Superman Returns…to the video game world, and for the first time in a considerably long time he’s looking like he’s going to live up to his name. Loosely based on the film of the same name, Superman Returns looks to build upon the legacy the film and comics have built up over the past 50 plus years. Electronic Arts’ Tiburon Studios in Orlando, Florida (most notably, developers of Madden for the last several years) has a very talented crew working on Superman Returns for the Xbox 360 (and other systems as well, but our purpose was strictly for the 360 version) as they make an effort as a company to move away from the sequel factory they’ve come to be known as over the past couple of years. Regardless of your view of EA, love them or hate them, they must be doing something right to be the biggest third party in the video gaming world.
The purpose of the community day for EA is to reach out to some of the smaller independent websites out there. They get to tell us all about their product and in return we get to be treated like we’re actually big time print/online media. In this case we got to see Superman Returns (release date November 22, 2006) before many others did. EA and Tiburon did such a great job welcoming us that we immediately felt like we belonged, or at least I did, and since it was my first time attending one of these events and being so far from my home in California that was pretty important to me. It’s very exciting knowing that you’re seeing a game well before the rest of the world, even though I’ve attended E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo held annually in Los Angeles, California) that’s something more or less on display to 70,000 other people at the same time. In this case there was something like 13 of us getting to see the game, talk to the actual people who worked on it and getting a pretty good amount of hands on playing time to top it all off. Who could argue with that?
Upon arrival at Tiburon Studios it’s pretty amazing to believe that work can actually be performed under such conditions. Their break room consists of about a dozen arcade machines with both old and new games sprinkled throughout. They’ve also got a giant plasma screen TV on the wall with every current console hooked up for their enjoyment, um, uh, research. They’ve also got a cereal bar to provide them early morning or late night sustenance. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Those poor workers, how can they survive while being treated so well? That doesn’t even include the occasional arcade cabinet sprinkled here and there throughout the building or even the fact that we didn’t get to see the entire building for that matter, some areas were off limits to us, which only makes for higher levels of intrigue.
We were able to see concept models and art that led to the development of this game which actually began prior to the filming of the movie, so many of these ideas were in place well before they saw what was to eventually become the film. Some of those models and pieces of concept art are pictured, while I’m sure a great many of them weren’t even shown to us. Still, Tiburon and EA managed to get all the main actors to do their own voice work for the game which helps to add to the authenticity of the film license. Again, this builds upon the film, it is not a game based on it. As Superman I’m sure it’s a lot more fun to fly around and beat up on the villains, then walk through the Daily Planet’s corridors trying to battle through a bad case of writer’s block.
The game itself features some very novel and unique concepts. First and foremost, I feel, is the concept that Superman himself can’t really be killed; in exchange for his own life bar is one for the city of Metropolis. The city lives and breathes, citizens walk around and cars drive about. Events can happen simultaneously to further heighten the feeling of being Superman. A fire can break out in a building which you may need to put out using several different methods, either using your Superbreath, throwing a water tower at the building, or picking up a fire truck and placing it next to the building to put out the fire the “old fashioned” way. At the same time this fire is blazing, there may be some robots or other villains wreaking havoc on the complete opposite end of the city. That’s why you must use your powers wisely, you can’t be everywhere at once, but you can certainly try, and you will have to try because if you leave the city alone for too long your game will end. It’s a very interesting way to go about the design of a game. Sure, they could’ve made it so that there’s a baddie around every corner and he’s got kryptonite to neutralize your strength and level the playing field, but that’s the easy way out. Instead Tiburon chose to make one gigantic city (according to them there’s about 80 square miles to explore) with no load times at any point. They took the challenge upon themselves and instead of releasing a half-baked game full of bugs they decided to hold it back a few months and make the best possible game they could. Hence, the reason this is coming out in November and not released alongside the film at its theatrical release.
Aside from that, you begin the game as Superman and you are just that, Super, not a crippled version of him with limited skills that you need to acquire as you push through the game. You will, however, build up those Superpowers to greater levels, but even then you’re expected to utilize them in constructive ways, not destructive. You see, even though you can use your Heat Vision to destroy all enemies within your sight, you’ll also be leveling buildings, hurting innocent civilians and destroying cars, so you need to use your powers wisely lest you bring your game to a very quick end. Again, this is an attempt to innovate the genre. So many games centered around superheroes involve simple beat’em up strategies that they get very boring by the end of the first few levels. While Superman Returns does have some of that button mashing action, it also has some strategy involved as you try to learn what works on villains and what doesn’t, forcing you to alter your strategy for specific enemies. More exciting though are the levels when you’re not really fighting specific bad guys, but Mother Nature herself. Meteor showers and twisters are just two events we saw which were very different from any of the other action in the game.
Even after all that there’s still the thrill of being Super. There’s time to explore Metropolis through the air, or even on foot if you want to run around. Your super speed is amazing. You’re flying so fast that it’s easy to get around pretty quickly, but at the same time there’s so much ground to cover that you’re not getting there in a few seconds, in fact a minute or two seems the more likely scenario. Especially cool is flying around the buildings. Tiburon did a fantastic job of making it so that you can maneuver around buildings at high speeds without crashing into every building or object in your way. Tiburon took many a great step to make this the most Superman-like experience ever to grace a console.
Not to be outdone the sound seems equally as promising as the visuals and gameplay. With the additional audio capabilities of the Xbox 360 the sound in Superman Returns really screams to be heard in full 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Flying at supersonic speed creates for some loud moments when Superman breaks through the sound barrier. Layered sounds make this one of the most complex 360 games to be made thus far. Flying to higher altitudes will bring lighter music, more focused on instruments such as the woodwinds and strings. As you come back down to Earth the rest of the orchestra comes in to play and a full score comes to life. It’s very complex stuff as we got to see just how many audio samples go on at any given time aside from the music. The only thing seemingly missing is the John L. Williams score to accompany the game. Superman freaks will cry foul, while most gamers and fringe fans, probably won’t even notice until they’re told it’s missing.
The focus here is not only on what you can do as Superman, but what responsibility you must pursue as a person with the power to destroy an entire planet if he chose to. Being Super is a tough job, and while none of you have to go through those trials and tribulations, some of us, okay just me, do.
Mark my words this will be a solid title. Quite possibly it may be the very best superhero game ever, but only the final build will tell that story. I do think, though, that Tiburon’s extremely talented staff went into this game with every intention of making it great and if they didn’t we would have seen this game months ago and by now we would have dismissed it entirely. So, again, you may not like EA for being the giant they’ve become, but you have to at the very least respect them for trying to make this the best game they could.
I’m really excited for this game, and I think whether you’re a fan of the film, comic books, or just video games, then you’ve got something to look forward to as well. There’s a lot to like here some of it being stuff we’ve seen before, but the real fun begins when you get to play through some of the events mentioned above. Innovative and challenging, yet still fun will make Superman Returns one game to watch for.
In closing, I’d like to thank all the people who were able to make this possible: Electronic Arts and Tiburon for being such gracious and wonderful hosts before, during and after the event including, but not limited to the following people:
Jonathan Long - EA Community Manager
Peter Lehman - Audio Specialist
Jesse James Allen - Audio Specialist
Mathias Lorenz - Art Director
Jeff Peters - Supervising Producer
Chris Gray - Executive Producer
Andy Vittor - Marketing Assistant
Last, but certainly not least, as always I’d like to thank my wonderful family for putting up with me in my absence from the homestead.
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