Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Captain America: Super Soldier

Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3

Developer: Next Level Games

Publisher: Sega

# of Players 1

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: B

As far as this year's crop of licensed superhero movie games go, Captain America; Super Soldier comes out on top as the most enjoyable. Brandon Gill and the team at Next Level Games (working with a no-nonsense script from Marvel writer Christos Gage) have cooked up a game that packs in exploration, excellent combat sequences, tons of collectibles and a timing-based navigation system that's refreshing as well as rewarding. A few technical issues drag the fun down a notch, but overall, this is one of those games that's hard to put down once you start playing. Granted, if you're one of those folks who wants a "Game of the Year" contender in EVERY title you play, you'll probably find the game lacking in a few areas. On the other hand, for what it is, Cap gets the job done in a solid no frills manner that's well worth the price point.

The game doesn't follow the film's plot to the letter at all, but that's actually good thing as it streamlines out the needless bits while allowing you to explore and cut loose. Skip through the brief cut scenes and it's more or less Cap sees Hydra goons (or vice versa), Cap kicks Hydra goon butt all around a level until he meets up with a boss and kicks his (or her) butt all around a smaller portion of a level. Rinse and repeat. While that sounds like the game is short, it's actually pretty lengthy for a movie game, especially if you're into tracking down hidden goodies. The simplicity is also just why the game works as well as it should. The pacing here isn't the super-lighting experience of a God of War or Devil May Cry style third-person action game at all. Instead, there's a more deliberately paced mix of "open world" style action and light puzzle solving that's easy enough for non or newish gamers while challenging for hardcore players once the difficulty is bumped up. As licensed move games need to cater to a wider range of player skill levels, I'm more than willing to cut the developer some slack in terms of sticking to a certain familiar formula. Nevertheless, I'm hoping the game does well enough in terms of sales that they get the chance to stretch their wings even more in a sequel.

If anything, Captain America sticks to certain expected basics, but really hooks you in once you let it. Yes, there's a massive castle and surrounding area to explore in above and underground locations (it's bigger than you think). Yes, there's a great never-fail acrobatic system in play that assures you get around stylishly (but only the best players will get the timing perfect on the first go). Yes, there's also the fact that while the game seems quite linear if you merely follow the action where it leads. However, once you find the Sewers, you can extend your play time for quite a while hunting down even more collectibles as you try and discover how and when those doors unlock down there. All of that exploration would be moot if the combat wasn't fun and fortunately, it is very fun indeed. Between the multiple enemies onscreen and those slow motion bashes to the face, kicks and other moves Cap can pull off, you'll feel like a superhero yourself during some of the more hectic battles.

While Next Level was inspired by Batman Arkham Asylum in creating some elements of the game, what's here is all Cap's show. You can play the game at your own pace, backtracking or heading into different areas to perfect your timing in order to rack up more experience points. There's a very light RPG-like system where, through combat and collecting assorted objects, you can purchase new moves that make Cap a more efficient fighter. Three costumes are also unlockable via points and each adds a different bonus to his skills. The main costume in the game is obviously going to be the movie outfit, but If you're more used to Cap's skintight classic gear, it's here. I prefer either of the two more realistic and functional costumes (Film and Ultimate) over the now silly winged headpiece and cartoon bright colors scheme that would be a detriment on an actual battlefield. Of course, try telling that to some comics fans and you're in for a fight.

Enemies come in a few Hydra-themed varieties, from basic grunts, to deadly snipers, a few types of beefy armored hulks and mid-game, some annoying force field shielded enemies that can be a pain until you figure out how to deal with them. Those particular goons will also make trouble for Hydra, so it's fun to hang back and watch the fireworks before leaping into the fray and mopping up what's left. Controls are solid for the most part, but once in a while you may find the button timing seems off during some of the quick time sequences. On the other hand, learning early on to tap the buttons ONCE instead of jamming on them (as too many action games demand) makes things flow a bit more smoothly. While the frame rate can be problematic (the main technical problem here), again, here's a case where the fun factor helps ease through that particular flaw.

As for the graphics and art style, it's no doubt going to go over the heads of those gamers and critics that "expect" every modern game to look as if it were made last week. However, I think Next Level nailed the intentionally 'retro' look and muted color scheme, which I believe are supposed to reflect a certain 1940's aesthetic. Yes, it would have been great to have even more destructibility in the environments and more acrobatic moves for Cap (some of the maps restrict his movement a bit too much). But overall, the game has plenty of moments where you'll get a smile going that just won't quit. Achievements (or Trophies, if you have the PS3 version) pop up with satisfying regularity and there's also an art gallery packed with concept pieces plus some film reels that describe the enemy types along with a healthy amount of reading material regarding Baron Zemo's history.

Sounds and music are fine overall, with several actors from the film lending their talents and a rousing score that drives the action yet pipes down when it needs to be nice and quiet. Like the film, there's a certain nostalgic vibe that permeates the game experience that will go over the heads of many younger gamers. I'm rapidly approaching cranky old coot stage, so I loved much of what Next Level did here. While I'd love to see a sequel, as noted above, the game engine needs a bit of tightening up and Cap needs a few more nimble moves, such as the ability to target and throw his shield while running or hanging from certain objects. Given the movie's super success as a summer smash, it's practically a given that we'll be seeing more of Cap as a game character. Here's hoping that Next Level gets the task next time, as they've laid the groundwork for an interesting future for the star-spangled super soldier.

Granted, I'm sure SOMEONE is working on an Avengers game, but it'll be interesting to see what sort of game that will be as it'll need to be (and probably will be) an even busier team-based affair. Anyway, I'm no fortune teller, so I'll shut up and stick to what I know. I say give the good Captain a try - you just might be surprised at how much fun this one is.

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