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In-Depth: “Superman Returns: The Videogame”

by  in Comic News Comment
In-Depth: “Superman Returns: The Videogame”

Last Thursday, a select group of mild-mannered and mostly bespectacled videogame reporters from all over the country soared through the clouds over central Florida. They descended upon the city, traveled by limousine to one of its finest luxury hotels, and, after enjoying a number of the hotel’s fine amenities, proceeded to Electronic Arts’ Tiburon campus. Famous as the birthplace of the insanely well-selling “Madden NFL” series of videogames, it was there in the scenic and serene outskirts of Orlando that the company was hosting their eagerly awaited and highly exclusive “Superman Returns: The Videogame” Community Day.

Managed by EA’s Jonathan Long, Community Days are occasional events to which EA invites select members of the video games media to preview new games prior to their release. In addition to playing hotly anticipated titles several weeks before anyone else, guests are given the opportunity to speak directly with the entire development team and ask questions about the featured game, its production, its technology, and anything else the reporters feel their readers may wish to know.

EA Tiburon has for the previous two years been devoted chiefly to developing what they loudly proclaimed to be the first proper Superman videogame ever made, an alarmingly bold statement indeed when you consider the grotesque legacy of Superman on all known gaming platforms. Featuring a fully interactive, three-dimensional world; characters and storylines spanning both the recent film and comics; an all-star voice cast including Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey; a full compliment of super powers; special power-ups associated with rescuing as many kittens as possible; and, most crucially, the promise of making players feel as though they are actually flying in, around, up, up and way over the city of Metropolis — arguably the most important milestone left in Superman’s sixty-year winning streak across all mediums.

An achievement of such potential importance requires the absolute best quality of coverage, and EA spared no expense in assembling the finest newsboy legion available, for only such men can aid the Man of Steel during this critical period of his history. Being a Superman event, it was only natural for EA to extend an invitation to not only videogame news sources, but also the most influential comics sites on the internet. Naturally, Comic Book Resources was included in that list.

Sadly, I missed my plane and didn’t catch up with the guys until Friday morning. pwn3d.

What was immediately pleasing to me about EA Tiburon, when I did finally arrive, was the fact that the “Superman Returns” development team was composed of legit comix fanboyz OG 4 realz. Production Manager Jim Ferris led us on a studio tour that was just filthy with amazing Superman stuff. Tiburon had in a display case all forms of Superman games they were able to recover from the depths of time, including old console cartridges and an ancient Superboy board game from the 20th century! It’s likely the Superman team kept these relics as reminders to constantly strive to eradicate all memory of every Superman game that’d come before. As my colleagues and I explored the grounds further, we found evidence of just that sort of effort.

We went on to tour the recording studio in which the “Superman Returns” film actors recorded their voices for the game; the studio’s “Metropolis Bar;” a number of video and sound editing suites; and a room stacked to the ceiling with very expensive machines whose purposes I will never understand.

Finally, the double doors opened into Tiburon’s expansive presentation room. The space was filled with widescreen televisions, projection screens, Xbox360 debug units and much free bottled water. It was a profoundly ecstatic moment for me, as I felt all the stress of my aero-pains fade away the closer I came to that console. I slid down into the chair in front and was about to switch the console on when I saw my reflection in the monitor.

I suddenly realized I was wearing a Batman t-shirt at an explicitly Superman-themed event. Yeah, I know – nice going.

The first thing one may wish to know about “Superman Returns: The Videogame” is why it didn’t come out in June along with the movie. I put this question to the project’s Executive Producer, Chris Gray.

“The simple answer is it’s a big complicated game and we needed more time to finish it.”

“I suddenly realized I was wearing a Batman t-shirt at an explicitly Superman-themed event. Yeah, I know – nice going.”

Fair enough. The game is now scheduled for a November 20th release in North America, just ahead of the film’s DVD release.

