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Superman Returns Review

Developer: EA Tiburon Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 22, 2006 Also On: PS2, Xbox and Xbox 360

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s….Superman Returns the video game on Xbox 360! The game of the same name as the recently released movie will be on store shelves this holiday season (November 22 to be precise). EA Tiburon has put tireless man hours into a project that actually predates the film. I was offered a weekend to spend with the team behind the game, play the game for myself and ask them any questions that I had. Below are the facts around the game and my impressions of a near-final build.

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Superman Returns took flight in late 2004. By the time that the film was announced, they had already begun the framework of the game, so they needed to to base the game loosely around the film and also on speculation of what the film would be like. At the same time, they did not want the traditional movie tie-in. Instead, they combined elements from many different games to create a universe suitable for Superman while managing to introduce new story elements not in the film.

First, let’s get a few facts on the record. The build that I played was a few days away from the finished product. This means that nothing dramatic or even significant will change between now and release. The game, originally scheduled to coincide with the movie in theaters, will now be released on November 22 to hit shelves around the DVD release. The team was not satisfied with what they had at E3 and have been making improvements ever since.

Superman Returns has a team of around 150 people working on it. In fact, this is one of the largest projects that EA has ever tackled. This is the first non-sports title that EA Tiburon has developed since being bought by EA. Obviously, that presents a ton of challenges, not the least of which is experience in games outside of sports. The good news is that EA brought in talent with a background in many different types of games and all with a keen interest in the Superman franchise.

Aside from Tiburon’s history of sports games, the development team also had a number of other challenges as well. “Metropolis has never been anything you could ever recognize,” said comic writer Marv Wolfman, who contributed to Superman Returns. Fleshing out Metropolis was a major task. A whole group of people have been working on development of the city itself for the duration of the project. Another quandary for Tiburon was that Superman is invincible, except that in a video game (most at least), you have to die somehow.

They found a solution to one of their problems through the process of building the city. Metropolis is huge. It takes up roughly 80 square miles, roughly the size of Cleveland, just to give you an idea. Comprising of this city are an amazing 8,000 buildings, city streets, highways, water and elevated land. The development team would not venture to tell me how many of these buildings are unique models, but they apparently used lighting techniques to make them look different in separate areas of the city.

So what was their solution to Superman’s invincibility? No, they thankfully didn’t involve Kryptonite. Instead, they literally make Metropolis a character in the game. “It’s not Superman you’re worried about,” Supervising Producer Jeff Peters explained to me. Your goal is to protect Metropolis from harm. Events will spawn at different parts of the city each time that you play through the game. This means that you will constantly be fighting bad guys, putting out fires and doing all of the things that is expected of a super hero.

How do you protect Metropolis? Superman employs combat on land and in the sky. He also has three different super hero powers: heat vision, super breath and freeze breath. These are pretty straightforward powers. Heat vision is a laser-like power, super breath is a burst of air that sends enemies flying and freeze breath freezes enemies. At different points in the game you will need to use your super powers in special ways, exploiting an enemy’s weakness, dealing with the environment, etc.

One of the stinging questions that you’ll be forced to answer throughout the game is: How do you use your super powers to save Metropolis? It can be easy to forget that you are the most powerful being in the universe and begin to get clumsy with how you react to a situation. The way you fight your enemies can be a detriment to the health of Metropolis. For instance, blasting your heat vision can cause massive destruction in the direction that it’s being used. Instead of helping the city, you could actually be helping the bad guys hurt Metropolis.

The only other thing that you need to be careful of is Superman’s stamina. Just like Metropolis’ health bar, Superman has a bar on-screen for his stamina. If you use too much of your super powers or if you take too much damage, Superman will fall to the ground and be knocked out for a few seconds. You can rapidly press a button to regain stamina, but the point is that you can get distracted from battle if you get careless with your management of Superman’s super powers.

“When you play the game, you’re going to feel the height,” Executive Producer Chris Gray told me. He wasn’t lying. One of the more amazing tidbits about Superman Returns is that you have roughly 5,000 feet of height to fly around in the clouds. To give you an idea of how high that is, some planes can fly at that altitude or even below it, which also means that you have two layers of clouds below you once you’re at that height. This only adds to the experience though. Imagine a Superman game where you were restricted by the height of the skyscrapers. That’s not Superman; he can fly into the stratosphere.

Aerial combat makes it feel a lot like a flight shooter, such as the Xbox’s Crimson Skies. You can also use super speed to quickly get from one place to the next. What you can’t do is fly endlessly on the outskirts of the city (it will hook you back towards Metropolis like Star Fox). You also can’t fly through buildings. The developers at Tiburon say that is the most asked question about the game, but due to the complexity of all the variables involved in flying through a building (plus perhaps sensitivities with 9/11), they decided to leave it out.

Ground combat is as equally involved as flying, but only more so. While you can fly anywhere on the map, you will eventually need to land on the ground to fight hand-to-hand. Landing and taking off is as seamless as a button tap (Y on the Xbox controller) and even corresponds as an attack (Superman comes crashing to the ground). The best way I can describe the fighting is using what the folks at Tiburon said. Superman Returns is Crimson Skies (flight), GTA (open-world) and Tekken (fighting) all meshed into one. You have a standard attack button (X), a block (B) and a button to pick items up and throw them (A). Combine these with your super powers and you have around 200 combinations.

I’ve been talking so far about the general makeup of the game, but not much about my hands-on experience. Tiburon gave us roughly 3-4 hours to play the game, and apparently the game is anywhere from 10 hours without completing side missions to 15 hours long. I will admit outright that I have never been a fan of open-world games like GTA, but Tiburon got this one right. There are a ton of variety in the buildings, there aren’t any load times at all, the city is seamless and bustling. That’s what makes this a next-generation game.

That said, there are some trade-offs. Cars have a low amount of detail and the characters walking around aren’t the best looking models either. There’s also some slowdown at times and worst of all are the jaggies on an HDTV. This is not what I expect from the Xbox 360. Another problem that I had, at least initially, was the camera. You control Superman with the left analog stick and the camera with the rights. The camera tends to jerk back to the direction that Superman is flying once you release it. This can be annoying, but it’s not something that compromises the experience too much.

I won’t spoil the different memorable segments in the game, but the Metallo battle is already pretty well known. This is one of the many boss fights that make up the game. Metallo is a giant set on destroying the city’s structures. Your super powers and attacks are useless against him, so your main course of offense against him is throwing projectiles while dealing with smaller enemies flying around. It proved to be difficult, but it can be done. The other memorable level that I played was saving Metropolis from tornadoes.

So far I have only been talking about the next-generation Xbox 360 version of the game. While EA Tiburon will not rule out possible PlayStation 3 and Wii versions of the game, they can confirm PlayStation 2, Xbox, Nintendo DS and GBA versions are in the works. Unfortunately, I did not get my hands on any of them. While they assured me that the current-gen version will have no load times and keep the city largely in-tact, I have to admit that I’m skeptical. Not just because I wasn’t allowed to play the game, but because the Xbox 360 version seemed somewhat constrained itself in some areas. It’s hard to imagine putting this on a current-gen system. As for the Nintendo DS, it will be a unique, non- open-world game with four player multi-player.

I’m going to close with a quote from Chris Gray. “You can play it the way you want to play it.” That about sums up Superman Returns. This is a non-linear game about choices. You can ignore the distress of citizens or you can act. You can use your super powers, damaging buildings, or you could show restraint and perhaps fall short of defending the city. The choices you make are in your court. EA Tiburon is giving the gamer the tools they need to be Superman. It’s up to them how they use it.

Written by Kyle