Another summer movie comic adaptation, another game to go with it. Marvel and its bevy of super heroes have broken out of the stereotype recently, enlisting developers like Treyarch and Activision to create decent titles like Spider Man 2 and the Incredible Hulk. These licensed games usually span all consoles, including the handhelds and PC. It is of no surprise then, that film tie-in Fantastic Four
is available to computer gamers this summer. Does it fare well on the home PC? It would’ve, had it been tailored to work better on that platform.
At its core, Fantastic Four is a traditional third-person beat-em-up, allowing the player to control all four of the team’s members and an array of cosmic super powers, bestowed upon the hapless astronauts during a radiation storm. For those ignorant of the foursome’s abilities, here they are: team lead Dr. Reed Richards can stretch himself like saltwater taffy, allowing him extra reach and elastic-like stretch punches. Reed’s off and on girlfriend Sue Storm has invisibility powers, and can project force fields from her hands. Her hot-shot (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) brother Johnny Storm is the Human Torch; he can set himself ablaze without a second thought and hurl fireballs. Former test pilot Ben Grimm is the reluctant Thing, a granite-clad monstrosity who hates his panic-inducing appearance but possesses incredible strength and durability.
With such amazing powers, you think a PC game based on these guys would be awesome, right? It certainly could have been, but it falls short due to compatibility issues.
Oddly enough, the PC version of Fantastic Four feels like it’s been ported from the consoles. Default controls are awkward, and use the numeric keypad by default. Rebinding the controls can be done only from the launcher menu; once you’ve started the game, you have to quit and restart to see the control screen again. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t prompt actions with annoying icons. For instance, when you need to use an object like a switch, a little hand icon appears in front of your character. It’s up to you to remember that “little hand icon” means press space bar, or whatever key you’ve assigned to the “use” function.
It gets even worse when you’re told to string together combos. The game will display a small screen with a combination of icons, which you must remember and then press in a certain, timed order. It would be a big help if you could pause the game and consult the control list from the menu, but as I said this is impossible.
Another thing that annoyed me was the lack of mid-level saves. You can only save after a level, not during one, and this can be extremely annoying when you have to stop playing and come back later. Even worse, you can’t skip through ANY of the game’s cutscenes, and every level begins with one of these scenes. All of these restrictions would be passable on a console version, especially the control issues because a console controller is far less complicated than a PC keyboard.
The third difficulty is the camera. I’m sure that a controller’s second analog stick would feel very natural linked to this game’s camera control, but on the PC the camera is a jittery mess. I ended a number of play sessions feeling rather queasy, as the camera has the tendency to get stuck right in the middle of the action in confined rooms. In outdoor settings it isn’t that big of a problem, but it could still stand some improvement.
Once you get past the things that should’ve been modified for a PC release, this game isn’t half bad. Sure, it’s a beat-em-up, but it’s a fun romp through a number of varying locales, punching the crap out of practically everything. Each character’s powers are decently represented, with a slowly regenerating power bar limiting the use of the more powerful attacks. Each character has unique “cosmic” moves that drain power, but the Thing and Reed feel the most balanced to me. Reed’s stretchy moves have the most accuracy, and his cosmic abilities deal the most punch. The Thing is appropriately a one man wave of destruction, but he’s rather slow and takes timing to use properly.
Sue Storm’s invisibility can be switched on and off at will, but rarely comes in handy as this is definitely NOT a stealth game. Her force field attacks and telekinesis look very slick, but just aren’t all that effective.
Torch is the biggest let down. His fireballs are surprisingly weak, and his more destructive cosmic attacks drain a lot of power. In the movie the Human Torch can soar to the top of a skyscraper, but in the game he only hovers about a foot off the ground the whole time. This makes him disappointing and rather flaky to control at the same time. Due to his unique mode of locomotion, the camera is particularly problematic with the Torch.
This game really shines when all four heroes are going at it at once. An interesting feature is the ability to cycle between characters at will; you control one character, while the computer takes care of the rest. It works surprisingly well and makes the boss fights refreshing. However, this allows for a cheap out during combat. When controlled by AI, the characters become invincible, so if you’re low on health with, say Johnny, you can just swap over to the Thing to keep from being killed.
The game’s innovative cooperative mode fixes this problem a little, letting two people assume the role of hero and thus putting less work on the computer. It’s a decently entertaining mode, but it’s no Splinter Cell
Most of the time you’ll be using only one or two characters. Special context-sensitive moves are displayed by glowing “4” icons on the ground, and interacting with these icons begins special micro-games such as putting out a fire or throwing a huge vehicle. It’s an interesting, if somewhat flat way to demonstrate some of the more amazing powers without actually making the player pull off the feats on their own. The boss battles entail a great number of these events, to keep you on your toes.
Speaking of bosses, the film’s Dr. Doom isn’t the only villain you’ll be fighting. While the game does a good job of following the movie’s basic story, it also injects mini-campaigns against bad guys from the comic book, like Mole Man and Diablo. This gives the game some more staying power and adds much needed flavor.
When looking at the bare technical specs, this title’s is no slouch. It won’t blow your doors off, but the graphics are impressive and the characters all animate fluidly. There are some nice particle effects and the super powers are well done, save for the rather bland invisibility texturing. The voice work is believable, if a little on the drab side, though none of it is the official talent from the movie. Music is surprisingly good; it isn’t dynamic, but it typically fits the mood and character.
In the department of extras, Fantastic Four
has an impressive stock of unlockable content, if you can stand to replay the missions over and over again to find all the secrets and make everything available. There are commentaries and interviews, including one with Marvel legend Stan Lee, as well as the obligatory trailers and behind the scenes content for the movie. There are even a couple secret levels. Props to the developers for really rewarding players who dig deep into this game.
After all is said and done, Fantastic Four
’s PC release is a game that certainly could’ve been better, but also could’ve been a lot worse. Sizeable work went into this one, and the end product testifies to the admirable effort to recreate the feel of the film. If only the developers had made this game more PC friendly, it wouldn’t be such a hassle to adjust to the confusing controls and rather limited in-game options. Fantastic Four isn’t without numerous flaws, but at least it wasn’t the utter crap we usually get from a movie license.
The latest Marvel movie release isn't a nightmare like most other licensed titles, but it could certainly have been better, especially on the PC. Fantastic Four suffers from console-to-PC transfer problems, but ultimately dishes up a satsifying gaming experience.