The second thing one may wish to know about “Superman Returns: The Videogame,” is what the flying is like. Interestingly, I am not going to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about is the fact that the “Superman Returns” game is not an adaptation of the Bryan Singer film. At least, not in the way one would assume based on the title and logo designs. The game was originally conceived and began development at EA Tiburon in late 2004 as an autonomous licensed Superman game with no direct connection to any one particular Superman property, whether comics, film, television, or old timey radio play.

“…the movie had this tortured past,” explained Gray. “It was known as the big blockbuster that couldn’t be made.”

It was at this moment in the proceedings that many of my colleagues released mumbles, coughs, giggles and even one barbaric yawp of “big fucking spider” into the room, a reference to an early draft of the film that, well, was going to include a giant spider (that eventually ended up in the Will Smith vehicle, “Wild Wild West.”).

Gray continued, “We started brainstorming Superman mechanics and creating a Superman game. We knew that we wanted it to be open-world. We knew that he had to fly and have the superpowers. We thought there should be some form of combat. We just kept evolving those ideas and then Singer was picked for the project within a couple of months of us starting.”

Click the image above to launch the trailer for “Superman Returns: The Videogame.” Flash 8 Required.

Naturally, it made sense to amalgamate the early game work with the film concept for both promotional and creative purposes, and work proceeded on sewing together aspects of “Returns” with more traditional Superman elements that you would expect to see in a game version of the comics, such as the inclusion of popular Superman villains Metallo, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk. And because the film and game were made in parallel, Gray and members of his team were able to work from early scripts, concept art and animatics from the film production, traveling to the movie set in Australia for meetings with Bryan Singer and his screenwriters. But while Singer & Co. were involved in the development of the game, another very special writing force was behind much of the game’s story and underlining philosophy.

“We worked very closely with Marv Wolfman,” said Associate Producer Sergio Bustamente. Wolfman, who fully endorses “Superman Returns: The Videogame” is of course known to superhero fans as a prolific writer and co-creator of some of the genre’s most enduring franchises like Teen Titans and Blade as well as one of the most successful and memorable comic events of all time, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Collaborating with Wolfman on “Superman Returns” was veteran game writer Flint Dillie, known for his work on “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.”

“They came to the studio and stayed in touch throughout the entire process,” Bustamente said. “It was just fun to chat with Marv Wolfman for two or three hours at a coffee shop… [he] was instrumental in making sure that we came up with a Superman title that was true to the Superman franchise and its history.”

The results of this synthesis of projects and collaborators are most impressive. While the game’s Superman, Lois, Jimmy, Lex and Kitty are modeled after and voiced by their film counterparts, the game plays and feels like that of a very original experience, one that invokes the core mythology of Superman without confining players to the film’s vision, nor to any other specific vision.

The word “story” is not at all adequate to describe the player’s experience in “Superman Returns.” The “world” of the game is much more appropriate, as living in and interacting with the world truly is what the player is doing. This world has for Superman but one purpose: Master Your Superpowers To Save Metropolis. Although it sounds elementary, the lack of this fundamental idea is what has steered every previous Superman videogame into the dollar bins of disgrace.

The world of the game breaks down thusly: You are Superman. You can’t die. You live in Metropolis, which can be destroyed. Some threats are big, some are not so big, and some are of a scale you really haven’t seen in games before. As Superman, you must choose how to deal with these threats. The city has its own health meter and the more damage your enemies cause or you allow to happen, the more that meter will deplete. The more the meter depletes, the more chaos and suffering Superman will have to deal with. Some of your choices will serve to neutralize the threat without losing the whole city. Some of your choices will serve to neutralize the threat at the expense of the whole city. The better your mastery of your super powers, the healthier Metropolis remains, and the more powerful a protector you become. It’s all real and it’s all in real time.

The large projection screen flickered and co-writers Marv Wolfman and Flint Dillie appeared, all Great-and-Powerful-Oz style and began to speak to us about flying.

“It’s always an honor and a joy to work with an icon… it just doesn’t get any bigger than Superman. It’s that moment when you get the controller in your hand and you press it and get the surge of power and you see the thing fly around the screen and you think, ‘okay, this really feels like Superman.’

