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.
On the ground, the game utterly comes apart at the seams thanks to irredeemably awful melee combat, allied to more hateful camera issues and other quirks that start to wear you down. For some curious reason, your superpowers are almost always ineffective against ground-based targets (like the chunky mechs and slimy mutants), forcing you to go toe-to-toe whether you want to or not. But the really stupid thing is, shoehorning the player into hundreds, nay thousands of almost identical melee encounters merely serves to remind you how spectacularly awful the game really is.
The really daft thing about Superman Returns is how - despite the loose, unsatisfying controls - the game is ridiculously easy to romp through in about six hours. Although the game unlocks numerous combos you go, you can pretty much succeed 90 per cent of the time by locking on and hammering X until your enemy stops getting up. And for the other 10 per cent, lobbing cars at them from a safe distance does the trick. It's so brainlessly designed, it's staggering.
Even some of the relatively tricky boss encounters, like the section where you're defending blimps from a seemingly endless procession of flying dragons are just a war of attrition. As soon as you work out their pretty obvious weakness, you'll busily take care of hundreds of them, one after the other until they all just sod off.
And so it goes on. A series of three, four, five minute encounters where you meet the same eight or so types of enemies in quickfire encounters, a similar boss encounter where you take care of the minions before focusing on the main man, and repeat to fade. Sure, you get some unlockable moves, but the gameplay remains utterly identical from the very first level to the last. And having tortuously slogged through the entire game, I can categorically assure anyone that this is definitely the case. Okay, so the final tornado 'boss' proves to be an exception, but it's so completely unrelated to the game in any way shape or form that it has to go down as the most bizarre anticlimax in the history of videogames. What a waste.
If you're really determined to eke out a few remaining achievement points, then there are nine races to slog through, as well as five Bizarro destruction levels, but you'll probably wish you hadn't wasted your life. The races are generally pretty easy (bar the last two utterly evil ones), and the Bizarro levels can be cleared by destroying cars by repeating the same melee move over and over again for a couple of minutes. Genius.
Visually, the game's not a total disaster, but it's definitely looking completely out of place on the 360. Flat textured environments abound, with nasty pop-in on buildings prevalent as soon as you fly close to them, while vehicles suddenly populate empty streets and motorways as if by magic. Superman's character design isn't bad, but many of the other creatures look throwaway and uninspired. The animation's hardly anything to shout about either, but much like the rest of the game, you're so overwhelmed by the mediocrity that it all starts to blend into a soup of awfulness. It gets to the stage where you stop noticing the bad things, because none of it stands out as such. Mercifully, EA elected to make this an offline only game, meaning we didn't waste our life looking at that side of things. We're thankful for small mercies at this stage.
Overall, there's really nothing to redeem Superman Returns apart from the fact that it is playable on a very basic level and that bugs don't appear to be an issue. Yes, you can fly around Metropolis at supersonic speed, zap a few meaningless enemies with some basic superpowers, whack some robots with one button attacks and watch some reasonable (though unrelated) cut-scenes, but that's your lot. Superman Returns is so criminally lacking in any inspiration, though, and is such a dismal waste of the licence that you'll want to curl up and rock yourself into a trance. At least then your mind can entertain you with thoughts of what a good Superman game might be like.
3 / 10