Superman's great at saving the world, but he sure hasn't had much success when it comes to video games. The disastrous Superman 64 was no doubt the low point in the Man of Steel's video game history, but even his highs haven't been all that high. Superman Returns: The Videogame was originally slated to release alongside the movie in June (which had its own tumultuous production saga), but it wasn't ready in time and the release date was pushed back to coincide with the DVD of the movie going on sale. Despite the delay, the game still doesn't seem to be ready, but that hasn't stopped it from being released. It's certainly not as bad as Superman 64, but it's still plenty bad. Superman Returns does do a few things well, and it does manage to be entertaining for the first hour or so, but it's all downhill from there.
For a game that's supposed to be a movie tie-in, Superman Returns sure doesn't have a whole lot in common with the film. After fighting off a rogue meteor shower and learning how to use his super abilities, Superman zooms off to outer space to find that his home planet has indeed been destroyed. On the way home he runs across Mongrul, does a bit of fighting, and then it's back to Earth. Here he'll battle Metallo, Bizarro, and, eventually, someone who was actually in the film, Lex Luthor. People who saw the movie and those who didn't will be equally frustrated with the storytelling. If you saw the movie, you'll be puzzled as to what the heck any of this has to do with the film, and if you didn't see Superman Returns, there's little chance that any of the short cutscenes will explain exactly what the heck Lex is doing with the crystals, much less why Mister Mxyzptlk wants Superman to race around the city.
Superman Returns takes place in Superman's adopted home city, Metropolis. The city consists of several large islands that lie in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains. The city is largest on the Xbox 360, as the PlayStation 2 and Xbox are missing one of the smaller islands. You're free to go almost anywhere, from street level to thousands of feet above even the tallest building. The view from high up in the sky is breathtaking at first, and it's fun to zoom down through the clouds and wind through city streets and in between the skyscrapers at breakneck speeds. However, the fun quickly wears off when you realize that short of endlessly touring the city, there's little else to do. You can fly around and rescue kittens that are hidden around Metropolis, and that's about it. You can't fly underwater, and you can't walk in buildings.
So, other than rescuing kittens, what is there to do? Not a whole heck of a lot. The game is divided into chapters comprised of a series of objectives that only appear by flying around aimlessly until you get close enough to one to trigger it. As is evident by the way the game drags on and on, there are certainly plenty of objectives--there's just not much variety to them. Early in the game most of your time will be spent fighting robots--robots that walk, robots that roll around, and robots that fly. Later you'll be fighting evil monsters and even dragons. (If you're wondering why on Earth there are dragons in the game, you're not alone.) This monotony is occasionally broken up when you are charged with putting out building fires. And if you play long enough, you'll get to fight bad guys and put out fires. The segments where you race Mister Mxyzptlk or play as Bizarro help break up the monotony a tiny bit, but they don't count as progress toward completing the game, so there's little point in wasting time on them.
Being that Superman is mostly invincible, he doesn't have a health bar; however, the city of Metropolis does. The bad guys will torch trees, throw cars, and pummel civilians. Any damage to the city diminishes the health bar, and when it's empty, it's game over. This is a novel approach to indirectly making Superman vulnerable, but it also restricts the game's "sandbox" feel. Anytime you decide to smash something or set a car ablaze, you're just hurting yourself. Imagine a first-person shooter where you could shoot yourself in the head or a racing game where you could pour sugar in your own gas tank--that's kind of what it's like here. It sure might sound like fun to take the giant globe off of the Daily Planet and toss it into a group of cars, but the pesky thought of "What would Superman do?" and the negative effect your action will have on the city is always in the back of your mind. You can play as Bizarro and wreak some havoc, but causing trouble's just not that much fun when you're being forced to do it.
The combo-based fighting system lets you string together a fairly impressive number of moves, and after you complete a series of objectives, you'll earn new combos. Unfortunately, you don't really need many of these new moves, and you'll quickly find yourself either using the same combos over and over or just resorting to mashing buttons and hoping for the best. Superman also has his trusty heat vision, super breath, and of course his freeze breath, all of which can be powered up by finishing objectives. Some enemies are weak against a particular power, though a few are impervious to them, and there's even a creature that grows stronger should you try to use one of your powers on it. Freezing and burning enemies is actually pretty fun, but unless you like blowing enemies a half mile away and then chasing them down to pummel them, Superman's super breath is almost totally worthless--you only need use it a couple of times.
The combat sounds entertaining, and at first it is, but a number of problems quickly render it frustrating and uninteresting. Because you're fighting the same handful of enemies hundreds of times, the real challenge comes not from the enemies themselves, but from trying to stay interested in what's going on. The controls aren't overly complex, but it's still tough to get them to respond. Using the D pad to toggle between powers on the fly is frustrating, and it's tough to aim your attacks, too. You can lock on to enemies, but short of removing the target lock adjusting your position and hoping to lock on to another enemy, there's no way to change your focus during a battle. This is particularly problematic when you're in the air and getting attacked by a dragon that's just offscreen, or when you're fighting in a crowd, trying to punch a robot but wailing on an innocent civilian instead. Collision detection is dreadful, so sometimes you'll be hitting a bad guy (or getting hit by one) even though no punches are actually landing. For some unknown reason Superman can't jump. It's a pain to land, and Superman's inability to jump makes it tough to easily get to any enemy that's on top of a car or standing on the other side of a bush. When Superman can't get around a bit of shrubbery, you know things aren't going too well. An awful camera doesn't help matters much, either.
