No matter how you look at it, video games, much like the big screen, were invented for superheroes. Where else are you expected to jump, shoot, punch and kick your way to victory time and time again. Even World War 2 shooters have a little superhero in them; one man against the world, saving the day with an inhuman show of courage and athletic feats. Driving games? Sure they may boast real world physics, but what they really want you to do is take a Viper and upgrade it until you're over the 1000 horsepower mark and then take a corner at 300 mph using the hand-brake like you were Bruce Wayne in the Batmobile. Every single game out there has a little bit of super-hero in it. So why are there so few good superhero games? Are developers over thinking the obvious?
A few years ago, Neversoft/Treyarch and Activision released Spider-Man for the PS1 and proved once and for all that super-hero games didn't have to be side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Spider-Man, at the time, was perhaps the single greatest super-hero game ever made and it gave us great promise for things to come. In the time since, Activision has given us countless super-hero titles that while staying true to the source material expanded the gameplay concepts and abilities of the genre. The culminating point for many in this respect is Spider-Man 2 (2004) which perfectly recreated New York City and allowed us free reign to wander around fighting crime. The other game that many will also allude to is Activision's X-Men Legends. This last title offered fans of the comics a true-to-life universe to delight in while also allowing gamers various options for upgrading and puzzle-solving. In all cases however, Activision has proven to be the publisher of choice for super-hero games and every new entry seems to be greeted with more and more anticipation as well as mounting criticism. It was inevitable then, after seeing the trailers and hearing the rumbles in comic-dom, that a Fantastic 4 game would be released to coincide with the movie. It is now a matter of public record that the movie left something to be desired, especially opening hot on the heals of the amazing Batman Begins film, but it was still fun escapism. And so, how does the polygon recreation of the fantastic foursome fare?
The video game version of F4 is a rather faithful recreation of the movie it is tied to. Yes, a few extra scenes and boss characters have been thrown in for padding, but the core story is unchanged. The game also tries to walk you through the feeling of discovery that each character experiences upon returning to earth and finding out that they've brought back a little "something extra". In this respect, the initial missions/tutorials with each character are fun and brilliantly paced. Once you've had a chance to play with each of the four characters however, you soon yearn to be able to play with all four at once (switchable on the fly using the d-pad). And this is what is so painful about the game; you have to wait so long before being able to play as the Fantastic 4 and even then, it mostly occurs during boss battles where you aren't left to figure out the intricacies of the team dynamics but where you have to fend for your life. Right away, this will disappoint a few.
On a brighter note, each character is well rendered (more on that later) and has all of his/her powers to play with right from the start (all of which are can be upgraded). In X-Men Legends we were given a slew of powers to play with but there was something very generic about a few of them. Many of the characters felt interchangeable and although the game was brilliant in its own right, there were perhaps too many super-heroes involved and not enough distinction between them. It perhaps didn't help that the action was from a top-down perspective which also limited things a bit. In Fantastic 4 we are given 4 characters to explore and each one feels very different from the others. But let's be honest, for over a quarter of a century, we've each had our own idea as to how each character "should" play and the good news is that for the most part, the game gets the feel for all the powers right. Mr. Fantastic is the "stretchy one" and as such feels like a wad of silly putty waiting to explode. Launching punches with him feels very satisfying and stretching out to take out a droid at 20 feet is quite enjoyable. The Invisible Woman can, you guessed it, disappear at will as well as generate shields and fire blasts of energy. While always a second-class addition to the Fantastic 4 comics, in the gaming universe Sue Storm proves to be the most fun character of the bunch to play as, and possibly the most versatile. The Human Torch is the pyromaniac of the bunch and possibly the least fun of the characters to control. While Johnny Storm may be a treat visually and graphically, his fireball attacks quickly prove useless compared to the others' powers. Also, the Human Torch cannot fly in this version of the game, so he simply hovers and leaps into the air. While I understand the limitations imposed by the game engine, it's still a little disappointing to be restricted in this way when all the other characters are spot on. Lastly, we have Ben Grimm as The Thing. Raw power and brute force are the key here and picking up cars or lampposts to use as baseball bats feels fun. Each character also has his/her own specialty which can be access using context sensitive hotspots. These are basically four second mini-games that generally involve button mashing. While they do serve as a small distraction for opening doors, cracking computers, etc, they don't really add anything special to the gameplay.
Your appreciation of the Fantastic 4 may very well lie in your expectations. The Fantastic 4 is not a free roaming adventure game like Spider-Man 2. It's also not a game with lots of exploring to do or with lots of cool/clever character references like X-Men Legends. There's also no real need for stealth like the newly released Batman Begins and there are no vehicles to use. Fantastic 4 is a brawler on rails and although you may not agree with either of those two notions initially, it's actually the easiest way to describe the game. You will effortlessly be ushered from room to room where you will be tasked with one objective: beat the crap out of everyone and smash everything else. This is not to say that Fantastic 4 is without substance, but in its simplest form, it is simply a beat 'em up with very clever mechanics. And if this is what you are expecting, you will truly enjoy F4. The controls are very responsive and although the use of the triggers as "shift" keys for other attacks is a little hard to get used to at first, the game's controls become second nature in no time. It also helps that each character uses similar attacks associated to each button, i.e. a certain button will almost always be for ranged/heavier attacks while another will be for evading. This is useful when switching quickly between characters.
