The primary goal for Snowblind Studios’ Justice League Heroes this holiday season is to be better than Raven Software’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance. In that respect, it fails. Justice League Heroes is simply too clunky, too short, too ragged around the edges and too small in scope to really compete.
It isn’t a complete wash, though. There’s fun to be had here, provided you’re willing to overlook the game’s mostly minor flaws, and its robust character-customization scheme rivals the Legends franchise’s in places.
Graphics and Sound:
If you’ve seen a PS2 Snowblind title, you’ve seen Justice League Heroes. It uses the same engine that powered Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, which means the game looks stunning for 2002, very good for 2004 and just above par this autumn.
But where Dark Alliance and Norrath worked with mostly drab earth tones and nature-flavored fantasy standbys, Justice League Heroes pops with the sort of color you would expect from a DC superhero game. Pryotechnics and character models are well-represented, and the game’s diverse environments (typical corridor crawls, cityscapes, Mars, our moon) pack just enough visual flourish.
The between-mission prerendered cinematics, however, are dreadful, especially when measured against the jaw-dropping CG sequences in Marvel’s game. Thankfully, they’re short, small in number and completely forgettable. With the exception of the cinematics, Justice League Heroes packs an altogether attractive visual package.
The game’s soundtrack offers perfunctory orchestral bombast – it’s white noise, really, neither remarkably good or bad, but it fits the mood and gets the job done. Voice work comes from the B- and D-list favorites like Ron Perlman (as Batman) and Michael Jai White (as Green Lantern), who reprises his role from Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited. Most of the performers are perfectly satisfactory (though Perlman’s Batman is a tad heavy-handed, even in the context of the game and the character).
Unfortunately, they’re given little of consequence to say or do.
The “story” in Justice League Heroes, if you’re willing to give the game’s paint-by-numbers narrative that much credit, sees archvillain Braniac getting his hands on an interstellar artifact that, promising untold power, issues a series of instructions. Braniac does as he’s told, and as the game wears on, you’ll run into a slew of prominent DC baddies, including Queen Bee, Gorilla Grodd and Doomsday. Spoiler alert – the fate of the world ends up in your hands, and you’ll fight a very powerful final boss.
It’s workable material, but it should be better. Leading up to Heroes’ release, the game’s PR team made much ado about the involvement of Dwayne McDuffie, a veteran comic-book and television writer who worked on the fantastic Justice League Unlimited.
McDuffie put together the storyline in Heroes, and it’s painfully dull. Was this a phone-it-in-for-the-paycheck situation? Or is McDuffie the lesser part of a great team of writers? Who knows. In Justice League Heroes, missions are strung together with little beyond LET’S-FIGHT-THIS-GUY-NEXT logic, and the words that come from your sluggers’ mouths are generally embarrassing and rarely necessary. It’s the sort of lame patter one expects from a Disney Channel after-school special, which really kills the mood.
All of this is easy enough to ignore, which will either offend your role-playing sensibilities or leave you thankful that you can tune out the monotony. Whatever the case, the story is certainly not the biggest draw here. That’s left to the gameplay.
The fighting proper in Justice League Heroes, like its graphics, will feel familiar for Snowblind veterans. This time out, you control two heroes (or you and a friend each control one) and fight your way through about nine hours of scripted dungeons. The game initially makes available to you what the developers call the Justice League’s “core seven” – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, The Martian Manhunter, The Green Lantern and Zatanna.
Wait, Zatanna?! Yeah. Though conventional wisdom holds that Aquaman or Hawkgirl would round out the Justice League’s “core seven,” Snowblind chooses the sultry, scantily clad magician. She proves to be a valuable addition – Zatanna is the only healer in the game, and her status attacks (she can slow enemies or turn them into rabbits) can do wonders in a pinch – but her inclusion as a valued mover and shaker in the DC universe is puzzling and off-putting. She doesn’t really fit in with, say, J’onn J’onzz.
And though Aquaman, Hawkgirl and a few others are unlockable, they feel like afterthoughts (with the exception of Green Arrow, who is a blast to use). Where the “core seven” get five powers each, the unlockables get only four, and they feel underpowered and extraneous by comparison.
The game uses the same chopsocky combat system we’ve seen in other superhero brawlers – a quick attack, a strong attack and a series of combos that link them to create stuns, sweeps and knockbacks. You use your superpowers by holding a trigger and pressing the button to which the power in question is mapped. For instance, R1 + X on the PS2 gets Superman’s heat vision blazing.