Despite the game's declaration that the camera is smart (it says so in the game options), it does a terrible job of following the action. You're frequently obscured by enemies, cars, and buildings. If you can see yourself, then chances are pretty good that you won't be able to find whatever you're fighting. Enemy icons will appear on one side of a building when the actual enemy is on the other side, and sometimes the camera gets so low to the ground that you can't see your target through all the traffic and pedestrians on the screen. A handy radar system helps alleviate this problem somewhat, but it's still a problem. Racing against Mister Mxyzptlk wasn't all that fun to start with, but it's also hindered by the camera, which works just fine for cruising the skies looking for trouble, but is considerably less friendly when moving at high speeds.
And then there are the boss battles, which are so bad they deserve special mention. If you were excited by the game's trailer, in which Superman took on a giant version of Metallo, you're in for a disappointment. Sure, you still get to fight him, but it's considerably less interesting than in the trailer. But that's not the real problem. The lengthy fight ends with Superman having to divert a missile--but the game never tells you how. After chasing it and getting close, you can shoot your heat vision at it, but that doesn't work, so it explodes, and then you get to do the entire fight again. Let's say on the next attempt you try to fly past the missile and hope that it locks on. Nope, you're dead. Try again. It turns out that all you have to do is get right next to it, which triggers a cutscene. Who knew that all you had to do to stop a missile was trigger a cutscene? Another boss fight sees you trying to save three blimps, that apparently are filled with hydrogen and highly explosive, from a group of flying dragons. After trying and failing to save each blimp, it turns out that you just need to save one, and the sequence suddenly ends for no discernable reason. Last but not least, you get to take on tornados. Yes, you'll be fighting tornados. You've got to blow them out over the water, freeze them, and put out fires caused by lighting. That's not so bad, but the game also implores you to save three injured citizens during all this madness. After wasting your time rescuing the injured, your reward is...nothing. You'll find that you can skip that part entirely. If you're not insane yet, the next sequence should do it for you. You're suddenly inside the tornado and you've got to "stabilize the atmosphere" by alternately shooting your heat and freeze breath while being sure to dodge all the garbage flying around inside. Once again, if you fail you have to do the entire tornado sequence over again. Only something like this could have you longing for the realistic scenarios from the movie Twister.
There's little reason to see the game through to its conclusion, much less ever play it again if you manage to finish it once. At least you can get some points out of the whole dreadful experience if you're playing the 360 version. Points are awarded for beating noteworthy bosses, and you can earn a couple of hundred points during the normal course of play. A few achievements, such as flying 10,000 miles or playing for 12 hours, will only be earned by those with a high tolerance for pain. To add insult to injury, the game tells you that you're 25 percent complete in less than an hour, but it ends up going on for a solid 10 mind-numbing hours.
Superman Returns isn't a particularly good-looking game, especially on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Sure, it's impressive to see such a large city on the older systems, but so much detail had to be sacrificed to make it happen that you've got to wonder if it was worth it. The city's slightly smaller, there's very little variety to the buildings, and each structure looks hideous up close. The Xbox 360 version looks quite a bit nicer, but along with the larger city and the more varied and detailed buildings come technical problems. Everything looks cool from high above the city, but as you zoom downward the texture pop-in and the drawn-in are very noticeable and distracting. The frame rate also regularly stutters and stammers. Even the FMV cutscenes are choppy.
All versions of the game have plain, ugly citizens, boring-looking cars, and a lack of destructible objects. You can randomly break up the bricks and glass on a few buildings (with damage effects that look too similar), and you can smash up cars and grab light poles, but not much else. The fire effects look pretty good, but when things like cars explode, you'll actually see them disappear for a second while the damaged model loads. One thing that won't disappear, at least some of the time, is the onscreen text that shows you what you're supposed to be doing. You'll be racing against the clock, and the whole time, "GO!" is emblazoned across the screen.
The best thing the game has going for it is the excellent orchestrated soundtrack that plays in the background. It doesn't sound like the movie's score, but it's still quite good, and given the quality of the rest of the game's audio, it should have been more prominently featured. Kevin Spacey, Brandon Routh, and Kate Bosworth all reprise their roles from the film, but their participation in the game is so minimal that you hardly even notice. Routh's performance is hampered by a horrendous script that has him admonishing his enemies with cheesy one-liners as he fights them--his dialogue during the Bizarro encounters is downright embarrassing. The rest of the sound effects sound OK, but they're repeated ad nauseam.
It's hard to shake the feeling that EA viewed the movie's DVD release as the last chance to capitalize on the movie license and was going to ship this game finished or unfinished, good or bad. It looks as though they finally settled on unfinished and bad. Superman Returns doesn't have much to do with the movie of the same name; the plot is a bunch of nonsense; and the game just doesn't capture the essence of what has made Superman such an enduring icon. If you're an Xbox 360 owner who has played the Superman Returns demo, you've already played the best part of this game. It's fun to fly above the city and then zoom down at the speed of sound to zigzag among the buildings, and it's even fun to pound on robots for a short time. But the fun quickly ends courtesy of the bland graphics, lousy controls, boring combat, and repetitive objectives.