Reviewed: November 11, 2006
Released: October 19, 2006
At last the world’s greatest superhero team has a game devoted to it. And what better way to deliver all the zingy action and eye-popping powers than to borrow a page from the immensely successful “X-Men Legends” series and make it a team-based RPG brawl-fest?
Justice League Heroes has done just that, creating an original adventure starring DC’s most beloved icons, plus a couple others not known outside of the basement-dwelling comic book geek crowd. But who cares if you don’t know who Zatanna is? You get to play as her and all the rest of the Justice League roster. That’s got to count fro something, right? Right?! Well, not as much as you might think…
Like any good comic book, Justice League Heroes starts with your typical over-the-top villain embarking on yet another scheme of world destruction. In this case the genius/fiend Brainiac has joined forces with a talking rock from outer space (you can tell the rock is evil because it glows red) and conspired to free the White Martians, awesomely powerful beings from the red planet, who will in turn pave the way for the talking rock’s arrival on Earth, at which time everyone dies. Or something like that. If you’re looking for meaningful plot in a comic book game, look elsewhere. Brainiac recruits a rogue’s gallery of B-list villains to help him out, forcing the Justice League to split up and unravel his head-scratchingly complex plot one bad guy at a time.
If you’ve played the “X-Men Legends” games, this will all look very familiar to you. Players guide the heroes through 3D environments like bases and sewers from a looming top-down perspective, making the characters resemble rats in a maze. Using your fists and your superpowers you trash armies of henchmen, overcome various obstacles, and protect civilians from harm…y’know, superhero stuff. Doing these things successfully will advance the hero’s level, allowing you to allocate skill points to unlock new powers, enhance existing powers, or upgrade character stats to make him or her faster, stronger, and generally more heroic.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It is. So easy, in fact, that within an hour you’ll probably be glancing at your watch and wondering if it would be rude to make a discreet exit out the side door.
I won’t keep you in suspense with this one. Even without the “Legends” games as benchmarks of the action/RPG hybrid genre, Justice League Heroes is a dull-as-dishwater outright chore of a game. If you happen to be a veteran of the X-Men games from Activision, this title will seem downright shameful in contrast. In every way it is a simplistic, dumbed down, watered down shade of those that came before it. There is simply no comparison. But aren’t you curious enough to read on and find out why? Of course you are.
First off, you only fight in pairs, not foursomes, and for more than half of the game you have no control over which two heroes you use, as each pair is pre-selected as dictated by the story, not by you. Only many hours into the game do you finally have some (limited) say in who will enter the field. In addition to making the player feel trapped, this dictatorial team management undermines the already thin RPG element. Rather than build up the characters you prefer to use, you’re forced into an egalitarian “everyone gets their chance” scenario where every hero, cool and lame alike, gets equal playtime. Even the later option to customize your duos is so limited you wonder why they bothered giving you the illusion of choice at all.
Having only two heroes at a time makes for a lot less action onscreen, leaving too much empty, boring space around you where little seems to happen. Compare this to the “Legends” series where the screen is constantly afire with a multitude of splashy effects and awesome powers and you begin to see why this title doesn’t stack up.
And speaking of powers, the mighty Justice League has precious few of them at your disposal, and most of them are so frustratingly similar it doesn’t matter who you’re playing as anyway. Each hero has a ranged attack, an area-of-effect power, and one or two status-altering abilities that enhance combat, healing, speed etc. Five each, a paltry 35 total. No hero enjoys any kind of customized bonus based on his or her powers, nor do any of the power ups and enhancements play to a particular Leaguer’s strengths.
Superman, for example, is every bit as vulnerable to a punch as The Flash, while the Flash has no more evading ability than the Green Lantern, and the petite magician Zatanna is every bit as good a fighter as Batman. Barring a few powers that stand out a bit, everything is sheer copy-catting. Wonder Woman’s tiara or Batman’s batarangs? Superman’s heat vision or Green Lantern’s plasma blasts?
For crying out loud, a couple of the powers don’t even pretend to be different. How many heroes should have the “Power Charge” ability anyway? And yes, the super strong members of the team can pick up a semi and hurl it half a city block, it’s true…but even the strength issue seems to have been given the democratic treatment, as tiny Zatanna can still rip up a streetlight and use it like a baseball bat.
There is lots and lots and LOTS of button-mashing melee combat, but it grows so mindless and repetitive after a few levels it feels like penance. There is virtually nothing else to be done except repeat the same tired combos endlessly while still more underlings die trying to stop you. It’s possible to be overwhelmed by force of numbers, but your health meter recharges automatically, meaning if you can stay out of harms way for ten seconds or so you can plunge back into the fray refreshed and unscathed. This is true even against bosses.
The unimaginative level design doesn’t help. The task is the same each time: each pair of JLer’s must break into Base A, reach Checkpoint B and recover Object C, all the while wading through a sea of cannon fodder robots to get to Villain X. After a mildly amusing battle, you escape and the level ends. A handful of other tasks try to change up the action a little, but not often or very well. From time to time you’ll be required to open doors by inputting correct code sequences or surmount an obstacle using a specific power, but nothing so challenging as to be more than a hiccup in the monotony of the gameplay.
Only a cursory effort was made to inject any real RPG elements into Justice League Heroes, none of them very interesting. You collect Boosts, which can be allocated to specific heroes to give their powers a shot in the arm, increasing, for example, luck to improve the chance of a critical hit, or lengthening the duration of a particular ability. Each boost has a level 1 – 7 and can be combined with other boosts to create a more effective bonus, i.e. combining 3 Level One luck bonuses yields a single, superior Level Three luck boost.