“And that is where we want to be. Not ‘flying guy’ on the screen, it’s got to feel like Superman.

“Superman Returns: The Videogame,” the player, as Superman, can fly in excess of 600mph at the touch of a single button at any point in the game. You can do it right away, right when you switch on the console. You don’t have to “earn” your flying ability. There are no penalties or restrictions on using your flying ability. You can fly away, any way, whenever you want.

With the touch of another button, you can land within seconds, drop down at ramming speed, or shoot back up into the sky.

You can fly at superspeed just over the streets of Metropolis without worrying about smashing into buildings, because the game is designed to protect you, because otherwise, in the words of the developers, that would suck.

Superspeed does not affect your stamina, because – again, in the developers’ words – that would also suck.

You can pick up citizens and fly them to safety. You can pick up objects like water towers, cars, benches, stop signs, statues, and Daily Planet globes and fly them into battle at any time.

You can battle numerous enemies entirely in the sky.

You can fly out to the ocean, soar just above the waves, keep the velocity up, and in just a second you’ll hear it – the sonic boom. Faster. Another sonic boom. Faster! Three sonic booms!

“And,” smiled Chris Gray, “if you fly toward the sun, yes, it will recharge you.”

At any moment, Superman can fly up into the air, all the way into the lower stratosphere, and see the entire world of the game. The buildings and other landmarks in the distance are not fogged out or anything cheap like that. The player has to be able to see everything, because Superman has to be able to fly anywhere. Wherever Superman is flying has to be there when he gets there. So, they had to build it all.

The “Superman Returns” team was assembled from scratch and was not just cannibalized from teams who made football games. You can tell this when you play the game because it’s not painfully boring. The studio also had to invent new proprietary tools to build the world of “Superman Returns,” because no one had ever gone that far with an open world environment before. Well over 100 people worked tirelessly for two years to create what is for all intents and purposes a real city spanning 80 square miles in virtual space.

The Tiburon team even went so far as to consider power and water supplies, roadways, citizens’ commutes to different parts of town, and created several starkly different districts and neighborhoods based on Superman’s extensive history. Each area of the city comes complete with its own unique aesthetic style and ambient sound signature. You can explore Hyper Sector, Suicide Slums, Midtown, Downtown, Research Park, and the islands just off the coast that are home to the city’s various industrial concerns.

Art Director Mathias Lorenz was responsible for the look of the game’s Metropolis, taking inspiration from a number of different sources. “Metropolis is supposed to be New York, but in an idealized way. We looked at a couple of things. We looked at basically what Siegel and Shuster were living in the 30s and what that looked like, as well as what the futuristic cities were at that point. We also looked at from today’s perspective what a futuristic city is. What’s futuristic architecture in the next ten to fifteen years? A lot of stuff is in Asia right now. Hong Kong, Kula Lumpur… all these high towers appearing. We did a mix and merge of all that.”

Just thinking about the amount of work that went into building Metropolis fills me with dread, but as if all that weren’t enough, Tiburon made sure the citizens and most of the objects found in Metropolis are interactive and behave realistically. People in the game can be happy and they can be afraid. If Superman shows up, people will pay attention to him. If a car is toppled during a fight, it causes a traffic jam. If a fire breaks out, the fire department will be on its way. Everything in the game ties directly back into the mechanics of Superman protecting Metropolis from harm.

Regarding powers, Superman comes with a standard compliment of heat vision, freeze breath and super blow breath. Each is configured with different layers of intensity that the player controls. Hands-to-hand combat also comes standard, with such features such as 10-hit combat combos, special attacks like 1000 fists, and a variety of in-air combinations. Unfortunately, X-Ray and telescopic vision aren’t available on this model, but we hear the factory’s working on it for next time.

