Try to imagine a day in the life of the typical Metropolis resident. You wake up in the morning to find dozens of asteroids hurtling straight at your city. You arrive at work to find your office building in flames. Your car isn’t where you remember parking it, and only after several minutes of trying to locate it by arming and disarming the alarm do you realize that a blue-suited spaceman has hurled it, along with every other car on the block, at a 500-foot-tall robot. Wouldn’t it take you about two weeks to get fed up and move? Maybe buy a condo in Gotham City?
KRYPTONITE: We get only glimpses of what might have been.
Or imagine a more perilous, real-world scenario: you’re an aspiring video-game designer. You’ve got talent and drive; all you need is someone to give you a break. You knock on doors, you make phone call after phone call, and finally, just when it seems you’re going to spend the rest of your life temping, someone calls to offer you a job. It’s Electronic Arts. The folks there want you to work on the official game for Superman Returns, and it absolutely, positively has to get done by the time the DVD comes out. Do you attach your name to a doomed project just for the chance to put a shipped game on your résumé?
Apparently plenty of people were willing to do so, because Superman Returns arrived right on schedule alongside the DVD. To no one’s surprise, it’s terrible. But it’s also frustrating, because there are tantalizing glimpses of what might have been if this were a Superman game and not a Superman Returns game. Game designers have been implementing contiguous living cities since Grand Theft Auto III, so it isn’t exactly revelatory to find one here. But what excitement Superman Returns offers comes from patrolling the skies above Metropolis. The city is huge — you can take Superman from street level up into the clouds and then fly to anywhere in the game world. The flight mechanics work beautifully, from Superman’s cape flapping in the breeze to his initial speed burst upon takeoff. He can even fly fast enough to break the sound barrier. If this were an early build of the game, you’d be excited to see the finished product.
Unfortunately, this is the finished product. Although the city is bustling with activity, you don’t get to do very much. You can pick up cars and throw them, or pick up light poles and, uh, throw them. There are sporadic mini-games devised by Mr. Mxyzptlk. One temporarily changes you into Bizarro Superman and demands that you do as much damage as possible in order to gain the adulation of the citizenry. It’s cute but insubstantial.
The bulk of the game consists of repetitive, grueling missions. The objectives never get very far beyond beating up a bunch of bad guys and then flying around until another group attack. Because of the story structure, you find yourself fighting the same types of foes over and over. Even the tutorial suffers from this kind of artificial lengthening — it takes about 30 seconds to learn to switch between your heat vision and your freeze breath in order to stop an onslaught of killer asteroids, but the lesson goes on, and on, till you expect outer space to call and say it’s running out of rocks. On the plus (?) side: even with all the filler, Superman Returns takes just a few short hours to complete. In fact, given its brevity and the lack of any real challenge, it’s a great choice for Xbox 360 users looking to score some easy achievement points. Everyone else should steer clear of this Kryptonite.