The gutter language and gratuitous hooker clubbings may have grabbed all of the press, but for my money the real innovation of the Grand Theft Auto series was the newfound freedom to do... nothing, really. Plenty of games have since tried to improve on the open-ended, nooks-and-crannies model, yet somehow they all pale before that Zen sensation of cruising the streets at dusk while listening to Foghat.
The much-hyped, oft-delayed Superman Returns certainly cribs from the innovations of its GTA-inspired forefathers (most notably the painstakingly detailed city environments of the underrated Spider-Man 2), but more or less completely misses the leisurely, exploratory fun of the genre. Although the flight mechanics and overall sense of scale are often impressive, there's precious little kick-back time to be had, thanks to a never-ending slew of random, meaningless skirmishes. Rather than conveying the vicarious thrill and freedom of zipping around in long underwear, it only succeeds in making the player appreciate how thankless the life of a superhero really is. As it turns out, upholding Truth, Justice, and the American Way is kind of a bitch.
With only a tenuous link to the storyline of the recent movie, the game follows Supes as he patrols the vast expanse of Metropolis, protecting the populace from random attacks by giant robots, dragons, and the occasional ticked-off supervillain boss. The good news first: The size of the city is genuinely epic, with over 60 square miles of skyscrapers and alleyways to zoom through. Said zooming is often a blast, thanks to a well-thought-out control scheme that makes midair maneuverability a snap. No matter how many times you do it, the ability to leap from sidewalk to orbit in a single bound (complete with accompanying sonic boom) remains indisputably awesome. Combine with a number of unlockable moves and costumes, and there's enough raw potential to start the inner geek a-salivating.
The problems arise with, well, pretty much everything else. For starters, the programmers have dealt with the quandary of having an invulnerable hero by giving the life bar to the surrounding city, deducting health for every instance of property damage by the bad guys. While this sounds cool in theory, in practice it quickly becomes maddening, due to the sheer size of the cityscape and the random placement of the encounters. Far too often, the game requires you to unceasingly haul ass from one side of the map to the other, with only a few moments of frantic button-pounding as a reward. What's worse, any collateral damage that you happen to inflict also damages the city, which tends to somewhat undercut the fun factor of being a super-powered force of nature. Want to take out that robot by swatting him with an uprooted tree, or blow up a car with your way-cool heat vision? Get ready to pay a penalty. Such basic structural flaws (and others) should have most self-respecting gamers ready to huck the controller through the nearest wall somewhere around hour two. In Bizarro World only, this am good game.