Smashing the Inner Child
I'm running full throttle, plowing into pedestrians and smashing into cars, with several helicopters in hot pursuit, trying to bring me down with machinegun fire and rockets. With arguably the strongest set of leg muscles in the world, I leap high in the air, grabbing a car as I jump and then hurtling it with deadly force at one of the choppers, sending it crashing to the ground. I jump from one tall building to another, deftly avoiding the rain of bullets and thundering missiles, before hurling myself at a chopper, hitching a ride on its nose and then smashing it in midair. As I land on the roof of a bus, crumpling it as if it were made of cardboard, another pursuer in battle armor tackles me from behind, with several more members of the strike team closing in as US army tanks make their way down the street.
Yup, somebody's going to get hurt. And it's not going to be me.
I've never really been a fan of the Incredible Hulk. Heck, I always rooted for the Thing during his epic battles with the not-so-jolly green giant in the comic books, even though Ben Grimm was always the underdog. But I have to admit that it's a real treat to cut loose as "the strongest one there is" in The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.
This adrenaline-laced game perfectly captures the intoxicating feeling of being the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe. (An arguable point, I'm sure.) And, unlike the last Hulk game, which was based on the disappointing Ang Lee movie, you don't have to sneak around as puny Banner. Ultimate Destruction is nothing but "Hulk smash!"
The great thing about video games based on comic book characters these days is that the comic book writers and editors are strongly involved in the creative process. Ultimate Destruction is no exception, as the critically acclaimed Paul Jenkins, who had a lengthy run on the Hulk comic book series, is the writer and design consultant for this game. Developers Radical Entertainment and members of the fabled Marvel Bullpen worked closely to remain true to the characters and the general feel of comic book.
What makes Ultimate Destruction an ultimate high is that not only can you perform a wide array of beautifully violent moves, but virtually everything can be interacted with in the two main environments: a sprawling city and desert. The developers took a page from Spider-Man 2 (which, of course, was inspired by the Grand Theft Auto series), and included several optional challenge missions, and, more importantly, the ability to free roam. This for me is what's really attractive about the game, because I could happily spend hours just running and jumping across the city, smashing stuff until raising the alert level high enough for the authorities to decide to send a strike team of armored Hulkbusters after me, beating up that strike team, then wreaking more havoc until more 'Busters are sent.
All this mayhem rewards you not only with catharsis, but also with Smash Points that you can use to purchase even more moves. And as if his fists didn't already deliver enough damage, the Hulk has the ability to "weaponize" cars and trucks. I'm talking about moves like Steel Fists, where you crumple a car or other small metal object into deadly gloves that would give Filipino boxing champ Manny Pacquiao even more fearsome punching power. Or my favorite, Ball and Chain, which allows you to use wrecking ball trucks to reach out and smash somebody. Some of the moves are dopey though -- I mean, crumpling buses and turning them into makeshift shields is cool, but using them to grind like Tony Hawk? Please, it was bad enough when Solid Snake had to do that. Of course, I think the developers were, in fact, poking fun at some idiosyncrasies in the Metal Gear Solid series. You think hiding inside a cardboard box is funny? Wait 'til you find out how the Hulk sneaks inside a heavily guarded military.
Ultimate Destruction will have you pumped up with the often insane number of enemies that will be thrown against you at once, and when it's time to tackle the bosses, well, the battles are truly epic. My main gripe though is that many of the boss battles rely on buffing up your foe -- they have several life bars in their health gauge -- instead of giving them interesting tactics. Still, I enjoyed the boss fight with Mercy and nothing could compare to that face-off with General "Thunderbolt" Ross.
The game, however, isn't without its flaws. The loading time, for one, can really slow things down. Another limitation is that you only have two environments, as mentioned -- you're either in the city or the desert. The story missions also revolve around two things: smashing something (or someone), or protecting something (or someone). So yeah, without more variety, the story missions do tend to grow old. But tackling the occasional challenge mission breaks up the monotony of it all.
Despite the inclusion of Jenkins, the story itself isn't all that great -- maybe I was just expecting more because this was Jenkins, after all. Then again, this game is really about smashing things up and the plot is just an excuse to move everything along.
Maybe it's just me, but the psychobabble that's littered throughout the game just doesn't work. I realize Jenkins incorporated this into his run on the series, particularly the merging of the different personalities of the Hulk. I don't know -- again, this is tied up to the fact that I've never empathized with the character of the Hulk. I know, I know, Banner had a bad childhood and the Hulk is a manifestation of his repressed feelings of rage against his father, coupled with the little boy's desire to be loved. I'm not making fun of the emotional trauma that people like Banner have and continue to endure in the real world, but the way it's usually been presented in the comic book, movies, and now this game has usually been laughable. Believe me, the last thing you want to hear when you're in a boss battle is for your monstrous foe -- and I don't care if in the comics he's supposed to represent Banner's abusive father -- to say he loves you.
In other words, you want to finish this game not because you want to know how the story ends, but because you want to beat it and prove you're "the strongest one there is." Maybe that really sums up the character of the Hulk, at least for me, since he's undergone different incarnations and been subject to different interpretations by writers. He's not a true hero. He usually just fights to survive or because someone ticked him off, and when he does he won't stop fighting until everyone else has been vanquished. The true hero is Banner for trying to resist the Hulk, but unfortunately the good doctor isn't that compelling as a character.
Personally, the best Hulk is the Savage Hulk, as he is in this game. He's an unstoppable force of nature, and antiheroic enough to allow for true freeform gameplay. And though this is hampered a little by the inner child rigmarole, cutscenes can be skipped to allow for more delightful... er, destructive smashing!
20 October 2005