Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Just-Barely-Retro Game Review: "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" lives up to its name

With the upcoming release of Marvel's "The Avengers" (or "Avengers Assemble" if you live over here and you're confused with that other, awful film), my friends and I have been rewatching the Marvel Studios' films that lead up to the mighty crossover experiment-film, including one that features the man you see below. This inspired me to revisit the Green Goliath's greatest gamma-charged gaming glory, "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction".

When it comes to free-roaming games, the phrase "go anywhere and do anything" is bandied around a lot. What people love so much about the Grand Theft Auto games is that this is pretty much true. The world is your playground, to run around and do as you wish, shooting, stealing and roaming free to your dark heart's content. When this formula is applied to the super-hero genre, there's always the problem of the forced limitations the game is going to have, to prevent Spider-Man suffocating an innocent civilian with his webbing or Superman burning someone to death with his heat-vision.

However, when you come to a character like the Incredible Hulk, who lives for chaos and destruction, you can pretty much do whatever you like with a videogame. And that's what "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" does.

This is one of those gaming anomalies that owes its very existence to a bizarre stroke of luck. For whatever reason, the tie-in game based on Ang Lee's 2003 "HULK" movie went Platinum on multiple platforms (while the movie just barely broke even). The phenomenal success of the tie-in game led to a sequel, despite there being no movie to base it on (a similar occurrence happened with ol' Webhead, resulting in the enjoyable "Ultimate Spider-Man" game). The original "Hulk" game however was a simplistic level-based brawler, which, while fun, was nowhere near 'Incredible'. This vastly improved, free-roaming sequel (which, by the way has nothing to do story-wise with the original game or its weird film) ups the ante by (literal) leaps and bounds.

In "Ultimate Destruction", you play as the Hulk in two different free-roaming locations: an undisclosed city and a desert badland. The plot is the usual search-for-a-cure type scenario and they explain away Hulk's mission objectives with some kind of "subconscious neural input device" that implants the objectives into the green goliath's child-like mind. Anyway, the main point is that in order to complete your objectives, you have to smash, crash, punch, crunch and in every way obliterate your way through this locations in order to collect valuable parts of machinery and stop the people that are standing in your way, such as the military and other creepy gamma creatures.

What makes "Ultimate Destruction" so special is that it finally delivers a completely destructible, interactive environment in a superhero game. Every single thing you see in the environment can be used as a weapon or smashed to smithereens. People, cars, lamposts, air-vents, bill-boards and giant paraphernalia. If something in the environment looks peculiar or out-of-the-ordinary (like a giant hamburger on top of a fast-food restaurant), it's yours to weaponise or destroy as you see fit. And while the game obviously doesn't allow you to destroy the entire city, there are actually a handful of buildings that you can smash to bits. In one memorable boss-battle on a remote location that isn't available in the main free-roam locations, you actually destroy every one of the buildings in the level.

The game isn't just about picking up things and throwing them, though. "Ultimate Destruction" features a truly vast collection of different attacks and combinations. The upgrade system is extensive and requires long hours of play in order to really tap the game's potential, but as your array of attacks expands, it all becomes worthwhile. You can rip cars apart and turn them into steel boxing gloves. You can crush a bus so that it becomes a skateboard. You can catch a missile and throw it back at your enemies. You can grab a tank by its turret and spin it around like tossing a hammer. You can break missile-launchers off vehicles and use them yourself. You can throw, punch or pile-drive your enemies into other enemies for efficiency. You can create critical sonic-claps, earth-shattering critical body-slams and all kinds of different game-changing finishers. The list goes on and on in a combat-system that is arguably the best ever featured in a superhero game prior to the legendary Arkham games. The power you wield in this game really is Incredible.

The other great thing about this game over other superhero-battlers is the unstoppable movement of the Incredible Hulk. Just like his comic-book counterpart, Hulk can perform superhuman leaps across the city that would rival any Metropolitan Kryptonian's. As well as his super-leaps, by holding down R1, Hulk can run at breakneck speed. The game indulges in a bit of playful flirtation with the limits of the laws of physics here, by allowing dear old Dr Banner to actually run up the sides of buildings (supposedly because of his thunderous momentum). When you upgrade enough, you can also use 'Air-Dashes' to give you an extra boost in a specific direction while you're leaping through the air. Again, a total disregard for physics, but who cares? Air-dashes (and the similar Air-Recovery move) are invaluable in fights when you find yourself knocked back in mid-air from the world-stopping blows of your enemies. This totally alleviates the all-too-common frustration found in brawler games where your character is knocked off his feet and you have to wait for the tedium of the character falling and getting back up again to fight. In the Hulk, you can recover in mid-air and keep on punchin'.

