Monday, April 22, 2013

Video Game Review: Justice League Heroes

Justice League Heroes is often criticized as Detective Comics Comics' response to Marvel's X-Men Legends and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (the latter of which happened to launch the same exact month as JLH. Interesting), and this wouldn't be an inaccurate accusation. While dungeon crawlers had existed for at least two decades by this point, putting superhero characters in a dungeon crawling-style of game where holding a trigger button to access a special attack menu and leveling up each individual ability of your hero is an awfully specific gimmick. Now, it's a good gimmick, but it's awfully specific.

While I can't deny that Justice League Heroes is, in many ways, a rip off of X-Men Legnds, I'm not going to punish it for being so. I value rip offs for a lot of reasons, and providing yet another experience very similar to one I've already immensely enjoyed is one of them. I'll say right now, I'm fond of this game and I'll be replaying it soon (to be honest I haven't gotten a full taste of the game, but I've done enough to write this review) so that I can utilize the other half of the cast.

However, as much as I enjoyed this game for its positive aspects, and as much as I won't berate it for borrowing ideas from a competing franchise, there are a number of very, very poor design choices which seriously keep this game a notch below Marvel's. The most disappointing factor is the lack of choice for the player, which is a serious killer. Now, I'm not talking about the expansiveness of levels or open environments--the stages are pretty linear and aren't all that heavy on exploration, so if that's you're thing this isn't going to be right for you. I often find linearity to be a boon in this genre as the emphasis of the game is on combat and exploration can become tedious--I'm talking about character and stage options.

The game features fourteen characters: seven primary characters and seven unlockable extra characters. The primary characters are largely comprised of the cast from the animated Justice League series, which had just ended shortly before Heroes was released, with the exception of Zatanna who replaces Hawkgirl in the JLA lineup (Hawkgirl is purchasable as a playable character from within the in-game shop, however). This means your core seven are Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, The Flash, Green Lantern John Stewart, Wonder Woman, and Zatanna. That's a pretty good starting set, and these characters should be largely familiar to most people. No problems with that.

Unfortunately you don't get to choose which characters you want to be until halfway through the game. For the first section you're automatically paired up however the developers thought you should be. Only for the middle portion and a touch near the end can you choose which characters to be, and there really isn't any reason for it. Only one map requires fliers, and this could have easily been redesigned to accommodate the characters who can't fly.

But that's not too bad on its own, really. It's not like the characters aren't there at all, you can still play them. Unfortunately, if you do play them on your first run through the game you're going to screw yourself way over. You see, having forced characters on a specific map isn't a bad idea... until you try mixing it with an RPG level up system. If you choose one of the non-primary characters for those middle maps, you're going to find yourself screwed later when the game forces you to use primary characters again and they're only powerful enough to handle enemies from the very beginning of the game.

In one sense this encourages players to play the game again with the primitive new game plus option which allows you to start a new campaign using your old heroes at the same levels and with the same boosts. That's cool, I guess, but I'm not overly fond of replaying an entire game back-to-back. It gives me reason to come back to the game six months from now, but then again, all good games give me the same reason while letting me have the full experience in one go. If you have the time to do a pair of ten hour campaigns of the same game in the same weekend, this design choice won't bother you as much. I don't, and it bothers me.

The other issue I take with the new game option is that it doesn't give you any more freedom than before. In most games once you complete them you unlock the ability to replay any stage you want utilizing any character you want (note that I am primarily talking about this specific genre, being the beat 'em up and dungeon crawling genres). Justice League Heroes gives you none of that. The above paragraph-and-a-half wouldn't exist if Snowblind had granted access to any stage and any character combination at any time after game completion. Instead you still have to rush through the first half of the game to get to the three or four stages where you can use Aquaman and Green Arrow. That's a super pain in the ass, one that would have been real easy to fix.

I understand that they wanted to do something different from the X-Men Legends games, but it really hurt their product and I think it's probably why we haven't seen a sequel (which is a shame, because expanding on this property could be a beautiful thing). There isn't any reason, though, that after the players have experienced the story and stages as intended that they can't then take some of the characters out of context and utilize them in any area. I'd like to boot up the game, grab Huntress and Hal Jordan and tear up Mars for a bit. But I can't. That's not cool.