Yes, F4's action and gameplay is of the mindless variety. This is not a fault but things can get old very quickly. To keep things fresh, the game throws a boss battle in here and there to stir things up. These generally come off as insipid however and break up the flow of the game by actually forcing you to think. In most cases these aren't hard at all; just figure out a pattern of a boss and deal with it. But the boss battles are annoying because they feel tacked on at the end of every chapter. Furthermore, some of the chapters themselves feel overly long and without purpose as if there was a certain amount of levels that had to be integrated into the game to meet a "features" quota. As mentioned earlier, the game does allow you to upgrade your powers and unlock special combos (which are quite fun to use) by collecting "points" (which can also be redeemed for various bonus material as well). As a fan of the series, I can honestly say that this is some of the best bonus material ever included in a super-hero game. You'll find comic book covers, bios and panels as well as interviews with the actors and writers of the movie. The piece de resistance: 5 Stan Lee interviews which alone are worth the price of admission for fans of the Fantastic 4. Just hearing him tell us the history of The Invisible Woman will make fans smile.
Unlike X-Men Legends, the action in Fantastic 4 takes place from an isometric camera angle which does an excellent job of following the action. The camera is controllable to a certain extent but does a good job on its own especially in the heat of battle when switching between characters. One of the big draws that F4 fans have been looking forward to is co-op play and while it is limited to two players only it doesn't disappoint one bit. While the A.I. for computer controlled characters is admirable, having a friend along to help you out in certain battles is a welcomed addition. It is in this respect that the camera is best appreciated since it must follow the actions of two players on screen at once. And while not perfect, and with certain concessions in movement allowed, it does a fine job at it too. Co-op play is without a doubt the most fun way to experience F4, maybe even more so if your friends are not true gamers. It's nice to see non-gamers take control of these characters and experiment with them. The comments they make while playing are always hilarious. And while there is never any "real" need to cooperate as in Lego Star Wars or Doom 3, it makes trudging through wave after wave of droids and guards that much more entertaining.
What many may claim was supposed to elevate this game above its simple gameplay is the use of the original Hollywood actors reprising their roles. Unfortunately, I found that most of the lines were uninspiring and the real actors weren't anything special at all. I was looking forward to hearing Michael Chiklis and Jessica Alba comment on my adventures, but while Chiklis does offer the best reading of the bunch, generic voice actors would have worked just the same. And while the main draw for many male viewers of the movie was Miss Alba, her voice acting really doesn't do her justice in this game. The sounds effects are also rather generic and it would have been nice to get a few different versions of each sound seeing as you will be hitting a lot of things many times throughout the game. The music and songs on the other hand are well above average and fits the F4 universe perfectly but are used very sparingly throughout.
As mentioned earlier, the character modeling for the most part is well detailed and accurately represents the comic book characters. None of the characters, however, really look like their Hollywood counterparts, especially Sue Storm. I don't mean to harp on all things Jessica Alba-related but it seems that many things nowadays are sold through pure sex appeal; the Dukes of Hazzard movie being #1 on the list of culprits. A lot of people went to see Sin City based on the movie's posters (which is a shame since the movie was well beyond clever) and a lot of non comic-book fans will see F4 based on Alba's inclusion. The videogame representation of The Invisible Woman is fine and all, but it's really nothing that even remotely looks like Jessica in any way. The face is wrong and the uh, proportions are a little off as well. For true F4 fans that couldn't care less, the models get the job done and each character is easily recognizable. On top of that, the numerous actions that each character can perform are painstakingly well recreated. The environments on the other hand are a little bland and many textures seem repeated over and over throughout levels. The enemies tend to also blend into one another after a while but there is still enough detail in various objects (usually being destroyed) to appreciate the time that went into making the graphics shine. At any rate, almost every item is destructible and even in heated moments with 4 superheroes on the screen as well as a boss character (and minions in tow), the framerate never falters.
Is F4 the game to topple Spider-Man 2 or the X-Men Legends? Hardly. It does share much in common with Legends however and fans of one should definitely check out the other. What F4 does deliver is a fun and clever beat 'em up in the style of Fighting Force which will satisfy you while it lasts and may keep you busy on a rainy day when you have a friend over. There are wonderful extras to be unlocked and fans of the comics will definitely appreciate this title more than non-fans. The Stan Lee interviews are truly worth it (and fans of Alba do get a nice interview with her as well!). Unlike many superhero games though, this one does enough things right that I look forward to a sequel; maybe one where I can choose to be one of the Fantastic 4 at a time and roam around the city fighting crime? At the very least give this one a rental, its worth it just to try out the various powers.