I'm an enormous nerd when it comes to the more ridiculous and obscure corners of the Marvel Comics universe. Well, not enormous in that sense (I'm actually reasonably svelte for a thirty-something man who plays games for a living) but, having already completed Ultimate Alliance on the Xbox, I did buy it again on the 360 just so I could play as Moon Knight.
And yet, even with my childlike devotion to the crap superheroes that nobody else likes, I still can't bring myself to give a toss about Ghost Rider. I think it's because from his flaming skull head, to his flaming skull chains, to his flaming skull motorbike he's not even all that interesting or quirky. He's just the biro doodles from some 12-year-old Iron Maiden fan's schoolbook, a leathery gothicky cliché too obvious and silly even for my dubious tastes.
So you can probably imagine my unfettered glee when I discovered that the new (apparently rubbish) Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider movie has spawned a last-gen action game. Woot.
Well, to be fair, this second-tier offering is far from being the worst Marvel game. Heck, it's not even the worst superhero game. It is, however, a pretty tiresome riff on the vastly superior God of War, just without the exquisite pacing, eye-popping spectacle or sense of steadily escalating awe.
Did God of War have flaming skull motorbike levels that cribbed from Road Rash though? No. So it's not all one-sided.
The story follows Johnny Blaze, a stuntman who sells his soul to Mephisto in order to save his father but gets diddled on the deal, transforming into the Ghost Rider and blah blah blah. What really matters is that you have a blazing skull, an adorably growly voice and must follow painfully linear levels, smashing the atoms of demonic bad guys and occasionally smashing the atoms of slightly larger demonic boss bad guys.
You have your trusty flaming skull chain to do the majority of your smashing, but there's also a shotgun - presumably featuring some further combination of flame and skull motifs, I don't know - you never get a close look at it. All can be upgraded Onimusha-style by collecting the souls and other glowy-floaty stuff that comes out of defeated bad guys, while new combos and moves can also be purchased using this supernatural currency. The shopkeeper is played with avuncular gruffness by a slumming Sam Elliot, who is also in the movie and thus forms just about the only tangible connection betwixt game and film.
It's all just about acceptable, if you pretend that there have been no other games like this ever before, with the obligatory amounts of ultra-violence and rankings based on how efficiently you slaughtered your way through each section. There are even lots of unlockables, including Snipes-a-like vamp-hunter Blade as a playable character.
What it doesn't have is any trace of imagination or ambition.
The environments, which may have been impressive seven years ago, are lifeless and flat. Despite multiple nooks and crannies, the game won't let you even jump over the bar of a desert inn. Areas that, in any other game, would be a sure fire clue to the presence of secrets are simply window dressing here. Fragile objects are immune to your flailing chains, except the random few that aren't. Barrels and crates mostly. These shatter, rather originally, to produce more power-ups. And this 'just enough to get by' aesthetic applies to the gameplay as well.
There are, for instance, maybe a dozen enemy types in the whole game. You get one new foe in each major new section, and drudgery sets in before you've even been playing for an hour. The game cheekily pads itself out by making you play certain sections twice, once on the way in and again and the way out, but you just keep plodding along, whipping your chains around and around. It's sort of diverting in the sense that it involves moving colours, lights and noise though it's never engaging. You never once feel impressed or surprised or excited by the next development. It's always more of the same heaped on top of more of the same.
The occasional motorbike levels go some way to lifting the mood, though that's mostly because they're short, fast and extremely stupid. The bike controls are tight enough to allow for a few displays of genuine skill, there are ample opportunities to make outrageous jumps or slide under obstacles and a dash of enjoyable ragdoll physics means that even your fatal crashes are rather amusing.
These race-and-chase sections only make up maybe 20 percent of the game though, and there are more serious problems lurking under the hood of the on-foot combat. Unlike many of the games it so studiously apes, starting a combo means triggering an animation sequence that can't be stopped. Once you start whirling in one direction, Ghost Rider is out of your control until he finishes his attack or takes a hit. Hardly the sort of thing that ruins an entire game but it does mean that any attempts to simply react to a change in circumstance are always going to be clumsy at best.
The camera, which follows you at an uncomfortably tight distance, often leaves unseen foes off-screen. Unseen foes that fire projectiles at you. Projectiles that you won't see coming. Another minor annoyance to be added to the slowly growing pile. Instead of allowing you to exert even a small amount of camera control, the right stick is instead used for a completely pointless rolling move which, more often than not, tumbles you right into one of the unseen off-screen enemies. Health, rather hilariously, comes in the form of fires which are absorbed by Ghost Rider's blazing noggin. It's also scarce and, as almost all of your attacks involve fire, makes you wonder why you can't absorb health from those.
By the time the game introduces hulking semi-boss monsters that unleash unblockable radial attacks, progress becomes even more of a trial. There are even creatures guarded by magical shields, which can only be broken by levelling-up your combo meter to a certain point. Trouble is, your combo meter requires you to deliver a non-stop barrage of varied attacks without taking any hits yourself. Even with the off-screen projectiles and unstoppable attacks it's still possible, just time-consuming and pretty much devoid of fun.
And despite this litany of small irritants and quirks, the game remains alarmingly easy. You have unlimited attempts at any single section, while the game is so generous with the power-ups that you should be able to max out all your combos, health and weapons before you reach the halfway stage. All told, a reasonably skilled player can romp through the whole thing in about four hours - and you'll probably be stifling a yawn for at least three and a half of them.
If you have the sort of disposable income that allows you to spend thirty quid on a short-lived and rather bland diversion, or if you have an intensely adolescent fondness for flames, skulls and chains, then I dare say you'll find Ghost Rider to be 'not that bad'. And it's not. Not in the grand scheme of things. But nor is it the sort of game that deserves your time, money or a score higher than five. Besides, Moon Knight could totally beat Ghost Rider in a fight.
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