It's not all bad, though. In fact, the game is pretty good once you get used to the claustrophobic limitations imposed upon you. Instead of the typical four player characters you only get two (although an optional four-player mode would have been nifty) which forces you to understand how to utilize your team to their best advantage. I found that there were mainly two groups of characters, which I have dubbed "Strongmen" and "Stagehands". Strongmen can go in and rip things up without worrying too much about being taken out while Stagehands have buffer moves or long-ranged attacks and are quickly dispatched by their enemies. Being on a team with two Strongmen is okay, and you'll probably be fine, being on a team with two Stagehands is a nightmare and you're going to die... a lot. Being on a team with one of each is awesome, and I liked figuring out how each character cooperates with the other characters.

I should also note that not all characters are stuck in their roles for the entirety of the game. Zatanna starts out as the weakest Stagehand character in the game, but with proper leveling and upgrade distribution she can become a tank. I found that her and Superman make an excellent pair of boss killers as they both have extremely powerful ranged attacks which deal lots of damage and consume very little energy.

Speaking of leveling, I'll talk about how that works for a bit. It's pretty traditional, really. You get EXP and then you level up, and then you're stronger. Bing, bang, boom. Not so fast.

The system is actually a total knockoff of what's going on in the Legends and Ultimate Alliance games, but that's okay. When you defeat enemies they drop these little, green spheres which give you some EXP when your character picks them up. Getting enough EXP will cause you to level up and give you the option to upgrade two of your abilities or upgrade one ability twice. Each ability or stat can be upgraded to a rank of five, and each rank allows you to attach one more boost to that ability. Boosts come in five flavors: speed, duration, strength, luck, and efficiency and come in ranks of one through seven. Each boost affects each ability differently, such as enhancing your strength, raising your health, increasing the chance of stuns and criticals, or reducing the amount of super energy required to utilize an attack. Boosts are primarily found ranked 1 through 3, but you can mix them together and attempt to forge a higher ranked boost.

We've seen that all before, but it's an effective system so I don't have an issue with it. Also, unlike Marvel's games, JLH features five special attacks. While four are mapped to the traditional face buttons, one is mapped to the R1 button. This is because JLH does not feature an item system like its competition does, instead favoring health and energy drops to keep your team from tiring.

Reviving allies can be a bother, and going it alone can be an absolute nightmare. You can't revive your allies with health packets, and they don't come back over time. The only way to wake your comatose comrade is to locate a checkpoint (which also serve as your save locations) which will revitalize your friend and teleport them to your location.

The characters look pretty decent from above while playing the game, but the cut scenes are the ugliest bastards you've ever seen. This is a problem I've noticed across most DC titles, and I'm wondering what they're thinking when they look at some of the hideous ogres they tote around as their carefully crafted figureheads. I've yet to see Wonder Woman rendered as anything but an ugly beast with greasy ass hair, and this game doesn't solve that.

Oh, actually, on the topic of Wonder Woman I have a not-so-minor gripe. Towards the end of the game she randomly changes her clothing and fighting style from her traditional superhero and bare knuckles styles to golden Amazonian armor and fancy swordplay. Now don't get me wrong, I thought the armored Wonder Woman was more fun to play as than the original (whose lasso is fun to use, I might add). However, I didn't appreciate the character I'd been familiarizing myself with suddenly being replaced, and I'm not fond of the armored Wonder Woman not showing up as a separate character on the select screen despite having a completely different style of play. I thought the sword was awesome and fun to use, and I think they missed an opportunity to utilize an entirely different character, like Bushido or Katana. Instead they put in a really forced promotion for a Wonder Woman I've never seen before, and one I assume was currently featured in a story arc of the comics. Pretty disappointing.

The story in general is disappointing, actually. While it's very DCAU inspired and would have probably made a great four or five episodes, it's heavily driven more by the game than by being a story. While this isn't bad design in general and it takes us to a lot of beautifully rendered and exotic environments (like a subway transformed into a gigantic bee hive, the ancient pyramids of Mars, or even the tropical Gorilla City), it doesn't come together very well as a story. The heroes are forced from one location to the next with very... flimsy logic and motivation. It all just feels very forced and unnatural, which is a major problem.

