Itâ€™s generally accepted as fact that high-profile movie releases and their licensed videogame offspring donâ€™t readily share the spotlight of appreciation when it comes to quality. Where one may shine, the other so often pales. Moreover, it is fast becoming truly rare to find both achieving positive critical and consumer notoriety, especially on the videogame side of the equation. Bearing that in mind, how does Activisionâ€™s and Seven Studiosâ€™ Fantastic 4 hold up to close scrutiny?
Exposed to extreme cosmic energy during an ill-fated space expedition, the lives of five astronauts are changed forever. Four of those affected embrace their newfound physical abilities with a view to helping the world in its fight against emergent evil. They become the Fantastic 4. The fifth member of the team turns down a darker path, joining the ranks of villainy by becoming Dr. Doom, the arch nemesis of his four fellow cosmically altered expedition members.
By offering gamers the chance to control multiple characters, Activision and Seven Studios bravely tread a gameplay route fraught with pain and turmoil if not correctly navigated. To hone and perfect control mechanics for one central character is hard enough, but four? Sadly, even though the characters do indeed handle differently as per their physical attributes, they each individually disappoint. The main contributing detraction, and one prevalent across all characters, arises through the battle controls. Whether attempting to perform an attack combo, a timed finishing move, or a character-specific super attack, the lack of transitional immediacy from button press to on-screen action is delayedâ€”even if you can successfully input the button combinations. This also exists when toiling over jumps or navigating obstacles.
As frustrating as the button battles can be, it swiftly becomes more of a concern when A.I. opponents closely amass around you and proceed to pummel every element of fantastic from your body. Of course, if you are paired with an A.I. teammateâ€”you generally only choose between all four characters during boss battlesâ€”then you can simply switch to your partner and engage enemies freely once more. However, this escape route is somewhat negated if youâ€™re tackling the game with a â€˜realâ€™ partner, which then means youâ€™re cornered and cursing while desperately button mashing your way out of trouble.
Player interaction is also tabled through specialized character attributes that can be channeled directly into environments. Interesting in concept yet clumsy in execution, thanks to the gameâ€™s frenetic pacing, the separate character skills are simplistic to the extreme, remaining as default abilities throughout and quickly becoming tiresome and distracting. Mr. Fantastic hacks technical systems and locked doors via a convoluted sci-fi barrel lock mechanism, whereas Sue Storm avoids advanced security systems through invisibility and creates handy transitional shields for her teammates. The Human Torch can melt openings through obstacles with a wide circle of his flaming arms, and the Thing can dislodge bad guys from their hiding places by shaking support struts and foundations. Some of these abilities require the player to rapidly press certain buttons or swivel an analogue stick within a decreasing timeframe to achieve success; all of which rapidly become monotonous.
Graphically, Fantastic 4 totters precariously on the edge of a precipice leading directly back to yesteryear. During some sequences, itâ€™s not unfair to liken the animation and environments to that of the PSOneâ€™s original Tomb Raider. Granted, the visuals are considerably more polished aesthetically, but the design, texture and feeling are distinctly frayed around the edges. This graphical lack of power distribution by veteran publishers such as Activision is all but unforgivable on the Xbox platform, which spawned Halo as its visual benchmark some three years ago. The character animation, both during play and throughout rendered sequences, further compounds initial visual discrepancies by offering up jerky, unnatural movements and character and actor likenesses that change more drastically than Jennifer Grey after the closing credits ofDirty Dancing.
The sound design is competent without exerting any true lasting appeal. A variety of band-based tunes also accompany the game alongside the official Fantastic 4 movie theme, but nothing on offer lives long in the memory. In-game effects are adequate; everything from surging special powers to exploding vehicles do exactly what they say on their respective tins. Special powers and finishing moves best flourish in this regard, and do successfully bring a beefed up aural nuance to the game. As is now the norm with Hollywood licenses, the core cast members from Fantastic 4 reprise their roles vocally for the videogame incarnation. However, and quite unusually under the circumstances, their performances are largely bland and two-dimensional, the only notable moments falling to Michael Chiklis as the Thing. And, for a bright star supposedly in the ascendancy, Jessica Alba would perhaps be better seeking tutelage from cast members of the Disney Club before harboring any hopes of eventual Oscar notoriety. Indeed, if their movie roles in any way resemble the videogame portrayals, then we can fully expect a weak-legged B-movie sci-fi trip that further alienates the comic book faithful from dire Hollywood reproductions.
Of course, beyond the gameâ€™s thinly veiled and overwhelmingly confined button mashing combos, the individual characters are also open for customization. Successfully completing mission objectives will garner points, which can then be traded for power and combo upgrades. Locating and securing a Fantastic 4 icon hidden throughout each level will also unlock game-related goodies and secrets. Though, in actuality, finding these logos is simply a case of trial and error discovery rather than actual searching as the frantic missions abruptly end without fair warning, thus not permitting you to backtrack and look with more intent. Each mission also holds several minor secondary objectives, such as beating up a set number of bad guys, completing the level within a set period of time, and using no special super moves. All of these, coupled with the primary objectives serve to aid the player in nurturing the skills of the team as they progress. Also on offer to trade against your amassed points are artwork files, concept galleries and interviews with the movieâ€™s cast membersâ€”should you care enough to unlock them.
With dated graphics and substandard animation, combined with misfiring voiceovers, poor presentation and woefully repetitive and restrictive gameplay, Fantastic 4 is not likely to whip up a storm with gamers or their wallets. Sadly, the focused Hollywood attraction obviously means the game wonâ€™t remain invisible to hapless consumers, but the elasticity of the marketing drive still fails to light a flame on this particular torch. You see, the thing is this: videogames should be indicative of their hardware and the times in which they exist, reflecting the wealth of possibilities that publishers and developers have at their immediate disposal. They should not simply exist as grim formulaic profit machines designed with little other purpose than to bolster a completely separate market.