'Captain America' a shield's throw or two away from greatness

'Captain America' a shield's throw or two away from greatness

I really want to send the developers of the new "Captain America: Super Soldier" back to the drawing board. However, I don't mean that statement as an insult.

I merely feel that with a little more work — and my particular insights — they would have had a great game on their hands, a title worth buying and keeping, rather than the enjoyable, rental-only movie tie-in they've released.

As it stands now, this "Captain America" game is a poor man's clone of "Batman: Arkham Asylum," cribbing freely from the latter's free-flowing combat system and emphasis on gathering up random collectibles.

I don't fault the mimicry ... well, not completely. There's a huge similarity between the two characters, at least in terms of sheer physicality. Both men represent the pinnacle of human physical perfection, Batman through endless training, Captain America through the Super Soldier Serum and endless training. (What? You thought a serum conveyed mastery of gymnastics, judo and other martial arts somehow?)

Thus, it makes sense that Captain America and Batman behave similarly in a fight, with the addition of Cap's indestructible shield changing up his move-set slightly.

On the off chance that you aren't familiar with our hero: Steve Rogers was a patriotic young American who volunteered to fight in World War II, but because he was the proverbial 98-pound weakling, he was declared 4F, unfit to serve. However, a German scientist who defected to the U.S., Dr. Erskine, liked the young man's pluck, patriotism and compassion, so Rogers was enrolled in Operation: Rebirth and became America's first and only Super Soldier. (German agents killed Erskine and accidentally destroyed his formulas before anyone else could undergo the treatment.)

The U.S. government gave Rogers a colorful costume and an indestructible shield made of an unduplicatable alloy, and was using him as a glorified poster boy. But circumstances gave Rogers a chance to prove himself in battle, and the rest is comic book history.

When beset by Hydra's multitude of henchmen, the Star-Spangled Avenger will pummel the wrongdoers with his fists, knock them senseless with boots to the head and clock them viciously with a thwock of his shield, all while rolling, lunging or cartwheeling away from their attempts to retaliate, vaulting effortlessly over their heads and deflecting their rage with a quick flick of the shield.

When it comes to the most basic of battle mechanics, "Captain America" is oh so right. And he's not so bad with MOST of his special fighting skills either.

Just like the comics, he can effortlessly fling his shield like a Frisbee of doom, where it will ricochet off the enemy before boomeranging back to his hand. And you can have him throw it aimlessly or — if you've got the time — at a deliberate target. Also, if you've got the timing down, you can use the shield to deflect enemy bullets right back at them. All those mechanics are spot on.

So are the Captain's ultra-special moves, the ones you can only use when you've got special focus points (which slowly build up during battle) to spend. One focus point buys you a "critical strike," a devastating attack against a single foe, rendered in cinematic slow motion. With two points, you can "weaponize" an opponent; in other words, you can grab the big guy with the high-tech flamethrower/grenade launcher and use his weapon against his friends, usually to devastating effect. And if you spend all four points at once, you enter Super Soldier mode and are basically invincible for a short period.

Our hero also has a few special moves you can unlock as he "levels up" through battle and acquiring collectibles. But I've found them to be mostly useless, unfortunately.

It's cool that Cap can slam his shield to the ground, creating a shockwave to briefly stagger his opponents; shield-rush a group and knock them off their feet; or swing a blow that blasts through any defense. Those moves would be extremely worthwhile — if they didn't take forever to activate. In the time it takes Cap to wind up and deliver those blow, the enemy has time to strike two or three times, rendering the moves useless in most cases.

And the sad fact is, none of them are so powerful that they give you a clear advantage in a fight. If they'd been left at normal speed, the moves would have added to the joy of battle without detracting by making the player too powerful. Instead, we've got a missed opportunity.

Still, as things go, the fighting is pretty spectacular overall and a great reason to play this game.

But most of the time when Captain America isn't in battle, he's about as maneuverable as a tank. He blunders about as he walks, and steering him through a narrow opening -- to walk down a narrow alleyway, for instance, to pick up an object d'art -- is a chore and a half. Cap can't even vault over low ledges or knee-high fences when just walking about, which is really odd given his athleticism. So let's add fine-tuning the basic movement controls to the list of necessary improvements.

Also, the weakness on that front flies in the face of our hero's stellar abilities in dynamic traversal sections of the game. Often, we'll send Captain America climbing up ledges and swinging from poles. With proper timing of button presses, he'll do so in a flawless display of prowess — and, as a result, he'll simultaneously dodge enemy gunfire. It's in stark contrast to how he lumbers about otherwise.

Most of the game is set up as an open world, where you can wander the streets, sewers and hallways of Hydra-occupied territory freely. Mostly, this is so you can fully explore the landscape to acquire all the collectibles, of which there are way too many kinds; some helpful, some just busy work.

The most useful collectibles are enemy schematics. When the player collects these, Cap gets combat bonuses against the enemy types represented in the documents. It's the game's way of saying that because Cap has been able to analyze Hydra's blueprints, he has found exploitable vulnerabilities in the enemy's armor and weapon systems. It's a system that makes sense.

Another type of collectible unlocks the diary pages of Baron Zemo, once the ruler of the game's setting, and tell of his unfortunate dealings with Hydra and the Red Skull. It's very analogous to finding the Spirit of Arkham tablets in "Batman." There are film reels to be found too, which explain the back stories of some of the boss characters in the game, such as Baron Strucker and Madame Hydra. Again, analogous to the audio session tapes in "Batman."

Less useful are the most common collectible: dossiers, represented by manila folders, which give Cap a small boost toward leveling up. For one thing, I kind of wonder why Hydra has so much paperwork scattered about, tossed to the ground outside buildings and pinned underneath explosive barrels of fuel. It makes little sense.

Ceramic eggs by the ton are also placed hither and yon. I didn't grab them all, so maybe there's a larger purpose to them I don't know about, but ... well, all told, everything combines for collectible overload.

It's too much; something needs to be cut. Frankly, I'd ditch the dossiers and beef up the experience points earned in combat.

After that, I'd make the game longer. I cranked through this sucker in one sitting, with it taking me a little over six hours — and I was trying to take my time.

If I hadn't had a good time, I wouldn't care. But the animations are fluid and easy on the eyes. All the characters, from the lowliest of henchmen to Captain America himself, are expertly designed. The story is well-told comic book fare, full of highs and lows, triumphs and setbacks. And the voice acting ... let's just say that Chris Evans delivers all his lines convincingly, so well in fact that I'm rather certain the movie will be a great one.

As a result, this games deserves to be more.

OK, sure, there's also a challenge mode offering extended game-play. And I'm not taking about endless combat arenas, though there's one or two of those, certainly. But there are also dynamic traversal challenges, an a-maze-ing tribute to "Pac-Man," survival tests and more. Still, it's not enough to truly extended the game's replayability past another hour or so.

Thus, what we've got is a great game for a rental, but not something spectacular enough to own.

"Captain America: Super Soldier"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Separate versions for Wii, DS. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Sega.
Price: $49.99 next-gen; $39.99 Wii; $29.99 DS.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: The combat, story, acting and overall design make this worth playing, but it's way too short and lacks enough extras to justify a purchase. So stick with rental.

Images courtesy of Sega

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