Superman Returns heralded the big-screen comeback of the legendary comic book hero. It may have weaned some of its success off the popular Smallville television series, but it was still an enjoyable flick backed up by a great all-round cast. Although the man of steel has done well in nearly all forms of digital media, the realm of video gaming still eludes him; his virtual Kryptonite if you will.
The developers here decided to challenge themselves by making a Superman game (I could end this sentence here…) in full 3D, for the DS. Each mission will see you in a compartmentalised region of Metropolis; basically a maze-like grid filled with jutting polygonal blocks that supposedly represent tall buildings. (Have you ever seen a city with ONLY TALL buildings? No, neither have I.)
Superman himself looks like the man himself, but that’s only because of his familiar colours (assuming you opt for the familiar costume colour selectable at the start). All the character models are very plain and look worse than first-generation PS1 games (10+ years now!) And even with the clear lack of quality in the visual department, the entire engine is riddled with glitchy effects, especially concerning clipping. At least the framerate is smooth; that way this kind of stuff won’t bother your eyes too much, at least when you’re flying.
But, at least we finally a Superman game where you actually ARE invincible! Metropolis is being terrorised by assorted villainy and it is up to you to save her from harm; Metropolis has the health bar this time, not you.
There is a slight hint of strategy involved as you plot Superman’s path towards areas of panic before things get too out of control. Once you’ve reached your destination, the mission starts, of which there are about 10 different ones in all, along with a few variations to provide some artificial bulk. In each mission you only have one objective, and this is ‘nicely’ complemented by the game only allowing you to perform the abilities which are needed for completion. That is to say, you don’t get to use your X-ray vision (or other powers) unless the game says you can, and this unfortunately isn’t very often.
The missions involve flying to marks (which are conveniently marked on the map so that you don’t even have to watch the main screen action; highly advisable) and then doing one of 3 things: press Y, press A, or press the 3-button d-pad sequence shown. It may look as if you are rushing to find an empty phone booth to swap your threads, searching vans for contraband before proceeding to toss them into the stratosphere (not very environmentally-friendly is he?), or analysing some conked out civilians to determine if they are really androids, upon which you’ll toast them with some heat vision (this one is mildly amusing!), but you can’t fool me; all you’re really doing is haphazardly pressing one, two, or maybe three buttons if you’re lucky when you are prompted to do so.
Other levels that crop up are slightly different. You may have to listen very carefully to some excruciating audio as you search for imps (WTF?!). There are a few chase sequences where you pilot Kal-El as he flies towards that airplane, or polygonal mess, whatever. And how could I forget the ‘boss battles’, if you could call them that. These scripted sequences have you pressing the corresponding buttons as they drop onto their markers just like in the DDR rhythm games. You either hit or you miss; there are no varying degrees of accuracy here, and as such these battles are a cinch. As you successfully follow through, you’ll see Superman exchange blows with his nemesis. What I mean to say is that you will see them both perfoming a single aimless punch over and over… *pause*… and over again. After bringing the health down to two-thirds and then one-third, a poorly performed tackle or powerslam animation will initiate, before going back to the mindless one punch exchanges. Trust me when I say that it’s as bad as it sounds.
The missions are all short and easy to finish once you’re accustomed to how they work. For instance, flying is infinitely easier when you look purely at the map display and ignore the actual graphical going-ons on the main screen. You have got a pretty good sense of speed as you jet around the place, but the archaic level design doesn’t allow for any freedom. The disjointed nature of the game may give you the impression of a collection of similarly-played mini-games, tied together by a rough plot. Talking about the story, it is obvious that more villains had to be added to give more stuff to do, but when the focus finally shifts to Lex Luthor and you finish the game in less than 10 minutes thereafter, you’ll be damn disappointed if you are any sort of fan.
As for bonuses, along the way there are tokens scattered about which you can collect to unlock comic book covers. This sounds a lot like the original 3D Spider-Man game, but it’s even more useless here. The tokens are infinite and so as long as you replay the game heaps, you will end up with a sufficient enough stash to purchase yourself some worthless bonuses.
The game is short, damn short. It can be finished in about an hour or so, and once you have sussed out the way the simple ‘strategy’ part works, all further enjoyment can only be derived from the main missions, which I’m sure you’ll realise by now, can’t save this Superman. I find Superman Returns for the DS to be superior to the infamous Superman 64 (no rings!) but then that’s not saying much now, is it? Poor presentation, bad graphics, cack sound, and simple, generic gameplay (with restricted superpower use – why?) makes for an overall un-super game. If you thoroughly enjoyed the film, it’d probably be best to just wait it out for the sequel, or else, go watch some more Smallville. For the time being, video gaming is still deadlier than multi-coloured Kryptonite for our supersonic wonder boy.