In an obvious and wonderful move that the entire superhero genre seems to be adopting, you’re encouraged to use your powers as often as possible. Each power draws from a finite source of energy that will refill if left alone long enough, and flying characters (almost everyone in the game) can take to the air at no energy cost.
Most of your heroes pilot like tanks, moving at a slow, steady pace on land and in the air. Marching them about feels methodical and sometimes a bit glacial, especially during flight. But the deliberate controls allow for precision, and in the game’s absence of a formal lock-on mechanic for firing projectiles, precision counts.
Justice League Heroes gives you broad license to customize your characters any way you choose. Some, like Superman or Wonder Woman, are naturally better suited for front-line combat, where they can soak up damage; others, like the Flash or Batman, are technicians, good for getting in, laying down some pain and zipping out.
But beyond that very loose framework, you can do almost anything you choose. You want Zatanna to be your close-combat specialist? You want Superman to throw down all of your status ailments? You’re sort of an idiot, but the game won’t argue with you. Using a power-enhancement mechanic that works much like the ones in City of Heroes and City of Villains, Justice League Heroes allows you to slot “boosts” into your powers as you upgrade them.
Each time you apply one of your level-up bonus points to an ability or statistic, it becomes innately more powerful and opens up an additional boost slot, where you can place upgrades to the power’s damage, range, duration, efficiency, speed and “luck.” The luck boost seems to be a catch-all upgrade that will make any power moderately more useful – in all my time with the game, I never found a singular, discrete use for it, aside from barely raising a power’s chance to stun or inflict a critical hit.
The rest of the boosts are tailored better for some powers than they are for others. Damage and range boosts naturally fit better with powers that rely on damage and range; slotting a range boost into your health statistic doesn’t make much sense, and the results you’ll get from doing so reflect as much.
But when you put slot your powers with the appropriate boosts, the results can be remarkably effective. By game’s end on its medium difficulty, my Superman’s heat-vision was strong enough to take down the final form of the final boss with a prolonged, 20-second blast. That’s not to the boss was too easy – were I to have fought it without my spectacularly buffed heat vision, the battle would have required significantly more time and thought – but it’s a prime example of the way boosts can augment otherwise unspectacular powers.
Problems big and small:
Justice League Heroes has no currency system, aside from an Easter-egg-collection scheme that lets you unlock new costumes and heroes. Because boosts are the only equipment in the game, and because you’ll acquire them only when enemies drop them, upgrading your powers depends entirely on the luck of the draw. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game let you juggle boosts more flexibly, but once you slot a boost into a power, it’s stuck there. The only thing you’re allowed to do with a slotted boost is overwrite it, just like the “enhancements” in City of Heroes.
As such, you’ll be forced to ration boosts carefully among your characters. This, too, would be no problem if Justice League Heroes let you choose your teams more often, but through most of the game, you’ll be playing in twosomes that the game’s anemic story chooses for you. That means you’ll be sputtering through one level as Green Lantern and The Flash, neither of whom are strong melee brawlers, when you run across a level 3 damage boost. Do you make the level you’re playing more manageable by slotting the boost into Flash’s whirlwind attack, or do you save it for Superman, whom you may not control for another three or four levels?
Because the difficulty in Justice League Heroes is so uneven, choices like this one spring up too often. The game is never outright impossible, but if you manage your powers poorly, it can be frustratingly difficult. In some stages, your heroes will get knocked out after two or three blows, and watching the nigh-indestructible Superman fall victim to a few pesky robots tends to deflate the game’s superheroic concept.
The wretched artificial intelligence does nothing to help the situation. Your AI-controlled partner is useless more often than not, marching into untenable combat situations and showing no interest in self-preservation or in helping you. Spending so much time bailing your partner out proves to be a joyless but necessary exercise – you’ll need to keep partners around for their powers, but you’ll usually have to use those powers yourself by swapping between your heroes on the fly. The AI simply cannot be trusted to use the right power at the right time, and the game gives you almost no in customizing your partner’s behavior.
That’s where the game’s multiplayer component comes in, and it’s a joy for the most part. With the tedious, unrewarding micromanagement gone, you and a friend are left to focus on what matters – the fighting. Snowblind has demonstrated previously that it can serve up some solid cooperative play, and in that respect, Justice League Heroes doesn’t disappoint. Duking it out with the entire DC universe feels just like the hack-and-slash questing from Dark Alliance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.
As superhero action-RPGs go, Justice League Heroes is this fall’s red-headed stepchild. Precocious, brash, no manners and, on occasion, a complete brat. But, like any red-head, it has its moments. If you keep your expectations in check and don’t hold the game up to the great Marvel Ultimate Alliance, you and the Justice League will get along just fine.