Superman Returns Review
Superman Returns box art
System: X360, PS2, Xbox, DS, GBA Review Rating Legend
Dev: EA Tiburon 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: Electronic Arts 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Released: Nov 2006 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
Review by Vaughn 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
Tiburon brings Superman to life and gamers will be divided between its strengths and weaknesses.
by Vaughn Smith

No other pop culture icon has suffered in the eyes of gamers more than Kal-el, son of Krypton. From the bizarre cartoony Japanese take on the NES to the Plan 9 From Outer Space of gaming Superman 64, to the recent big production flop, Superman: The Man of Steel on Xbox (Superman: Shadow of Apoklips got enough right to remove itself from this list), Clark Kent’s alter ego has taken more punishment from game developers than a gigantic Metallo filled with kryptonite.

Superman Returns screenshot

When EA announced a couple of years ago that it had acquired the Superman license, the news was met with hope and trepidation. Long time Madden developers Tiburon were tasked with bringing the chosen son of Krypton from the movies to the game screen. There’s no doubt that Tiburon are a talented bunch, but they were going to have to leave their comfort zone for the Phantom zone and have to deal with the fallout if their Superman game didn’t match up. In that sense, Tiburon was almost faced with an impossible task due to the overwhelming expectation of DC Comics fans. How do you attempt to make up for every rotten Superman game ever created? As Superman fanatic and comedian Jerry Seinfeld would say “Good luck with all that…”

Superman Returns the game, is very loosely based on the blockbuster movie, and I mean, loosely. The only real tie-in of any substance happens to be the fact that actor Brandon Routh allowed his likeness for his onscreen heroic counterpart and lent him his voice. He should have stopped at the likeness, but I’ll get to the lame voice-acting later. You will see and hear actors Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor) and Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane) and other actors from the movie, but for the most part they’ve been completely overlooked in favor of more colorful villains ripped from the pages of the comic books such as Metallo, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro Superman. In doing so, Superman Returns is all-action, preferring to focus directly on the exploits of Metropolis’ only savior in his attempt to save the city from numerous threats. Unfortunately by completely side-stepping any dramatic elements that involve Clark Kent and his personal relationships (even by way of cutscenes) Superman Returns lacks overall depth. Of course, there is the argument that no one would buy a Clark Kent simulator, but therein lies the problem with most superhero games. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you gave gamers the opportunity to spend some time in the secret identity, allowing them to change at will into the hero, ripping off the shirt, changing in a back alley, you’d have that missing element no other superhero game has. Players want to feel that rush of going from zero to hero. By denying them this one fairly simple act, which we see ignored over and over and over again, is to suggest that game developers are still missing that one key ingredient that would connect their audience to their game. Would it make the game for some players? I believe it would. The first development team who creates a freeroam sandbox superhero game in which players can create their own costumes, change at will from a created secret identity while roaming the streets and features enough random crimes with boss battles that take place completely free-roam in the streets will have a sure fire hit on their hands. Surely this next generation of systems could handle this with nary a hiccup. It’s not processing muscle this idea needs to come to fruition, it’s imagination and creativity.

Superman Returns screenshot

Speaking of imagination, I defy anyone not to be impressed (or even giddy) the moment they take control of Superman and fly extremely high into the air over Metropolis and then swoop down at superspeed and fly between the skyscrapers. The 80 square miles of city is impressive and many will enjoy just flying around as their favorite caped do-gooder. The flying controls of Superman are the star of the show, even though players can expect a learning curve because both analog sticks are required for flight. I spent some time with the demo in preparation of the game so I was ready to hit the air when I got my hands on the final copy. Superman can eventually reach speeds of 800 mph in the game (faster than the speed of sound) but quite truthful the effect at which Supe’s travels doesn’t translate to that actual speed in the game. Otherwise you’d make it to the other side of the world in a second. Superman can pick up and fly with large heavy objects littering the landscape such as vehicles, boats, cargo containers, carts, people and even the Daily Planet globe. Superman can then use these objects – aside from the citizens of Metropolis – to throw at the small collection of badguys he’ll encounter over and over throughout the game. On the ground, Superman can also run at superspeed and for the most part it works well, although it defies all logic that when he runs into the side of a building while carrying a person to an ambulance, the person is A-Ok. I guess it is, afterall, just a game, right?

This brings me to the next area of disappointment in Superman Returns. Aside from some missions on WarWorld, Superman will be faced with battling an endless cycle of cookie-cutter robots and flying gargoyle creatures which are hellbent on destroying the city. Superman, who for the first time in a game is invulnerable to attack and thus has no health bar, must save Metropolis, which does have a health meter. If the city’s health is depleted from too many attacks, it’s Game Over. As the Man of Steel you won’t be given the pleasure of feeling bullets bounce off your chest as you won’t be able to confront bank robbers, muggers or other petty criminals. It’s almost as though the character of Superman has become too big for those kinds of everyday crimes. That’s more of a Spider-Man deal. Superman will save the planet, Spidey can stop the bank robbers. The boss battles in the game can be entertaining but are generally over quickly once you realize what to do (like most games, let’s be fair). The gigantic Metallo you’ll fight in the city is quite impressive and you’ll probably enjoy fighting the largest boss ever to grace a 3D free-roam game. While I won’t give away the last boss entirely, I can tell you rather disappointedly that it’s not Lex or even another human villain, nor is it a robot. It’s a natural disaster. And if Twister taught us anything, it’s an EVIL natural disaster as there are no other kinds.

Superman Returns screenshot

Batman has his wonderful toys, Spider-Man has his webs and I can’t remember what Green Arrow has, but Superman has always had an array of cool (yet strangely bizarre) superpowers at his disposal. Tiburon removed the X-ray vision and super-hearing in the game (although Supe’s will hear people’s cries for distress when a new chapter opens), but provided players with Heat vision, Freeze breath and Blow breath, each of which are mapped to the d-pad and can be upgraded to devastating levels. Each of the powers has their own particular strengths and weaknesses and some players will experiment more with them than others. I found using the Blow breath to blow the enemies hundreds of feet into the air gave me some extra time to focus on more dangerous enemies. It also enabled me to remove them from the equation and fight them in more secluded areas so they couldn’t damage the city so readily.

Screenshots / Images
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