Warner Interactive has been trying hard to capture the super hero brawler craze, by marketing their own stable of tight-clad vigilantes: the Justice League. A successful and surprisingly well written animates series, Justice League Unlimited holds the potential for a game that could Rival X-Men Legends or Marvel Ultimate Alliance. And what did Warner do with that potential? They chucked it out the window, at least on the DS.
Warner’s apparent train of thought was quantity, not quality, because they dumped Justice League Heroes onto most current-gen platforms. While console versions of JLH were only average, and the GBA Flash-centric title was surprisingly good, the DS game is atrocious. Every bit of this game cries out to be exploited, polished into an enjoyable feature, but ultimately everything comes off as aborted.
The league itself is limited in this game to four playable characters: Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman. Don’t expect the team feature from the console version though; you play as one character at a time, and can swap to a second one in-game. When compared to Marvel Alliance, the two-hero team limitation was annoying on the consoles, but the single-hero implementation on the DS is simply unforgivable. The hardware is capable of more, and the developers should have used it.
The player limit might have been excusable if the gameplay were as solid as on the home consoles, but Gauntlet-style dungeon crawling makes no real appearance in this game. Each level is played from a fixed, top-down perspective that feels indescribably confining. The game only throws a couple enemies at you at once, but with such a tiny view of the action it’s hard to keep track of your immediate attackers. If the view had been tilted down only a few degrees for a behind-the-back perspective, JLH might have been playable.
It’s clear, however, why the developers chose to limit the view so much—the levels themselves are bland and monotonous throughout. Pieces of destructible scenery and the occasional civilian hostage break things up, but for the most part you’ll be wandering around an open field looking for things to beat on. The enemies themselves are as boring as the levels they inhabit. Encompassing all of it is a rough, blocky appearance that barely uses the DS’s modest 3D abilities and reduces the titular heroes to ugly amalgamations of pixels and smeary textures.
Considering all that this game has against it already, the gameplay is the final nail in the coffin. I expect a brawler to have good fighting mechanics and use the characters to its advantage. Playing as the Justice League was merely frustrating in this game however. Delivering stiff, robotic punches is the primary mode of attack for all of the characters, with super powers thrown in to keep the combat bearable. Each hero has signature attacks that work well when you manage to lock onto an enemy, but there is little more to distinguish between the league members. Flash, for example is no faster than any other character, and only has a muddy red blur behind him to denote speed.
To attack an enemy without expending super power, standard punches are required, but attacking stop a character dead in his tracks. It gives the appearance of an uncomfortable super-seizure, not the Man of Steel’s battering wrath or Flash’s light-speed assaults. What’s more, for the attack to be halfway effective, the enemy must be tapped with the stylus to tag them with lock-on brackets. This leads to an awkward control scheme, with the left hand on the D-pad and the right on the face buttons, while cradling the stylus in the palm at the same time. You need to hold the stylus at all times because gameplay hinges on several small, hard-to-touch icons that can only effectively be activated with a stylus tap. Breaking from the traditional control position to hit a touch icon is clumsy and feels disconnected.
Occasionally you’ll feel the need for some extra assistance, and so you can hit up a fellow league member for support. This feature is similar to the one in Flash for GBA, in that another hero appears on screen and clears out some enemies for you, gives health or offers some other benefit and then speeds away. This is about the only redeeming feature of the main game, but it’s really only an excuse for other league members to make a quick appearance and justify the title of the game.
After the mediocre gameplay, bad representation of the heroes, and ligament-straining controls, the presentation is the final insult. The levels and characters themselves are only mundane, but the production values for the rest of the package are laughable. The menus are the slickest part; music is drab, sound effects are repetitive and annoying, and the story is represented by cheap, static “comic style” panels. I am SICK to death of so-called “comic style” cutscenes. The TV series is animated, the game should be too. The high quality intro movie for the game is ripped right from the console versions, but there are no animated cutscenes to speak of. In the bonuses section, the game includes a commercial for new seasons of Batman Beyond and Teen Titans on DVD. We know the DS can run movies and do it well—that little ad proves it. Therefore, there is no excuse for the cheap cutscenes and the hokey dialogue within.
I really hate to see such a good franchise wasted on a disappointing game. Publishers keep belting them out too; year after year, the execs at the top don’t learn and think a big name equals big money. So, our favorite characters are stuck in a game with a limited budget, timetable and developer force. I would have been happy with a watered down version of the JLH console game—its limited scale might have worked better on a portable. What I got instead was a joke. Send a message to the guys at the top of Warner Interactive by not buying this game. Maybe then we’ll get a decent DC actioner.
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