I don't want to be a superhero anymore; it's too much hard work. All those comic books, TV shows and movies I watched as a kid made me think having special powers would lead to a life of cool costumes, baddie bashing and swooning ladies. Instead, being a superhero is apparently all about beating up an endless parade of spawning robots until life becomes as repetitive as the average nine to five grind. Personally, after spending a few hours playing Superman Returns, I almost wanted to hand my cape back (though I might have kept the lycra suit, it flatters my love handles).
The real shame about EA's late stab at milking some cash from Bryan Singer's worthy but not quite blockbusting movie is that it starts out so well. A meteor shower is heading straight for Metropolis and only Superman (who looks uncannily like his cinematic counterpart, Brandon Routh) can stand in its way. As I darted around the sky, zapping at the rocks with Supe's heat vision, it was easy to think this would turn out to be the best superhero game yet. But, with this one great level completed, Superman Returns begins a steady decline to mediocrity that occasionally stumbles into just plain bad territory.
The plot of the film, about the Man of Steel returning to Earth after a wasted journey to Krypton only to find that the people of Metropolis are doing okay without him, is told through some brief CGI sequences (complete with the likeness and voice of each cast member) that pop up from time-to-time. To be honest though, the story only really links to the game in the latter levels, when Lex Luthor's nefarious scheme comes to fruition. Instead, you have to deal with lesser villains like the robotic Metallo (clever name) and his legions of robotic warriors. Missions are highlighted on the map and, for an hour or so, you will be mildly entertained with crushing a few tin can enemies. Gradually, though, it becomes apparent that this is all you are going to be doing and the inevitable tedium sets in.
However, before I start wading into the many faults found within this lazy cash-in, there is time to point out the one thing that Superman Returns really does get right: the flying. EA should be commended for creating a control system that makes airborne travel such an unbridled pleasure. Only Activision's wonderful job with Spider-Man 2 comes close to matching the thrill of super-speeding through the skyscrapers of Metropolis and breaking the sound barrier with a sonic boom. It's an incredible sensation and, unlike the rest of the game, takes a fair while to get old. There is a lot of fun to be had from just tooling around the Xbox 360-fied town, listening to the sweeping orchestral score and zipping up into the sky for a breathtaking view of the bustling city below. With 80 square miles to explore, ranging from skyscrapers to dingy slums, you'd think getting bored would be an impossible feat, but the lack of things to do (unless finding hidden cats is your idea of a good time) does take the lustre of this vast open world. Personally, the most fun I had was picking up hapless civilians and depositing them at the highest point I could find - but then I do have a mischievous cruel streak.
Sadly, apart from a few racing side missions and some disastrous air battle sequences, most of your time will actually be spent on the ground, pounding repetitive enemies with a clunky combat system that is bad enough without having to wrestle with the supposedly 'Smart' camera system. Targeting enemies is very hit and - more often - miss, while the wealth of combos that can be unlocked by building up experience points rarely prove as effective as randomly bashing the X button and hoping for the best. Wave after wave of metal enemies will suddenly appear for you to deal with and, even when you have finally despatched Metallo (in a distinctly Path of Neo-esque giant robot battle), they still keep on coming. Later on, other enemies like dragons (yes, dragons) do appear to terrorise the city but by then you will have grown so weary of jabbing X and Y until your thumb hurts that they only raise a glimmer of interest. At least your super powers (freezing, heating and blowing) can be used to freeze or melt certain enemies, saving you a bit of time, and they get stronger and more effective as the game progresses.
Superman is, quite rightly, invincible - the worst he gets is temporarily knocked out - but Metropolis has its own energy bar that you have to keep a careful watch on. If your enemies trash too much of the city or you start flinging around cars and accidentally wrecking buildings then the bar dips steadily towards zero, which means game over. It's a nice spin on the standard health system and it works pretty well too. I certainly found it rewarding to carry injured civilians to ambulances for a much needed city health boost. Judicious saving after each battle is advised though, unless you want to have to redo a whole chapter when an unexpected boss battle suddenly wipes out Metropolis.
For the first half of Superman Returns progression is relatively easy, but there is a definite difficulty spike after the midway point, heralded by an obscenely challenging mission where you have to stop an army of marauding dragons from destroying three blimps. Any players who have not given up out of boredom before then will almost certainly abandon hope at this point, even if the actual game does manage to lumber on to over the 10-hour mark. To be honest, only a die-hard Superman fan - or someone who hasn't seen the movie - will stick around long enough to thwart Luthor's climactic evil plans.
Superman Return just isn't exciting enough to sustain your interest and, seeing as it's based on an excellent movie and a comic book legacy stretching back six decades, there is really no excuse for making such a brain numbingly dull title that is only partially saved by its above average presentation. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's just another sub par officially licensed game.