Version tested: Xbox 360
Not even Superman could avert this disaster.
Delayed by six months to get the game up to standard, EA's Tiburon studio has turned out arguably the worst superhero game since... probably the last legendarily terrible N64 Superman game back in 1999.
It's a game so mind-numbingly lacking in so many fundamental ways, it's hard to put your finger on how a company with the talent and resources of EA could turn out such a turkey. But we'll try.
For a start - the name of the game is hopelessly misleading. This isn't a game based on the summer blockbuster movie in any way whatsoever. Claiming it's one with the film is borderline fraudulent. While familiar foe Lex Luthor regularly appears in cut-scenes with Lois Lane, neither character plays any part at all in the action at all, leaving the Man of Steel to battle it out a series of tedious and utterly unrelated combat encounters in the streets and skies of Metropolis.
A series of tedious and utterly unrelated combat encounters against mechs, flying droids, dragons, mutants and... a tornado. But more of that later.
It'd be just about forgiveable that neither of the main characters plays any part in the entire game of the movie if the actual gameplay redeemed the situation, but it's so far away from even being a competent action game that it's incredible it's even been deemed worthy of release. You'll be raising more quizzical eyebrows than a demented Sean Connery.
The main problem with Superman Returns is that the missions are so uninspired and relentlessly repetitive that it's as if the whole mission-based game was ripped out and replaced with a series of random beat-'em-up lite interludes set in Metropolis. There's no discernible structure, no coherent narrative, and no real guidance as to what the overall goal of the game is.
It all starts in a domed arena, for some inexplicable reason. You slug it out (apparently on the planet of Warworld, but it matters not) against some knucklehead who serves as a basic means for teaching you how to lob gigantic objects, and suddenly you're in Metropolis flying around a fairly small skyscraper-filled city, wondering who stole all the textures. Suddenly a critical objective will pop-up somewhere in the city, and you fly towards it (holding RB to fly at the pad-wobbling supersonic speed). You're mildly impressed by what you see from a distance, but any shred of potential excitement is ripped away from you the minute you start any of the dull, flaccid and unimaginative missions.
Most of these are actually semi-random crime-fighting battles rather than proper missions. You'll start off fighting small clusters of robots who are attacking the city, and essentially the only point of these is as a means of increasing your XP to get to the end of that specific chapter. Most of these random encounters have a mixture of aerial and ground-based enemies, but dispensing them is never as simple as just focusing your heat vision on them, or freezing them to death. If only. The combat has been designed so that you'll use the full range of your powers, often forcing you to get down to street level and use your range of melee combos to see them off before they destroy Metropolis.
But the bedrock of any third-person action game is in having a satisfying and reliable combat and camera control system, and this is an immediate and consistent issue throughout Superman Returns.
Any game that requires you to fly around a lot lives or dies on its ability to let the player navigate with ease and also dish out mid-air or ground-based manoeuvres effectively, and this is never handled particularly well here. You need to be able to quickly and easily scan the skies and streets for targets and lock-on reliably so you're freed up to focus on beating the crap out of them with your superpowers, but EA Tiburon has essentially fudged most of what should be fundamental to a superhero game. It's no fun having to wrestle with twitchy flying controls when what you really need to do is rip that flying robot a new one - but more often than not the whole process of flying is a tiresome mess.
Superman Returns immediately and relentlessly lets you down by managing to make the whole process of tracking enemies a messy, fiddly business that leaves you disorientated. Holding down the left trigger locks onto the nearest enemy's cursor, and if you're lucky you can dish out some of your deadly heat vision, freeze breath or super breath to blow them away. The problem is, many of the airborne enemies are too nimble to track directly, and you end up repeatedly head-butting skyscrapers and trying haplessly to keep track. With such tightly packed streets, flying at superspeed isn't really an option unless you soar high into the air, eye the mini-map and take them down from above. As a result, the aerial combat quickly becomes a familiar routine where you'll realise that taking to the skies is the only means of dealing with the epileptic camera and twitchy controls.