X05: Superman Returns: The Videogame Impressions

The Man of Steel is coming to the slim white box. We've got a first look inside.

AMSTERDAM--One of EA's big announcements at this year's X05 event was the game based on the upcoming Superman feature film, which is due for release next summer. Before your head gets filled with visions of Superman 64 and other halfhearted attempts at bringing the Man of Steel to gaming consoles, remember that this is EA, a company known for putting the force of its sizable development teams and hefty budgets to good use in film-licensed games. It helps, too, that Superman is liable to do bang-up business at the box office next summer thanks to both a strong cast that features Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Parker Posey, and Brandon Routh as Superman, and director Bryan Singer, who's no stranger to superhero movies after two successful X-Men films. Curious as to how EA could bring the legendary DC comics hero to life in games, we got our first glimpse at EA's vision of Superman this morning.

As both the movie and the game aren't due until next summer, what we saw of Superman today was quite early in development. In fact, much of what we saw consisted of canned animations that showed just how Superman will animate when executing his arsenal of heroic maneuvers, both in the air and on the ground. If Superman looks familiar, it might be because he's being designed by the EA Tiburon team, the same development crew responsible for the Madden NFL series. In fact, the producers told us that the model for Superman is actually based on the skeletal structure of a typical Madden player model, though significantly altered to appear less like a hulking linebacker and more like a heroic comics icon.

Just as important as the model of Superman will be the city he protects: Metropolis. We saw several glimpses of Superman's hometown, both in concept art phase and in gameplay, and from what we saw, EA is looking to do justice to the fictional city. The urban sprawl will cover approximately 80 square miles and will consist of nine distinct zones, all of which will be open to the player immediately. He is Superman, after all, so he should be able to access any part of the city at any time. Some of the districts we saw were an austere business district, as well as an industrial zone that was grimier and sinister-looking.

One of the features that has dragged down previous Superman games has been forgetting that Supes is practically invincible. That is, he's impervious to physical harm and is only weakened by green krptonite. The challenge for Superman comes not in defeating his foes, but, rather, in defeating the bad guys without causing undo harm to the citizens and structures of Metropolis. This will be one of the key elements in the Superman game, according to game producers. While details still aren't fleshed out yet, as the hero, you'll be responsible for not just taking down bad guys, but also you'll need to make sure that you cause as little destruction--and lose as few innocent lives--as possible. If you fail to do so, you're development as a hero will surely suffer.

Even though you generally want to prevent mass havoc and mayhem, EA is ensuring that practically every environment in the game can be torn down or destroyed. A fortunate side effect of this is that any rubble can act as a weapon for Superman, who isn't really above using an oil tanker as a baseball bat when the situation warrants it. That's another important point, too. Instead of Superman having to earn his special powers, such as heat vision, flight, superbreath, and superstrength, these will all be available to you from the outset--another sign that EA is learning from the mistakes of Superman vidoe games from the past. Even his Herculean strength will be mitigated by the need to keep the car (or stone pillar or tanker truck) balanced so as not to fall over and destroy valuable Metropolis real estate.

Still, the long-term challenge in the game will be learning new ways to use your powers in inventive ways. This might include straightforward methods, such as combining your superspeed flight ability with a combat move to create a devastating super attack, for example. Or is might include something more complex, such as freezing a car, lifting it above a burning building, then melting the ice with your heat vision, thus causing an impromptu rain shower to douse the flames.

The small live demo we saw of the game was in very early form. In fact, EA was referring to the demo as a proof of technological concept. But despite some graphical rough edges, it's easy to see the potential in the game. The scene opened up in a wide-open central hub of Metropolis, complete with a fountain and skyscrapers surrounding the open plot of urban real estate. There was Superman in his familiar red and blue tights with the red trim and yellow highlights. And with just a few swings of the joystick, he was off and flying, sailing up and down throughout this open area, swooping next to buildings and generally looking like he was having a fine old time. Then we noticed the 60-story metallic robot monster.

According to producers, this was Metallo, a cybernetic bad guy who absorbs metal into his body thanks to some cool-looking vortices that swarm his gigantic feet. Naturally, Metallo will square off against Clark Kent's alter ego in the game. But when you first meet him, he'll only be a mere 15 feet tall. Metallo must have been eating well, because in the game demo, he looked fully capable of wading through those skyscrapers like a scythe through wheat. Eventually, after producers showed some of the cool flying techniques that Superman will be able to pull off--such as somersaults, dives, and loops--they took the fight to Metallo, first using heat vision on the giant metallic goof. He didn't take kindly to this and blasted Superman with his kryptonite ray as thanks. From there it was well and truly on. It didn't take long before Superman was brandishing a 50-foot high stone obelisk that he laid into Metallo with a shot that would have done Barry Bonds (pre-BALCO scandal) proud.

Even with all his powers at hand, Superman may seem invincible. But just like everyone else, hard work is tiring. A stamina system will be in place when the game ships, and it will be a key component to keeping Superman balanced. When his stamina is drained, Superman won't be able to pull off his special power moves, and, even if he may not be in danger of being destroyed by an enemy, it might just mean that a few innoncents will suffer while he tries to catch his breath. The careful balance between power and responsibility will be a key component to Superman's gameplay.

As an intellectual property, Superman has been going through a dry period for some time now. Now that the Superman film is finally off the ground (so to speak) and is attached to first-rate talent, that looks to change. And it's nice to see the game getting the same amount of attention from the folks at EA. The producers emphasized that the game will not be merely a "game" version of the movie. Rather, it will be designed around the events of the film in such a way that both make sense and add vibrancy and depth to the final products. With that game-first mentality, we feel optimistic about the Man of Steel's chances against that most finicky of opponents: the game-buying general public. The game is currently being developed for the Xbox 360, primarily, but expect to see Superman on the PS2, Xbox, and all major handhelds as well. We'll have much more on Superman in the near future, so keep your eyes on the sky until then.

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