Superman Returns: The Videogame Hands-On

We leap tall buildings in a single bound in our hands-on look at this comic book movie-licensed adventure game.

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When you're the last remaining son of Krypton, and you are jettisoned to Earth after the destruction of your homeworld only to end up with powers far beyond the scope of human abilities, it won't be long before you have the world on your shoulders. In Superman Returns: The Videogame, EA's upcoming game based on last summer's film, you assume that responsibility as the Man of Steel, and, more importantly, you become the sole protector of Metropolis.

As Superman, the responsibility for Metropolis' safety rests squarely on your shoulders.
As Superman, the responsibility for Metropolis' safety rests squarely on your shoulders.

Unlike in Superman video games in the past, when you start as Superman in this game, you truly are the Man of Steel both in name and ability. There is no strange reset that takes "Supes" back down to square one and forces you to earn each of your individual powers back. Instead, you start with all the powers you expect to possess right from the get-go. Heat vision? Check. Super breath? Yep. Supersonic flight? Oh yeah. Strength of 100 men? You got it--and probably a few hundred more than that on top.

You'll need those powers when dealing with the slew of enemies that you will encounter in your patrols around Metropolis. The game has been designed by the EA Tiburon crew as an open-ended adventure game--as Superman, you choose when and where you go at any time, as well as which problems you wish to tackle at any given time. As you fly around the city, small icons will pop up onscreen, indicating new events you can participate in. During our demo with the EA reps, these events included small troubles, such as buildings on fire, and very, very big problems, such as a 500-foot-tall Metallo razing the Metropolis skyline like it was made out of paper mache.

In fact, Metallo, one of the game's notable enemies, will pop up in numerous locations in the game (as will his many mechanical minions). Before you face the gigantic version late in the game, you'll run into smaller versions of him and his cronies, and you'll have an opportunity to use any or all of your super powers to dispose of them.

One of the nice aspects of the game is the flexibility you have in dealing with enemies or problems. At a basic level, there are two main areas of combat--punching and kicking in close quarters or using various ranged attacks for striking from a distance. As for the traditional attacks, the game will give you some simple attack combos that will let you really pour on the punishment. The ranged attacks include things like Superman's heat vision, which is good for taking out smaller foes. When under attack by multiple enemies, you can also use your various powers for crowd control, such as using your super breath to knock foes far into the air or using your freezing breath to slow down a couple of bad guys so you can close in for the kill.

The same kinds of multiple tactics can also be used for other world events in the game. A burning building, for example, can be blown out with your super breath, if it's small enough. If the blaze has become too large, however, you'll have to find some water to contain the flames. Your best bet, then, is to hunt down a fire truck and place it in front of the building, letting the civilians do the rest. Or you can take matters into your own hands, track down a couple of water towers on top of skyscrapers in the area and toss them down onto the flames. Pretty soon, the fires will die down, and things will be back to normal.

Superman will be able to mix it up with enemies in the air or on the ground.
Superman will be able to mix it up with enemies in the air or on the ground.

As the protector of Metropolis, everything you do will be tied to your surroundings. Because Superman is more or less invulnerable, it's not your health you need to be concerned with, but rather the health of your city. Any of the aforementioned burning buildings or giant robot attacks, then, will surely have a negative effect on your city's health, which will be evidenced by a meter in the top left portion of the screen. Should the devastation become too great (and the city's health meter run out), it's game-over time. The heroic deeds you accomplish to improve the situation--such as defeating enemies, putting out fires, or even taking injured citizens to the hospital--will restore Metropolis' health meter. Superman too will evolve as time goes on. Though he has all of his powers to begin with, by earning experience points throughout the game, you can earn upgraded versions of your powers to further improve your abilities.

The city of Metropolis looks wonderful in the game. Coming in at the equivalent of more than 80 square miles of territory to explore (an area nearly twice the size of San Francisco, for comparison's sake), Metropolis is divided into nine distinct districts spread across a landscape that is rich with detail. What's interesting about the city isn't just the sheer scope of it--and you can really get a feel for the size of the city by blasting up to the equivalent of two miles above the city and looking down--but that the majority of the city is built from scratch. As EA reps told us, when the team went to DC Comics and asked for a map of Metropolis to use as a starting point, they learned that there was no such thing. Instead of treating that as a setback, however, the Tiburon team took on the challenge of creating the city themselves, using not only the classic comic series as inspiration but also Bryan Singer's recent movie.

Each of the districts in Metropolis has its own distinctive look.
Each of the districts in Metropolis has its own distinctive look.

As for other tie-ins with the recent Superman reset, the game will include voice work from practically the entire cast of Superman Returns, including Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, and Parker Posey, but it is not an outright retread of the film. As EA reps told us, although the plot of the game follows the same thread as the movie, the game is more or less split down the middle between movie content and content from the rest of the DC universe (thus the inclusion of villains like Metallo).

In terms of control, Superman Returns is quite simple. On the Xbox 360 controller, the right trigger engages your active super power (and you can choose which power you wish to activate with the directional pad), while the face buttons are used to pick up objects or beat villains down. When using ranged attacks, you can press the left trigger to lock on targets, which is especially helpful when dealing with multiple enemies or objects. By far the coolest control in the game is the flying mechanic, which is controlled with the two analog sticks; the left stick moves Superman in the air, and the right stick controls the camera and direction.

With the ability to reach the equivalent of 800mph at top speeds, you can zip to almost any part of the city within seconds, and the flying mechanic just feels right. During our hands-on time with the game, we took Superman out to the ocean waters surrounding Metropolis, dipping down to the waterline, where we really poured on the supersonic speed. At top speed, we carved a shallow flume of water as we sped along, and frankly, it was tough to wipe the stupid grin off our faces after we did it.

The visuals of Superman Returns are coming along nicely. Because there is such a huge amount of terrain and architecture to render, the building textures and detail scale nicely, depending on where you are in the game. At the highest point in the air looking down on the city, the buildings look almost like 3D CAD drawings; zoom down back to Earth, however, and you'll quickly see those details fill in; at street level, cars and trucks fill the streets and civilians fill the sidewalks. Special mention should go to the excellent musical score as well, which not only is suitably sweeping but also dynamically changes to suit the situation at any given time in the game. Flying high above the clouds, the score is highlighted by ethereal chords and tinkling strings; down on ground level, on the other hand, it's a more full-featured soundscape, with brass and bass brought forward in the mix.

With all the visual fidelity, quality sound work, and amazing super powers on display, there was still one thing that bugged us about the Superman demo we played: How come Superman can't destroy entire swaths of Metropolis? Shouldn't a being as powerful as Superman be able to lay waste to city blocks if he wants to?

Our money's on the guy in the blue pajamas.
Our money's on the guy in the blue pajamas.

Enter Mr. Mxyzptlk, the fifth-dimensional imp, and his collection of minigames that you can access at any time in Superman Returns. Here you can do things like race time trials throughout the city, rescue the 100 kittens hidden around the city, and check your minigames' high scores against other players. Oh yes, and you can play as Superman's psychotic alter ego, Bizarro, and lay waste to Metropolis on a grand scale. During these timed missions, the goal is to create as much havoc as you can in the time allotted by using Bizarro's super strength and his inverted forms of Superman's power. (Whereas Supes has super breath, for example, Bizarro has super suck powers. Seriously.) Wreaking such chaos looks like great fun, though we still sort of wished we could take out a buildling or two.

In all, Superman Returns looks like it's well on its way to becoming one of the first Superman games, if not the first Superman game, that doesn't immediately give us a case of bad-game hives. The game now has an official release date, and we'll have a full review as soon as it hits store shelves.

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