Since first making a name for itself with its enjoyable 2001 Diablo knockoff, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, developer Snowblind Studios has focused its efforts exclusively on developing similar hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers. Justice League Heroes takes much of what Snowblind has done with swords and sorcerers but applies it to the capes-and-tights crowd, which makes for a surprisingly good fit. The experience is faster paced and more approachable than something like Champions: Return to Arms. Although some fans might sweat certain casting choices or liberties taken with the DC universe, there's plenty of high-quality fan service to make up for it.
Though the Justice League has existed in some form since the early 1960s, DC's all-star super group has found renewed popularity though Cartoon Network's Justice League Unlimited series. In fact, writing credits for Justice League Heroes belong to Dwayne McDuffie, who has more than a decade's experience writing superhero comics and has been a creative force on both the Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titan animated series. The by-the-numbers arc of the story shows the Justice League responding to a series of attacks orchestrated by Brainiac, only to uncover an even greater, more diabolical plot. But there's some decent superhero banter and an underplayed yet surprisingly sharp sense of humor. The heroes seem to take the whole situation quite seriously, which makes moments like Superman ribbing Batman for his detective skills, an unspoken Donkey Kong joke, and The Flash's many one-liners quite funny.
In addition to the occasional chuckle, the story is absolutely crammed with DC universe minutiae. You'll fight Queen Bee, The Key, Killer Frost, Gorilla Grodd, the White Martians, and Doomsday in recognizable DC locales, such as the streets of Metropolis, a S.T.A.R. laboratory, Gorilla City, Mars, and the Justice League's Watchtower, which is located on the Earth's moon. If you pay attention, you'll catch tossed-off references to Plastic Man, Dr. Light, Solomon Grundy, and Vandal Savage. You don't need to be a huge Justice League or DC Comics fan to enjoy Justice League Heroes, but if you understand what a Mother Box is, the story is definitely geared to you.
Though the game shares a writer with Justice League Unlimited, fans of the cartoon may be a little disheartened to learn that none of the cartoon's voice actors are used in Justice League Heroes. This isn't to say that the voice acting is bad. In fact, Ron Perlman and Michael Jai White put in solid turns as Batman and the Green Lantern, respectively. And the rest of the League does a decent job, though the voice of Superman doesn't have the necessary presence. The sound design is generally quite heroic and the soundtrack eclectic, with music that can go from sweeping orchestrals to driving, electronic-tinged rock.
The game is worlds away from the usual dark and mystical Tolkien-inspired high-fantasy settings that are favored by most hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers, but the formula works because a few things have been tweaked and streamlined. Rather than playing as just a single hero for the duration of the game, you'll have the chance to play as all seven core members of the Justice League: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, The Flash, and Zatanna. The heroes work in pairs, and for the first half of the game, you'll have no control over which heroes will be used in the next level. Intermittently, though, you'll be given the task of choosing your own heroes. And because you have no idea about the nature of the next level, this task has a Russian roulette vibe to it.
If you're playing by yourself, you'll have direct control over only one of the heroes. This is usually fine because the artificial intelligence picks up the slack in combat quite dutifully. Along with being able to switch which character you're controlling by tapping up on the D pad, you can affect how aggressive the friendly AI is by tapping left, right, or down on the D pad. The pathfinding is a little weak, and there are times when your partner will get stuck in a corner and start spinning around in circles like a maniac. It's not a terrible bother because getting far enough away from your partner will eventually cause your partner to teleport to your location, but it happens often enough to be a bit of an annoyance. Playing cooperatively with another person not only sidesteps the occasional bugginess with the friendly AI, but it's generally more satisfying. The game is designed for two players, and a live companion is simply more fun than one that's computer controlled.
As you might imagine, each character's special powers can vary quite a bit, though they are all basically controlled the same way. Each has a normal and a strong attack, which can be easily strung together into multihit combos. Depending on how you develop your characters, you could go a long way just punching guys. Using the basic combat abilities exclusively does get boring quickly because every character has the same handful of multihit combos, which can feel mechanical at times. The attacks can look really great, and each hero has unique and appropriately hard-hitting animation, but you'll find combos continue long after you've bested your enemy and stopped hitting buttons, leaving your hero to play out the rest of the canned attack animation against thin air.