they have to play off, whether they're rescuing somebody or battling a super villain, and we think that's something we really nailed."

So what kind of missions are you likely to be tasked with? Well, as you might expect, they're all of a rather epic nature - "We'll leave the muggings and the carjackers to other games," Gray says.

"Superman is about stopping a bridge from collapse, fighting Metallo, who's a 60 storey tall robot, big natural disasters - really epic scenarios that you're not seeing in other action games."

The mission objectives aren't the only epic thing about Superman Returns. Our hero certainly isn't in Smallville any more - Metropolis is over 80 square miles in size, and includes around 8000 different buildings. Luckily, Superman can fly at super speeds of more than 800 miles an hour, which makes commuting a bit easier, but is completely useless if you fancy beating your Time Attack score on Zoo Keeper.

Super duper

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Note to designer: can you stick in some joke about tights and underpants here thx.

It looks like there's lots of fun to be had just hooning around town - you can soar high above the city, resting perhaps to catch some sun atop a giant skyscraper before zooming down and cruising along through the city streets. You can also interact with the environment - which in this case might mean ripping up a lamp post to lob at an enemy, for example, or picking up a fire truck and flying it to the scene of a blaze in super-quick time.

Of course, it's not just super strength that Superman's got going for him. He can also use his heat blast to blow up vehicles or melt through metal, and his super hearing to find out what's going on half way across town. Then there's super breath, which comes in handy for freezing stuff, and X-ray vision, which Superman probably doesn't use to perform the same tasks you would.

The point is, though, that you get to "be" Superman, and do all the things he can right from the start of the game. You also get to do some of the things you won't see him do in the new movie, since EA has also drawn content from decades of Superman comic books.

"With Superman Returns, we're not trying to do a literal adaptation of the film - we're trying to pick up on the major plot beats and even expand on some things. We've also woven in characters and some scenarios from 60 years of comic book history and DC history. So we're trying to weave in characters like Bizarro, Metallo, Mongol - they all make appearances in the game," Gray says.

"We want this to be full of surprises and interesting challenges, so even if you've seen the movie you haven't experienced the game."

Hooray for Hollywood

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Skeletor has clearly been doing a lot of working out in preparation for his big comeback.

But since this is a movie tie-in (for what's rumoured to be the most expensive movie ever made, incidentally, with an estimated budget of $300 million), you can expect some familiar faces and voices from the film.

They're all here - Superman himself, of course, who's played by newcomer Brandon Routh, plus Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey).

"They're all in the game, and that's a really powerful emotional connection for players when they see the likenesses of the actors and hear their voices," Gray says.

It's not just the cast members who are involved, either. Director Bryan Singer (who also directed the first two X-Men films, and won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects) also met with EA during the game's development, and the team visited the set to watch the film being made.

"It's really an amazing production, you know, just a huge undertaking," Gray reckons.

"So we're very excited about what he's doing with the movie, and [he's been] very co-operative and supportive of us doing what we need to do to make the game a great experience.

"Our attitude is, we want Bryan to make a great film, and we want to make a great game - and there are some things in common, but they're not really the same form of entertainment. It's been fun working with him; he's clearly a gamer and he gets what we need to do to make the game fun."

Platform action

So what can we expect from the different versions of the game? Well, unsurprisingly, the Xbox 360 version is going to look and sound better than those for current-gen consoles - although the gameplay's the same.

"The Xbox 360 gives you a lot of rendering power to draw pretty much everything as far as you need to see it, and it just makes for a richer experience. We can do more with lighting and audio than we could do before, so the whole game's mixed in," Gray explains.

"The Xbox 360 is a very exciting platform, and some of the objectives we had with making the game were to really bring to life the idea of a living city. It's really the first game where you can play an action character like this who can freely fly anywhere - that might be over the city, through the city, he might be running through the city on the ground, interacting with just about anything... That's what makes it really exciting."

Current-gen console owners still have plenty to look forward to, however: "Actually on the PS2 and the Xbox, I think we've managed to come up with a pretty good graphics system, so we can draw the version of the city in affirmative detail," Gray says.

"Clearly it's not as detailed in the distance, so we've started to do tricks to play with depth and everything, but it's actually remarkably similar considering how dense the city is. The gameplay's almost identical - there are more things alive in the X360, but it's a very similar experience in terms of flight and superpowers and the ability to explore."

The PSP and DS versions of the game, though, are another matter all together. "They have a different game mechanic, there's a multiplayer mode, there's an emphasis on shorter, more intense games which can be played in a strategic way," according to Gray.

"It's got kind of a party game vibe I'd almost say, but it's a neat thing and it's different from the console versions. So if you bought the console games you'd actually be having a different experience on the handhelds."

Could Superman Returns be the game that breaks the curse, then? Well, we'll have to wait until June to find out, since that's when it'll be released, alongside the movie. Until then - all together now, Ba-Bababa-Baa...

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