The boost system is the only way to add a modicum of range and uniqueness to the JL’s powers, but it’s not enough to really distinguish any hero. Also missing is any kind of item management: no armor, no accessories, special weapons, or any unlockable powers beyond the initial five per hero. Collectible shield icons can be put towards the purchase of geek-pleasing extras like different costumes and new characters from the JL’s back-up team like Huntress and Aquaman. All right, Aquaman! Press L1 to have a conversation with a dolphin!
I’ll admit that, visually at least, this title is eye-catching. Justice League Heroes is resplendent with bright primary colors, snazzy arcs of energy weapons and flaming debris, and lots of big, flowery explosions – everything you’d expect from a comic book come to life. There are some nice touches to be found in the destructible environments, namely a tremendous amount of breakable stuff for you to stomp, smash, and toss in your foe’s face. I especially liked the fire hydrant that sprays straight up into the camera when broken.
That said, it’s still disappointing that there isn’t more going on onscreen at any one time. Though the visuals are flashy, they lack the glorious chaos that the pitched battles of the “Legends” series had to really get your heart pumpin’. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of heroes and villains to choose from, so why the minimalist approach?
Unfortunately the camera is a detriment to the look of the game since the overhead POV and high level of zoom only gives you a sight radius of 15 to 20 virtual feet. In other words, you very often can’t see what’s going on around you or what’s right in front of your face. It’s frustrating that this continues to be a problem despite the number of titles out there that have used this same graphics engine without tweaking the design for a better sense of 360 degree awareness.
I also noticed a flaw here that I’ve never seen in other games of this genre: in large rooms or open spaces (i.e. parks) the game will sometimes fail to render the entire room onscreen, causing the environment around you to stutter and suddenly go black before aligning itself correctly. This happens especially when you use the Flash’s super speed and suddenly the fastest man alive finds himself sprinting into pixilated blackness.
Cut scenes are numerous but mercifully brief since the clunky animation does nothing to hold your attention, though I will give kudos to the animators for making Superman’s spit curl move in time with his head.
You’d think a game about comic book superheroes would be totally over the top in the sound department, giving life to all those colorful “SOCK!”, “BAM!”, “POW!” effects you see in every panel. But no, sound is just another dog in Justice League Heroes.
In keeping with the theme of repetition, the entire game draws on pretty much just one single piece of generic superhero music, which is then looped endlessly in every level and cutscene. I suppose this isn’t a mortal sin, but I found myself wondering: if each level has pre-set pairs of heroes, why not have different theme music for each duo? Wouldn’t that have been much cooler?
Those effects I mentioned are nowhere to be seen…er, heard. There is one sound set aside for all punches, kicks, body blows and head butts and they all sound like pennies dropping on metal. Same goes for explosions and energy weapons. To be fair, many of these things will go unnoticed unless you’re really cocking your ear to listen – but shouldn’t the goal of a game’s sound be to make the gamer take notice?
Then there is my favorite part of the sound review: the voice-overs. Actually they’re pretty competently done for the most part. I was going to complain about the odious dialogue (it’s odious, in case you were wondering) but then I remembered this is a comic book game. I’d be worried if the lines weren’t cheesy. Still, Ron Pearlman was a serious misfire as Batman – too old man-husky and bored-sounding – and I couldn’t help but cringe at this zinger:
“Brainiac! What are you doing here?!”
Where the voices turn annoying is during actual gameplay. Every time you toggle to a particular hero (you switch using the “up” arrow), he/she says a pre-set line as a kind of acknowledgement. In the heat of battle you tend to toggle very often, like once every 2-3 seconds. To grasp how this can be annoying, say the line “I shall prove to be worthy of your trust” out loud every 2-3 seconds for one minute. Annoyed yet?
All other gripes aside, this is where Justice League Heroes really disappoints. As I already pointed out, the gameplay is monotonous and terribly repetitive and I really question whether playing for any length of time in a single sitting would be anything other than boring. It might be different if the game offered a wider array of challenges and characters but it simply doesn’t.
Ultimately, to who will this game appeal? Not RPG fans, that’s for sure. Since you spend most of the game forced to use certain heroes at certain times, there is no real incentive to micromanage your favorite characters and customize their stats, something role players adore. Action junkies won’t find a challenge here, either. I suspect the average nine-year old could beat this title over one rainy long weekend, and the lack of variety in setting, action, and superpowers means you’ve just about seen it all within the first few hours anyway. There is a two player option, but that serves only to bore two people simultaneously.
Virtually the only incentive you have to plod on is the unlockables, which is at least a sort of fun novelty. But the designers even managed to turn this into this a chore, making the goodies available only through the collecting of shield icons, which are finite and not too common, and the game will likely be over before you’ve collected enough shields to reveal all the costumes and characters. All this compounds to make Justice League Heroes no more than a few days worth of distraction with a replay factor of absolute zero.
I try to hold all games to their own standard regardless of genre. Though seeing how one title stacks up to others of the same style is definitely part of it, I don’t like constantly saying a game is “better than this one” or “not quite as good as that one”. But this time comparisons were impossible to avoid. What sullied Justice League Heroes in my eyes was my experience with the “X-Men Legends” series, and I think most gamers who have played both would agree. “Legends” did everything Justice League Heroes tried to do and did it so much better. What’s worse is that this game came out well after “Legends” yet showed no effort to improve on their standards or try anything innovative.
But so monumentally does this game fail to deliver the goods I really think even a player who’s never heard of the X-Men would find this it contrived and one-dimensional. Justice League Heroes is no more than an interloper, a slap-dash, half-hearted doppelganger of the real deal that not only doesn’t break new ground, but retreads all the old stuff in grossly inferior fashion. Save your money.