They also managed to make this game without using either the Joker or Lex Luthor, which isn't really that big of a deal. Unfortunately it seems that the developers and story writers were forced by DC to incorporate every all-mighty, universe-shattering villain that they could. While these villains are all formidable and the battles with them can be fun, shoving them all together like this with no lesser villains for scope is kind of boring. The only lesser villains included (Queen Bee, the Key, and Killer Frost) are so much lesser that it's kind of pathetic. Who even gives a shit about those people? You'll end up toe-to-toe with (SPOILERS! No, not that Spoiler...) Gorilla Grodd, Doomsday, Darkseid, Brainiac, and a nameless White Martian commander all in the same story, and having that much firepower under one roof becomes... boring. What's one more sun-shattering villain when you've already beaten Doomsday? It's too much, and none of the villains carry any of the weight that they should. This game could have seriously benefited from a few battles with Joker, Sinestro, and Cheetah. Hell, even Copperhead could have made it a little more rounded out.

The story bites, the bosses don't bite but there isn't enough variety among them, the lack of freedom bites, and I'm not entirely fond of the roster, either. I mean, I like all of the characters included, I just think they could have gone to at least twenty. Where's Robin, or at least Nightwing? Okay, getting ahead of myself. This is Justice League, after all, not DC Universe... but Cyborg should have been there at least. And since this is heavily inspired by the DC Animated Universe, even going so far as to include Batman Beyond's costume as an alternate for Bruce, why not give us Static and Gear? They crossed over with and officially joined the Justice League quite a few times, and Static was later featured in an episode of Justice League Unlimited as the most important member of the future league. While we're looking at JLU a bit, weren't the Question and Supergirl pretty important? Where are they?

Four more characters (Static, Gear, Supergirl, and Question) would have made the roster a hundred times better, although I still would have wanted more (I always want more). They do at least have Green Arrow, who showed up in JLU pretty frequently, although I don't ever remember Huntress being there. As cool as she is, maybe Black Canary would have been better suited for the role. Actually, scratch that, she is better suited for the role. And as much as I appreciate being able to choose Hal Jordan or Kyle Rainer in place of John Stewart, do we really need three Lanterns? Especially when the character pool is already so small?

I just feel like more could have been done here that wasn't, and it all hurts what could have been a great game. Not to say it's a bad game, it's a good game, but it could have been a great game, and it wasn't simply because of some poor decisions and not anything inherently wrong with the game play, stages, or systems themselves.

The stages are largely dark and uninteresting for the first portion of the game, but the designers really hit their stride once the Mars stage came up. That level was awesome. And I understand having to build a project a little bit before you really get into it. There's some really beautiful, gorgeous scenery and music later in the game (I really love some of the later music tracks. I'd snatch this soundtrack up in a heart beat if it were released), so I encourage players to fight through the bland beginnings because it's really worth it.

Game play is basic, some will find it monotonous. It's a very bare beat 'em up. Punch, kick, smash everything and everyone. This is occasionally broken with some classic superhero-styled civilian search and rescue missions, but those are really "Fight everyone except the good guys" missions. Still pretty cool, though. You've got a fast attack button, a strong attack button, a pick-things-up-and-throw-them button, and a jump button. Double tap the jump button to fly with most characters, although the non-fliers have other actions. Rinse and repeat through every stage, with no puzzles so to speak. Except for one teleporting maze which is a monstrous annoyance.

All in all I have to say that I appreciate this game, and it's fun if you like the comics. It probably holds up pretty well as a game in its own right, but it's heavily overshadowed by billions of better titles, even better titles featuring these characters. With that said, it's on the middle-ground of good, so I'll let it go with a seven instead of six. If you like DC characters, give this a whirl. If you keep your expectations in check you'll leave satisfied... but be ready, because you'll also be left wishing there was a sequel if only to iron out the kinks for what could have been something amazing.

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