I'm going to start this review by regaling you with a favorite tale of mine from the pages of the Superman comic books. Superman was in Egypt, battling a group of evil space gods known collectively as 'The Pantheon.' While fighting one of them, a giant named 'Omicron,' Superman punched the god so hard that he flew the entire length of Africa and smashed deep into a mountain range. Superman flew down seconds later, and continued his attack, punching Omicron's force fields with such power that the shockwaves from the impact caused the mountain range to crumble down around them. This happened over the course of three pages of an obscure issue of World's Finest, the Batman/Superman team-up comic. It is by no means the most impressive or fantastic thing Superman ever did with his powers. Yet it manages to be more interesting than anything that the player is able to do when playing as him in Superman: Man Of Steel.
Game developers have a difficult dilemma in front of them when making Superman games. The last son of Krypton has such incredible powers that it's hard to imagine a threat that could give him more than a moment's pause. So how do you make a game about Superman that isn't far too easy? Traditionally, it's done by underpowering Superman to a ridiculous extent. This game is no exception. As I started to play the game, the absolute first thing I noticed was that Superman was wholly and unambiguously not faster than a speeding bullet. No, Superman's movement is more akin to a jittery, broken-down hovercraft. It's almost as if the game's designers had some kind of a secret grudge against Superman—in the game's fifth level, they actually go out of their way to point out that Superman is less powerful than a locomotive. The level requires Superman to clear a seemingly endless number of hovercars that have stalled on the elevated train tracks. Just stepping in front of the train and digging in your heels isn't an option.
The game's controls vary from being merely competent to completely inadequate. The problems start with the badly thought out controller options. The game seems to offer six different controller setups, but it's actually just three different button setups, with whether or not you want flying controls inverted as the other option The game uses both sticks to control movement, the left is for moving forward, backwards and turning, the right for sliding side to side and going up and down. While this setup works fine for the surprisingly slow flying, it's completely inadequate for the hovering which players will spend most of the game doing. The movement controls are calibrated in such a way that Superman can either move forward or turn, but never both. This means that if you ever want to circle around a building, you have to choose between flying straight to the corner and then slowly turning, or turning as you slide to the left or right. Given that all the game's missions are very time-sensitive, this shoddy control scheme leads to a surprising number of failed missions.
One of the game's biggest drawbacks is the illogical and frustrating mission objectives that Superman is required to complete. In the train level, for example, Superman has to lift hovercars off the train tracks and put them in a specific place. Usually, this means on top of a small building, although sometimes they have to be placed on a specific area of the ground. The controls make this very difficult, though, as any time Superman has to pick up anything larger than a person, he can only hover and suffers from incredible inertia. So while a large train is about to run into an electrical fire, Superman will be struggling against imprecise, badly drifting controls, trying to place a car in a relatively small box. Carrying large things also causes Superman to slowly fall, which leads to even more constant correction. Oddly, Superman even falls when carrying things in space, where they are theoretically weightless.
The terrible controls ensure that even the best player will fail time and again, and even here the game doesn't get it right. I'm not talking about the lack of in-mission saves-the missions are short and straightforward enough that restarting never provides much of a hassle. No, the problem is that every time Superman fails a mission, the screen cuts to a close up of Superman looking depressed while some text explains what happened. So if Superman doesn't move a car out of the way in time, the text will read "The train struck a stalled hovercar and then exploded." This has roughly the same dramatic resonance as if at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, when the Ark was opened, it had cut to black and text appeared describing how Angels came out of the Ark, then turned into Demons and melted all the baddies. The game doesn't even grasp something that has been de rigueur in video games ever since Dragon's Lair—death and failure animations and sequences provide the player with a consolation prize even when they 'lose'.
The game's graphics are a mixed bag. The draw distance is impressive, as are the cluttered Metropolis cityscapes that have been constructed for Superman to explore. Under a microscope, though, the environmental models don't hold up. Up close, the buildings seem repetitive and featureless, and somehow seem to actually be miniatures, rather than actual buildings. Maybe it's the way Superman doesn't seem the exact right scale in comparison to them, or the fact that the concrete of the sidewalks are made up of slabs thirty meters wide, the effect is to make the whole city feel artificial, even to the characters inhabiting it.
For a game that consists primarily of fighting, the combat system is startlingly underdeveloped. Many of the game's ads centered around the fact that the game gives the player access to all of Superman's powers, but unlimited use of heat vision and freeze breath actually serves to make the game more simplistic and tedious than it would have otherwise been. For the vast majority of the game, Superman only fights three different kinds of enemies: robots, slightly larger robots, and guys in power armor. These villains come in three subtypes, each one color coded to clue Superman in to how to kill them. Red for heat vision, blue for cold breath, yellow for fisticuffs. Fighting in the game invariably follows the exact same pattern: Superman hovers around, taking out two thirds of the enemies at long range, and then flies in and beats the rest until they disappear in a flash. There's very little skill required for the battles, just speed. Superman's circle strafe (or, as the game sarcastically calls it, his "Superspeed Dodge") is far too slow to evade weapons fire, so all the enemy robots will be peppering him with fire the entire length of the fight. Killing the hand-to-hand robots actually proves to be extremely frustrating because Superman can't move while punching. So while Superman begins his achingly slow punching animation, hanging in midair like a sitting duck, his opponent will drift backwards, firing all the while.
So why can't developers make a good Superman game? Well, I don't have any answers. Of course, I'm not being paid money to figure out the answer to that question. The people at Circus Freak games were, and they didn't do their jobs very well. I've spent most of this review talking about all the little things that the game got wrong. The poor control, graphics, level and mission design. These are flaws, and major ones at that. Where the game really fails, though, is that not for one second while I was playing it did I ever feel like I was controlling Superman. Is there anything worse that you can say about a Superman game?