I can't imagine it's an especially easy task, making a Superman-themed game. When making a video game, designers can draw from a legacy of great titles, all with play mechanics just waiting to be poached. Gears of War, for example, is just kill.switch with monsters and some really awkward driving. Every FPS since 1995 has been a rehash of Terminator: Future Shock. There's never been a great Superman game, though, so without any ideas to appropriate, each and every time a new Superman game is crafted the developers are starting from scratch. Just how does one make an entertaining game about a man who can fly faster than any missile, knock down a mountain range with a single punch, or ignite a sun with his vision, but never, ever, under any circumstances, kills anyone? Apparently, if Superman Returns is any example, one doesn't.
A third person action game, Superman Returns struggles right from the outset. Well, that's not really accurate. It's the player who does the lion's share of the struggling against the controls. Superman has two movement modes, walking and flying. When walking, the game operates like a standard 3D action title, with the left stick controlling movement and the right controlling the camera. Sadly, the movement is amazingly awkward, and Superman has no apparent weight, so he just seems to float around the streets far too quickly. This weightlessness makes it almost impossible to get close enough to opponents to hit them. Even worse, since Superman can't jump (let alone leap tall buildings in a single bound) there's no way for him to navigate small obstacles. In order to get over a three foot tall divider during a fight I was forced to switch from walking to flying mode, hover up and over the divider, then set myself back down on the other side, a feat that took slightly longer to perform in the game than it did to type a sentence describing it.
The flying, a key element of the whole 'Superman thing' works well enough, and it's mildly entertaining to watch Superman zoom around the city as skyscrapers whip by in a blur, but therein lies the problem: he moves much too quickly to be controllable during gameplay. So instead of being able to fly through the city, whenever Superman has to get somewhere quickly, he has to fly high over the city, which kind of makes having a detailed city in the first place a little pointless. This isn't a new problem though, it's something that other Superman games have struggled with, which makes the developers' inability to come up with a solution all the more inexcusable. I mean, I'm not being paid to design a game or anything, but wouldn't it make sense to have everything but Superman slow down whenever the Superspeed button was pressed? That still gets the 'fast' point across while retaining controllability, doesn't it?
Superpowers are another area where game developers run into trouble. After all, this is a game about Superman, who's been setting things on fire and lifting trucks ever since he was Superbaby, so players expect to be able to do pretty much everything right out of the gate. In an attempt to keep the game from being too easy, though, the odd decision was made to tone down the powers to the point where they're nearly useless in most situations. Obviously even a game about Superman should be challenging, but when I've gone to the trouble of charging up my super-breath and blowing a horde of robots hundreds of feet into the air, when they come crashing back into the ground it should have a more impressive effect than costing each of them half a bar of life energy.
Superman Returns also suffers terribly from its forced association with the film of the same name. While a visually stunning experience, there wasn't much to the film that could easily be transformed into an interactive medium; after all, looming custody battles and lifting continents do not for compelling gameplay make. In fact, all the film really accomplishes is preventing the game from having a story of its own. While the Superman of the game concerns himself mostly with blowing up robots and blowing out building fires, every now and then a wholly unrelated clip from the film plays. This creates a problem rampant in the 'based on a film' game genre. The clips don't have enough content to tell a coherent story to someone who hasn't seen the film, so the only purpose they serve is to remind players of a movie they watched one time. Is there anyone who finds this satisfying? Would those same people really feel cheated if, after purchasing a Superman Returns game it had featured a storyline that bore at least some relation to the game's content? Since Superman is fist-fighting Mongul and battling a giant Metallo, shouldn't that kind of thing show up in the cut-scenes?
Which brings me to the game's weakest aspect, the fighting engine. Isn't it time that designers of action games started leaving the fighting to the people designing the fighting games? The worst sin the game's fighting system commits is not just being frustrating, but entirely superfluous. Why struggle with an awkward combo timing system when it's faster and more fun to simply throw cars at opponents—somehow they do more damage than a punch and the villains never learn how to block them. Perhaps things would have been better had all of the supervillain battles been handled through Shenmue-style Quick Time Events. They might not have made for the most satisfying gameplay (although they did fairly well by Resident Evil 4), but at least they would have been visually interesting. The fights in Superman Returns are neither.Yes, it's hard to make a game about a character who can do basically anything, but Superman Returns is just an unforgivable mess. Whether this is due to a lack of ideas or a rushed timeline to coincide with the film's release date is debatable, but the end result is the same. It is a game that utterly fails to capture any of the elements that make its source material so enduring and beloved. There were a few moments when I could feel the game trying, as I flew over the surface of a lake, watching the water foam underneath, I knew this was a game made by people who wanted to make a good Superman game, but just couldn't pull it off. There's one upside, though—Superman isn't going anywhere, so there's always going to be a demand for a game starring him. The law of averages suggests that, eventually, one of them will have to be good. Just not this one.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.