It's easy to assume that any game with a movie licence attached to it will be utter lowest common denominator rubbish, and it's pretty hard to think of many good examples since GoldenEye bucked the trend all those years ago. Since then, it's been a steady stream of sludge culminating in arguably the most heinous example, Enter The Matrix, which is busy committing daylight robbery the world over.
The schizophrenic Vivendi Universal
Despite being the home of some of the best games ever made, notably Half-Life, Vivendi-Universal is no stranger to similar acts of quick buck licensed extortion, and has probably contravened several known laws in recent years with a long list of truly execrable efforts including Dark Angel, The Scorpion King, The Lord Of The Rings and the vastly overrated The Thing. Make it stop!
Despite this crushingly depressing track record, we were still pretty hopeful that it would put The Hulk license to good use, optimistic fools that we are. The idea of splicing stealth action with destructive beat 'em up antics sounded like a promising template for the game, and at first glance you can't help but be rather impressed with the EA-esque slickness of the whole package.
Rather than attempt to conjure a movie based game, Radical Entertainment has created a standalone story that draws on the comic book roots, and has the mild mannered Bruce Banner (voiced admirably by Eric Bana) facing off against a variety of foes, namely The Leader, Flux, Half-Life, Madman, General Rykar and Ravage, all intent on abusing the mutating powers of those deadly Gamma rays.
Comic book loveliness
Easily the most impressive aspect of the package is the comic book visuals that give the game a unique and stylish appearance worthy of lavish praise. Ostensibly similar to the cel shaded technique that has become so popular of late, the artwork nevertheless is benchmark quality throughout and is underpinned by some superbly animated cut scenes that seamlessly punctuate the action at regular intervals.
The game itself is split, roughly 75-25 between all action Hulk smashathons and stealth based Bruce Banner interludes that attempt to lend a sense of variety and a change of pace to what would otherwise quickly be exposed as a pretty update of any number of Final Fight/Double Dragon style beat 'em ups.
As The Hulk, you're equipped with a predictably destructive, albeit limited set of manoeuvres that even the other Hulk, Hogan, would be proud of. Despite the relative lack of moves, it's a pleasingly intuitive, flexible and context sensitive system that allows you to smack the crap out of everything, be it living or inanimate. With a system that largely revolves around different uses of the punch button (tap, quickly tap, hold, or hold with triangle button), it's never going to rival Soul Calibur for moves, but the level of destruction you can wreak on your environment makes that a little less of an issue.
The Incredibly cowardly Hulk
Being able to pick up and hurl fork lift trucks at a group of salivating mutant dogs is always a satisfying feeling, as is wielding huge pipes, but the game tends to merely bog you down with the weight of numbers, rather than ever providing genuinely challenging enemies. Slightly bizarrely, you rarely have to even worry about fighting the enemies if you don't want to, and instead, progress to the next level generally consists of smashing through a succession of doors. Hanging around brawling just drains your health, so why take the risk? Occasionally your pursuers give chase, but often the game just eliminates them for you once you've reached certain invisible checkpoints. It literally only took a couple of hours to lick most of the 30 odd levels - until we got stuck on the Bruce Banner sections.
The major stumbling blocks are definitely these stealth-lite Banner levels, which, while initially interesting, later become irritating in the extreme, thanks to some terrible AI, unhelpful camera angles, Bruce's inability to fight back and frankly rank collision detection. In most situations you’re merely expected to creep from one end of a level to the other while avoiding detection. At times this is - theoretically - extremely simple, requiring you to duck under a guard's window, for example, or push a block up to a wall to enable you to escape over the rooftops. However, Bruce will only climb and grab onto objects when correctly positioned, which is maddening. Although not maddening enough to turn him into the Hulk...
Elsewhere, when you're avoiding searchlights and whole teams of patrolling armed guards, you can't even see where they are half the time, thanks to the fixed camera angles. In theory, you can take out the guards with a quick grab from behind, but one minor slip up and they're all over you like a green rash, and it's another trudge back to square one. Splinter Cell it most certainly is not.
The code breaking interludes that feature repeatedly within the Banner sections are, however, a lot of fun, requiring you to match two strings of letters and numbers within 20 seconds. Overall, though, these stealth interludes are poorly thought out, and devoid of any compelling gameplay. There was undoubtedly huge potential to make the Banner adventures far more prominent and more varied excursions outside of the Wrestlemania of the Hulk, but it seems Radical Entertainment lacked inspiration to broaden the repetitive permabrawl nature of the main meat of the game.
Even the inevitable and frequent boss encounters are relatively straightforward, requiring one or two attempts to suss out. Even when you fail you're given at least three continues - with full health - to defeat those occasionally tricky sections, so any persistence whatsoever (if you can be bothered) will see you clear the entire game in well under 10 hours. Admittedly there are a few other modes outside of the main game that may provide some value to the committed, such as time attack levels, survival mode, as well as a mode that focuses entirely on how much you can destroy. A few trailers appear, as well as a Making Of, and other odds and ends, but ultimately you're unlikely to care a great deal when the game is so deeply flawed and repetitive.
Game bad! Krudster SMASH!
Marvel aficionados might find the comic book art style and unique, but predictable storyline a draw, but for the real gamers out there, you're left with an extremely pretty but vacuous by-the-numbers beat em up experience that is arguably inferior in gameplay terms to any number of 16-bit titles we could reel off. With camera issues, a cowardly gaming mechanic and the frankly awful stealth sub levels, what you're left with is perhaps the best example of graphics over gameplay we've ever seen. Unless you get off on repetitive bash 'em ups, leave well alone.