There is a problem, vis-à-vis violence, that does come up with such an authentically Superman game, and that problem is you can’t obliterate Metropolis just for the hell of it. The developers indicated that DC Comics made specific rules concerning that sort of thing, but as a very special bonus the “Superman Returns” game offers you a playable Bizarro level! These Bizarro objectives have to do with Mr. Mxyzptlk, and the goal quite simply is to destroy as much of the city as you can in the time allotted. However, it seemed much easier to wreak even more havoc by accident when playing as Superman than breaking things on purpose as Bizarro.

While Superman cannot die, he can be badly knocked around and even knocked out. Superman can also run out of stamina by overusing his bursts of superpowers as well as just getting pwn3d because the player sucks hard. However, Superman’s stamina meter recharges very quickly, as the developers discovered that keeping Superman powerless for more than just a few seconds was just annoying.

The grandest attack combo in the game may be the super launch into the air followed by a flawless negotiation of all the buildings in your path just before you hit the Y button, landing in a superspeed run and arrive in the middle of a battle. Let your heat vision burst and lay waste to simply everything before you.

“I’ve done this before and it’s very satisfying,” remarked Chris Gray.

One colleague managed to change the subject in a most distressing way, asking the developers, “Where is Superman’s greatest attack, where he takes the S off his chest and throws it?”

Back on the projection screen, Flint Tillie discussed the role of story in a non-linear gaming environment. “Interactive games are like doing movies in 3D. You’ve got a story that you’re following but at the same time people have to feel that they’ve written their own story. That’s what we want you to get, that the game play itself is the storytelling.”

Chris Gray later elaborated on Dillie’s statement, explaining the game’s use of “emergent gameplay.”

“Just watch, when you’re fighting villains, depending on where you are in the city, they show up in different places and attack Metropolis in different ways. You get a different version of the game every time you play it. We don’t trigger the Metropolis objectives in the same order.

“One way it works is when you are present in a certain part of Metropolis, the game will activate events in that area that you can chose to deal with or not.”

Somehow, this is actually true. The other reporters and myself experienced different scenarios in the world at different times even though we all began playing at the same point. I never found the similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, and was therefore unable to use it to kill a robot or just throw it into space for fun. I despaired, but not for long, because the player truly does control his destiny in the game, virtually writing the story as he goes.

Having said that, if the player chooses to follow the main thread, the videogame does hit some of the movie’s story beats (mostly in the form of cinematics). Those story elements from the film that have been incorporated into the game have, in many ways, been improved upon. The most obvious example is the game’s exclusion of — oh wait SPOILER ALERT – the controversial super-kid. We were shown a cinematic of Lois encountering Luthor after she’d snuck onto his yacht. Luthor’s harassment and subsequent imprisonment of Lois plays just as it did in the film (complete with Luthor shouting “Wrong!!”), the only difference being that Lois is alone. Superman then rescues her from the sinking boat in a way similar to that in the film, but in this version she’s without her boyfriend Cyclops, err, Richard White played by James Marsden, to fly her back to Kryptonite Isle to save Superman later in the game. Instead, Lois is transported back to Superman by some anonymous cop… pilot… guy.

Production art from “Superman Returns: The Videogame.”

When you think about it, that’s actually loads better than the movie’s scenario, if only for the fact that it means the movie Cyclops gets chumped once again. The childless/Cyclopsless approach is perhaps less suspenseful than the original, but after seeing how smoothly the new version played without any major rewriting, one has to wonder how critical to the film’s story the kid was in the first place.

Some aspects of the “Superman Returns” script that did not appear in the final film but did appear in Marv Wolfman’s novelization are present in the videogame. Among them is the revelation that Lex Luthor was behind the astronomers’ “discovery” of Krypton, which led Superman to shove off into space for five years on a wild asteroid chase. Also included in the cinematic portions of the videogame is the much talked about “return to Krytpon” sequence deleted from the final cut of the movie. Depending on which DVD sites you read, this multi-million dollar twenty-minute sequence may or may not be included on a DVD release of “Superman Returns,” making the videogame the only way to see this footage for the moment.

