In the realm of videogames comic book super heroes have always gotten the short end of the stick, especially in the DC Universe. Rarely will you hear someone mention Superman or Batman games in the same sentence with words such as good, in fact most of the time you will hear things such as “unplayable” or even “worst game ever” (see Superman 64). Thankfully all of that is about to change with Snowblind Studios’ latest creation Justice League Heroes for the Xbox and Playstation 2.
JLH is a top down action RPG in the same vein as the developers previous console titles Baldur’s Gate and the Champions series for the PS2. This genre is a great fit for comic book heroes as seen in Activision’s successful X-Men Legends franchise. With Snowblind’s track record and a cast of the greatest super heroes of all time, JLH had tons of potential to be one of the last great games of the current generation, but a few hiccups here and there keep it from obtaining classic status.
The story begins with a meteor that hits the earth and begins telepathically communicating with Braniac, a well-known Superman foe. He then devises a plan to snatch the rock from the Justice League, who managed to obtain the rock shortly after it crashed down. Along the way he will join forces with several obscure villains in the DC universe including Grodd, Queen Bee, and even The Key. While not the most known batch of villains, it is nice to see some of the lesser known baddies get a chance at stardom. Of course who wouldn’t have loved to been able to face down The Joker as Batman?
The story and dialogue were all penned by Justice League Unlimited writer Dwayne McDuffie and it shows. In fact this could have easily been a two-parter on the popular cartoon, but as it stands the story is very strong and really ties in well with the overall universe.
From the start of the game you will access to seven initial characters including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Zatanna, and The Flash. Each of which contain their own unique powers and abilities that can be upgraded as you progress through the game. There are also some unlockable heroes that you can purchase by obtaining JLH shields that are scattered throughout the game. These heroes include Aquaman, Green Arrow, Huntress, Hawkgirl, and even some more iterations of the Green Lantern including fan-favorite Hal Jordan. While it would have been nice to see some of the better known heroes, what is here will certainly please fans.
On top of just extra characters you can unlock with the shields are alternate costumes for your original cast. These range from simple ideas such as Martian Manhunter’s true conehead-like appearance to Zatanna’s Infinite Crisis motif. Each new costume isn’t simply a palette swap either, Snowblind took the time to remodel all the characters with the new suits adding additional animation and even modifiers such as more energy or resistance to certain attacks. For fans of the DC universe these unlockables will have you playing through the game multiple times just to get them all, and that to me is a sign of a solid game.
Speaking of solid let’s talk about the general game play mechanics. For anyone who has played a previous Snowblind title you will no doubt be familiar with the control scheme. Each hero has five special powers they can obtain and upgrade as you level up your character. Each ability is then assigned to one of the four face buttons or the right trigger; you can then access them by holding down the left trigger and pressing the corresponding button. All of these abilities are unique to each hero such as Superman’s heat vision and Wonder Woman’s golden lasso. In addition to each ability you can also add boosts to each power such as speed, damage, and duration.
Boosting your powers becomes an essential part of the game since the hand-to-hand combat is repetitive and joyless at times. The peculiar thing is that the strongest character is also the least known of the original seven. That’s right ladies and gents Zatanna is by far the strongest overall character, in fact you could easily complete the single-player trek with her and her alone. Sadly one of my favorites, Batman feels almost useless in a world dominated by super power, due in most part to the fact that he doesn’t have any. When one of your super attacks consists of a ready-made combo you know you are in trouble. Regardless the game is still pretty balanced and fans of the comics will find lots of familiar attacks for their favorite heroes.
Unfortunately the biggest drawback to JLH is the limitations the developers have put on character selection. Most missions require you to assume the role of specific heroes and don’t give you the option of creating your own team. Once the game finally lifts this burden, you have to be mindful that later on down the road you will be forced to use set characters again, and if you haven’t leveled them up enough you will get hosed in the final stretch of the game.
This could have been easily remedied by allowing the player to replay older missions they had completed with any set of characters or simply allowing for more than two combatants at a time. Limiting the playing field to two heroes was a poor decision and one that will hopefully be remedied in a future sequel, granted we are blessed enough to get one. Please Snowblind don’t give up on this franchise I beg of you.
Another item I would love to see in JLH 2 (wishful thinking again) is an online component. It puzzles me how this feature was completely nixed from this version seeing as how the last two games from this developer had great online co-op modes; four player ones even! You can enjoy the journey with drop-in co-op on the same console, but once again this is strictly limited to only two players and some of the later levels almost require you to have a human partner because of poor AI.
Visually the game is gorgeous. Snowblind has even thrown in 720p support for the Xbox version which is simply fantastic to see on the proper setup. While backward compatibility would have been nice for those of you who have parted with your old box, the game still looks great even on the PS2. This engine can render some gorgeous textures and the water is still as amazing as the first time I saw it in Baldur’s Gate on the PS2. The voice overs are also well done with familiar cast members such as Ron Perlman voicing Batman and the sound effects are top-notch. The environments could use a bit more ambience, but for the most part they do their job.
Justice League is a dream come true for a fanboy like me, but I can’t help but think there is something missing to make it a true classic. The groundwork is in place and if a sequel is given the greenlight this series could easily become a fan-favorite. With a great cast of characters, tons of unlockables, and a solid single-player campaign JLH is worth picking up for fans of the comics. Casual gamers looking for more bang for their buck may want to wait to get their hands on Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but if you are a fan of the DC universe you should definitely pick up this hidden gem.