The range of enemies in this game is also really impressive. At the start of the game, when running and jumping around the city, you face simple armed soldiers and even policemen, who are ordered to shoot the Hulk on sight. At this point in the game, they're even a little bit of a threat, as your health-bar hasn't upgraded too much, yet. Before long you'll be facing tanks and helicopters (which are difficult to beat in the beginning of the game as Hulk's ability to leap doesn't have too much finesse yet, and he can't take them out in one punch). After that, you start facing Hulkbuster mechs which become more and more advanced (and more and more MASSIVE) as the game progresses. Plenty of superhero games use robots as enemy grunts (and bosses) and plenty of superhero games have been monotonous as a result ("Superman Returns", "Wolverine's Revenge", the list goes on), but Hulk does it really well as the mechs provide suitable adversaries that are just beatable enough in a way that is very challenging, but requires skill and a knowledge of different attacks, rather than just hammering down the square-button. The best part about the enemies is that, like the cops in Grand Theft Auto, if the Hulk is roaming around the city outside of the regular missions, if he causes enough destruction, a Strike Team will mobilise and attack him. Over the course of the game, the Strike Teams get more and more advanced, to the point where by the end of the game, you're battling gigantic super-mechs that will tear down entire buildings in their pursuit of the Hulk. Unlike GTA however, individual Strike Teams can be neutralised if the Hulk is skilled enough in his attacks.

Graphically, the game is average. The Hulk himself looks great, but practically everything else in the game is of a very choppy, below-par quality. The human characters sometimes look as awkwardly rendered as really high-quality PSOne games. And even though the destruction and explosive impact of this game is ambitiously epic in a way that's rare on PS2 titles, the physics are only okay. The game's buildings don't really fall and implode the way real buildings actually would, they merely sink into a growing hill of pixelated dust. It's an acceptable enough compromise given the limitations of that era of gaming, but it's noteworthy as a shortcoming, nonetheless.

The greatest problem the game has is its lacklustre missions. While the game is never boring, sometimes you wish the Hulk was given a task greater than having to retrieve a substation generator or a particle isolator or tacheon pulse-emittor gigatron matrix (okay, I made that one up). Far too often, you are simply sent on a "destroy this, pick up this and protect that" type filler-mission. And it's a real shame that no other characters from the Marvel Universe make an appearance (a la The Punisher), as this would certainly have livened up the occasional feeling of repetition that very occasionally creeps up throughout the game (the lack of a boss battle with Iron Man or Thor seems like a real missed opportunity). Luckily enough the military's relentless pursuit of the Hulk and the destructive madness of the game's atmosphere make up for the lack of imagination in the missions. And besides, the boss battles are amazing.

I have just a few other minor irritations; mainly a weird little creative decision the developers made that annoy me about how the game works. There are some great unlockable cheats and alternate skins (including the hilarious 'Savage Banner' which sees you playing as proportionally tiny Bruce Banner, with all of the Hulk's strength) available within the game, but in order to unlock them you have to find 'comic covers' scattered across the map. Nothing new there, it's a staple of many superhero games. What's weird is that when you find the covers, they provide you with a cheat code. Why couldn't they just unlock the feature automatically? Why bother going through the trouble of providing you with a code? And in case you try to look up the codes online, they only work after you've retrieved the corresponding comic cover, which makes the code even more pointless. This kind of thing always annoyed me. I was never one for unlockables; when I've finished the story-mode, I want to play through the story mode again with alternate skins and cheats. I'm not into this tedious nonsense of going around random areas of the map finding pickup-tokens. I just want to play as the damn Grey Hulk right away. This is one of the few advantages of the contemporary trend of downloadable content that you have to pay for: there's no dicking around. If you want the extra feature, you just pay for it and you get it straight away to use as you please.


"The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" stands proudly as one of the greatest Marvel games ever made. It was the first answer to "Spider-Man 2"'s legendary use of a free-roaming city and it arguably makes even better use of the concept (even if it's certainly less heroic). I honestly can't think how anyone could make a better Hulk game than this. Marvel agrees with me, as they very clearly based their tie-in game to their 2008 "The Incredible Hulk" movie on this game; even the controls are very similar (in fact, the plot of the actual film is notably similar to this game). Like all of the Retro Marvel games, it has its array of flaws and graphical shortcomings, but it's still contemporary enough that you'll love it. In this game, you'll definitely like Bruce Banner when he's angry.

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