The “return to Krypton” sequence also inspired one of the game’s best levels. We weren’t shown at the event exactly how it transpired, but either on the way to or the way back from Krypton, Superman – in his grey spacesuit – gets maneuvered into fighting gladiators on Warworld, including a gloriously pissed-off Mongul. It was Marv Wolfman’s input that informed the EA team’s selection of villains from the comics to use as objectives and bosses in the game. Characters were picked based on unique challenges they would present to Superman, and the team was extremely successful in this area. No two villains can really be defeated the same way, and, as is the case with Mongul, some recurring threats may be impervious to strategies that worked when you faced them the first time.

Tragically, there is not a stage of the game where the player reenacts the magnificent airplane rescue from the film. The developers admitted to not being satisfied with their work on such a level, and it was left unfinished. A plane rescue is one of a very few unfortunate omissions. Another is the lack of a playable Clark Kent. The developers feel that such a feature would be pointless and unfulfilling.

“Superman Returns: The Videogame” actually eclipses its namesake in a number of ways. Obviously the story adjustments in the game are a slight better than their filmic counterparts, and there’s really no substitute for flying in a fully 3D Metropolis. But where the game most stupendously leaps buildings and mountains and moons over the film is in the arena of sheer volume.

This game is loud. The sound design is something that cannot be described, it can only be experienced. And I do mean that in the most intangible, wishy-washy, new agey way possible because the sound really is an ethereal force – just in a very ultra-violent sort of way. If you’re an Xbox360 owner and have been waiting on getting a 5.1 system, your wait is over. The sonic booms you create flying over the city are almost worth the expense alone.

Audio specialists Peter Lehman (who worked on the films “Heat” and “Braveheart”) and EA veteran Jesse James Allen worked for two years on the game’s sound, compiling more samples, sound effects and music into “Superman Returns: The Videogame” than in EA’s latest “NCAA,” “Madden NFL” and “NASCAR” titles combined. To put it another way, the entire sound package for “Superman Returns” exceeds the maximum memory capacity of the PS2.

Production art from “Superman Returns: The Videogame.”

Hushed “daaaaamn’s” were heard among the journalists upon the revelation of that particular bit of math. Judging from the wet twitching sound in the back, I’m fairly certain some poor fellow had an aneurism when Lehman and James turned on the 360 debug unit’s audio debugger, which covered the large television screen with text indicators for each and every sound occurring in real time as Superman flew through the city streets at high speed. Every bit of traffic, wind, velocity, cape billowing, bird, or kitten, every single sound loads in real-time.

Of course, also adding to the intimidating density of the game’s sound barrage are the voice actors. Brandon Routh was said to be most enthusiastic about the video game production process, frequently bothering developers with questions about their progress with the flying effects and the quality of his virtual face.

His real face appeared on the projection screen and said, “Seeing myself in the game for the first time was pretty crazy. It was weird to see me and somebody else animating and controlling me. Bizarre stuff.

“Voice over work for video games is different than live acting for film in a couple of different ways.”

Suddenly, a rude film editor cut to Kate Bosworth. “When you’re playing a character in a film, there’s a lot more subtly going on. And then when you’re doing a voice for a video game, there’s certain sentences and certain words that you really want to make impact on the person playing the game.”

Cut. Back to Routh. “It’s also cool to be doing the voice over work for the game because I get to interact with characters who aren’t in the movie.”

The voice you hear more in the game than perhaps anybody else’s is that of Jor-El, played by somebody we’ve never heard of whose name we will never know. As in classic moments of the films, Jor-El’s disembodied voice drops in frequently to give the player helpful advice and reminders as to Superman’s responsibilities in the world. For example, when Superman mistakenly destroys a citizen’s car on a hard landing, Jor-El is likely to remind him that he is more durable than the other people on his adopted homeworld. If the player continues to create more destruction, accidental or not, Jor-El will implore you, “Use your powers to protect the city.”

Jor-El’s spirit also teaches you new combos as your power increases and you complete more objectives throughout the game, which is a very clever touch but I couldn’t help but be distracted by how completely dissimilar this Jor-El’s voice was to that of Marlon Brando.

