Superman's great at saving the world, but he sure hasn't had much success when it comes to video games. The disastrous Superman 64 was no doubt the low point in the Man of Steel's video game history, but even his highs haven't been all that high. Superman Returns: The Videogame was originally slated to release alongside the movie in June (which had its own tumultuous production saga), but it wasn't ready in time and the release date was pushed back to coincide with the DVD of the movie going on sale. Despite the delay, the game still doesn't seem to be ready, but that hasn't stopped it from being released. It's certainly not as bad as Superman 64, but it's still plenty bad. Superman Returns does do a few things well, and it does manage to be entertaining for the first hour or so, but it's all downhill from there.
For a game that's supposed to be a movie tie-in, Superman Returns sure doesn't have a whole lot in common with the film. After fighting off a rogue meteor shower and learning how to use his super abilities, Superman zooms off to outer space to find that his home planet has indeed been destroyed. On the way home he runs across Mongrul, does a bit of fighting, and then it's back to Earth. Here he'll battle Metallo, Bizarro, and, eventually, someone who was actually in the film, Lex Luthor. People who saw the movie and those who didn't will be equally frustrated with the storytelling. If you saw the movie, you'll be puzzled as to what the heck any of this has to do with the film, and if you didn't see Superman Returns, there's little chance that any of the short cutscenes will explain exactly what the heck Lex is doing with the crystals, much less why Mister Mxyzptlk wants Superman to race around the city.
Superman Returns takes place in Superman's adopted home city, Metropolis. The city consists of several large islands that lie in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains. The city is largest on the Xbox 360, as the PlayStation 2 and Xbox are missing one of the smaller islands. You're free to go almost anywhere, from street level to thousands of feet above even the tallest building. The view from high up in the sky is breathtaking at first, and it's fun to zoom down through the clouds and wind through city streets and in between the skyscrapers at breakneck speeds. However, the fun quickly wears off when you realize that short of endlessly touring the city, there's little else to do. You can fly around and rescue kittens that are hidden around Metropolis, and that's about it. You can't fly underwater, and you can't walk in buildings.
So, other than rescuing kittens, what is there to do? Not a whole heck of a lot. The game is divided into chapters comprised of a series of objectives that only appear by flying around aimlessly until you get close enough to one to trigger it. As is evident by the way the game drags on and on, there are certainly plenty of objectives--there's just not much variety to them. Early in the game most of your time will be spent fighting robots--robots that walk, robots that roll around, and robots that fly. Later you'll be fighting evil monsters and even dragons. (If you're wondering why on Earth there are dragons in the game, you're not alone.) This monotony is occasionally broken up when you are charged with putting out building fires. And if you play long enough, you'll get to fight bad guys and put out fires. The segments where you race Mister Mxyzptlk or play as Bizarro help break up the monotony a tiny bit, but they don't count as progress toward completing the game, so there's little point in wasting time on them.
Being that Superman is mostly invincible, he doesn't have a health bar; however, the city of Metropolis does. The bad guys will torch trees, throw cars, and pummel civilians. Any damage to the city diminishes the health bar, and when it's empty, it's game over. This is a novel approach to indirectly making Superman vulnerable, but it also restricts the game's "sandbox" feel. Anytime you decide to smash something or set a car ablaze, you're just hurting yourself. Imagine a first-person shooter where you could shoot yourself in the head or a racing game where you could pour sugar in your own gas tank--that's kind of what it's like here. It sure might sound like fun to take the giant globe off of the Daily Planet and toss it into a group of cars, but the pesky thought of "What would Superman do?" and the negative effect your action will have on the city is always in the back of your mind. You can play as Bizarro and wreak some havoc, but causing trouble's just not that much fun when you're being forced to do it.
The combo-based fighting system lets you string together a fairly impressive number of moves, and after you complete a series of objectives, you'll earn new combos. Unfortunately, you don't really need many of these new moves, and you'll quickly find yourself either using the same combos over and over or just resorting to mashing buttons and hoping for the best. Superman also has his trusty heat vision, super breath, and of course his freeze breath, all of which can be powered up by finishing objectives. Some enemies are weak against a particular power, though a few are impervious to them, and there's even a creature that grows stronger should you try to use one of your powers on it. Freezing and burning enemies is actually pretty fun, but unless you like blowing enemies a half mile away and then chasing them down to pummel them, Superman's super breath is almost totally worthless--you only need use it a couple of times.
The combat sounds entertaining, and at first it is, but a number of problems quickly render it frustrating and uninteresting. Because you're fighting the same handful of enemies hundreds of times, the real challenge comes not from the enemies themselves, but from trying to stay interested in what's going on. The controls aren't overly complex, but it's still tough to get them to respond. Using the D pad to toggle between powers on the fly is frustrating, and it's tough to aim your attacks, too. You can lock on to enemies, but short of removing the target lock adjusting your position and hoping to lock on to another enemy, there's no way to change your focus during a battle. This is particularly problematic when you're in the air and getting attacked by a dragon that's just offscreen, or when you're fighting in a crowd, trying to punch a robot but wailing on an innocent civilian instead. Collision detection is dreadful, so sometimes you'll be hitting a bad guy (or getting hit by one) even though no punches are actually landing. For some unknown reason Superman can't jump. It's a pain to land, and Superman's inability to jump makes it tough to easily get to any enemy that's on top of a car or standing on the other side of a bush. When Superman can't get around a bit of shrubbery, you know things aren't going too well. An awful camera doesn't help matters much, either.
Despite the game's declaration that the camera is smart (it says so in the game options), it does a terrible job of following the action. You're frequently obscured by enemies, cars, and buildings. If you can see yourself, then chances are pretty good that you won't be able to find whatever you're fighting. Enemy icons will appear on one side of a building when the actual enemy is on the other side, and sometimes the camera gets so low to the ground that you can't see your target through all the traffic and pedestrians on the screen. A handy radar system helps alleviate this problem somewhat, but it's still a problem. Racing against Mister Mxyzptlk wasn't all that fun to start with, but it's also hindered by the camera, which works just fine for cruising the skies looking for trouble, but is considerably less friendly when moving at high speeds.