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Monday, December 11, 2006

Gameplay: Justice League Heroes

Justice League Heroes occupied much of our Sunday. We can't play Marvel: Ultimate Alliance unless our third shows up in that weird kind of coop gamers guilt that would come with having to explain why you are suddenly fighting Galactus instead of say, underwater mermen. We had actually gotten so into the Marvel game that I was a little suspicious about jumping into a DC counterpart.

Since Justice League Heroes is from Snowblind, it feels more like Baldur's Gate or the Champions of Norrath series. In fact, it feels quite like those games - it just looks about ten times better. I thought Norrath pushed the limits of the PS2's ability to display a Diablo style game - but both Justice League just blows it away. It's not apparent at first - but the better textures and more complex lighting (especially the shadows) really gives the environments a sense of realism and depth. I can only hope another Norrath game is in the PS2's future with this engine in tow.

Back to the game - it plays very solid. While it lacks some of the complexities of melee and combos that are becoming the staple of Raven's Marvel games, it features a more streamlined and straightforward approach to characters. The design for the superpower quite brilliantly captures each hero without having to make it seem like you need to wade through several levels or experiment deeply with each one. Justice League also abandons equipment almost completely for "boosts" which can be added to existing powers to upgrade them. You also pickup Justice League Shields which can be spent on alternate costumes and new heroes. Both boosts and shields are shared - freeing up players from having to waste time accusing each other of stealing.

Another interesting bit about the design is that you aren't allowed to pick a hero and stick with them. Missions have specific heroes to play - often ones appropriate like having Wonder Woman and Superman flying out in space - and some allow you to divide up League members to specific tasks. This is an odd twist on the role-playing angle of the genre, because "you" are not "Green Lantern" exclusively. However, it works quite well. The Girl commented that it was nice to be able to try out each of the heroes instead of just blindly selecting one. Also, this frees up the developers to allow for level designs which are specific to heroes - so the game feels a little less like a series of passages leading to a boss fight. Well, a little less...

Having now played each of the core heroes - I'd say character balance is actually pretty good. I've read a few reviews which lay out one hero as more or less useless whereas the other is a powerhouse. I'd say that's probably an aspect of trying to finish the game quickly and not spending enough time boosting powers that are generally used. As I mentioned before, it's easier to get the hang of the powers and easier to boost - and once you have each character has strengths which can be applied to the serious science of fighting evil.

At the same time, though, Marvel feels like a deeper experience with more things to unlock ... but more importantly it has four player coop. Justice League Heroes only has two. It's not the worse thing in the world - I'd say 90% of my coop on the PS2 is only with one other person. And I imagine there's a laundry list of subtle positives with the limitation - like screen rates and interface options. Still, when one does get the chance for three or four player coop - you realize it's generally worth it.

For fans of the Diablo clone genre - Justice League Heroes would be hard to pass up. For DC fans - I'd say there's little reason for hesitation. Yeah, it's kinda silly to see Superman get punched out. There's a bit of dialogue where Martian Manhunter explains that "these robots are strong enough to hurt even you, Superman," which is almost worth a chuckle. Especially since he's in the same mission as Batman - so if they can hurt old Clark ... you know Bats would be crushed to dust.

Still, the The Superman Paradox - how do you make compelling gameplay with an invulnerable hero - isn't exactly something this game was designed to defeat. The voice acting is fairly average - you will get annoyed by Supe's "Super!" exclamation eventually ... but you probably won't tire of Batman's gravelly sarcasm.

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