Models used in the making of “Superman Returns: The Videogame.”

Things became grim when, after being shown a cinematic trailer for the game, I asked, “Why’s the music different from the movie?”

It’s my sad duty to report that “Superman Returns: The Videogame” does not feature any of John Williams’ nor even John Ottman’s Superman themes. Audio Specialist Peter Lehman explained.

“Essentially, the decision was made early on… it’s pretty cost-prohibitive to use John Williams music for anything. I think EA made a decision that it wasn’t necessary for the game to be excellent to have John Williams be in it. Also, the guy makes a ton of money for what he does.

“We have an incredibly gifted composer called Collin O’Malley. Quite honestly, when most people heard his Superman theme, they thought it was John Williams anyway.”

Lehman continued, “There are just going to be some people who just won’t get over that. Honestly. There’s some guy who got our composer’s e-mail somehow and e-mailed him about how upset he was that Colin didn’t use John Williams’ theme, like it was Colin’s decision!”

What? Don’t look at me.

Collin O’Malley’s score is actually quite Supermanish, but there is certainly no mistaking it for John Williams’ so-classic-it’s-in-our-DNA Superman music. Still, what EA Tiburon’s done with the money they saved not licensing Williams’ music is build what the developers call a vertical sound system that is really very cool. In the “Superman Returns” games, every region of the city has its own set of ambient sound and music. As I mentioned before, the sound effects and samples are teeth-shatteringly awesome. Adding to that is the musical score, which was recorded with a 100-piece orchestra.

All of this audio changes dynamically as Superman moves through the world, on the fly, no delays, regardless of how fast he is moving. When Superman is near pedestrian level or flying between buildings, the music is lively with lots of strings and percussion. If the player chooses to soar up into the lower stratosphere, the music tracks are layered in such a way that quiets those instruments and transitions seamlessly to flutes and other more serene sounds better suited for flying high above the clouds. It’s one of the best aspects of the game and just one more example of the lengths to which Tiburon went to represent Superman properly.

Models used in the making of “Superman Returns: The Videogame.”

Lehman put the controversy in perspective. “[Using John Williams music] would greatly eclipse our entire music expenditure. That’s two hours of fully original, multilayered orchestral music. Just to get John Williams involved is more than all that.”

One reporter then announced, “Personally, I don’t see the big deal about the John Williams thing. If somebody wanted it that bad, they could go illegally download it and stream it themselves!”

Lehman laughed, “Hey, if you want Whitney Houston, go ahead!”

“That’s the sad thing,” another reporter sighed. “Some people will put Whitney Houston on there?”

“Wait,” yelled someone else. “How do we get to Whitney Houston in the game?”

“Is Whitney Houston an unlockable character?” asked someone who on the recording sounds alarmingly like me.

The conversation degenerated along these lines for several hours, bringing to a close my first EA Community Day. It was a lot more fun than I expected, I played a fantastic game that deserves to be a hit, and everyone there was cool.

Incidentally, I wish it to be known that out of the eighteen reporters and one beleaguered Community Manager Jon Long, I scored the second-highest number of free throws at the NBA Café.

However, the guy who beat me was younger, skinnier, and wore glasses, so you do the stats.

In what appears to be the tradition of Community Day, I proclaim the following shout outs to my gamer nerd cousins be entered into the Archive Of All Things In History Ever. If you need to free up space, just delete all the old Superman games.

Jonathan Long at Electronic Arts

Chris Paladino at GamerScore Blog.

Mike “Coola” Halford at Xbox365.

Howard Brown at PopCultureShock.

Charlie McCracken at Joystick Widow/

Jim Corbin at Blue Tights/

Rob Demartini at XGPGaming/

Dakota Grabowski at XE360/

Kyle Bell at Gamefreaks 365/

Casey Ayers at Advanced MN.

Benjamin Ortiz at DreamStation.

Neil Baily at Superman Homepage.

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