With rare exception, licensed video games based on movie franchises tend to be awful. From a production perspective, a game developer is given limited time and resources to produce a product that must be based on a film that they have never watched. The game’s sales need to ride the PR wave that comes with a major blockbuster release and will probably cease alongside the film’s ticket sales. To a film fan, the game is unsatisfying because unlike the film’s fluid action scenes they are confronted with health bars, tedium, and loading screens. To a fan of the comics, games based on the original material are often bad for similar reasons, though they are getting better in this department. And in all those differing views, the gamer playing Iron Man 2 is left with yet another almost fun but seriously flawed mess.
The game has the charming habit of freezing intermittently, which I discovered when it did so in the opening cut scene. I’m not sure if the error ever repeats because I got pretty comfortable skipping the plot after a while. It doesn’t particularly follow the plot of the film so much as it features the same characters. Despite Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson voicing their characters, the performances sound phoned in and are often dead pan given the circumstances of the cut scene. Jackson shouts at people for no reason, Cheadle calmly exposits as explosions go off around him. Considering that Tony Stark was always a very difficult character to make likeable, Robert Downey Jr.’s absence results in Stark coming across as a cocky nerd. All of this becomes unbearable since the actual character models all look stoned. There’s something about a sentient A.I. and the Crimson Dynamo makes an appearance, but I don’t think the player experience suffers from ignoring the story.
The game design is a merger between a brawler and a kind of overworld flight setup. Playing as either Iron Man or War Machine, you’ll play levels that are set inside elaborate warehouses or in larger open areas filled with tanks and anti-aircraft. War Machine and Iron Man are essentially the same thing except for the mini-gun but both end up doing about the same damage. Even the best games fail when they try to juggle two types of gameplay simultaneously and Iron Man 2 is no different. Brawling consists of mashing one button with an occasional B thrown in for good measure. You just mash X and watch your character wail away. Far more interesting are the flight weapons, which consist of missiles, machine guns, and blaster weapons. The basic impulse is to use these instead of the brawling component since it’s easier and more fun to make things go boom.
The issue is that for some reason the game gets fussy if you don’t feel like brawling. While there are plenty of tanks and missile drones, the game insists on throwing brawler robots at you. Whenever they hit, weapons can’t be used, and you inevitably have to start blocking and mashing the punch button. It gets tedious because generally your punches don’t do a lot of damage, so the average player would never do it voluntarily. Gameplay always boils down to fleeing from the brawler robots long enough to take them out with a few missiles. This even happens in the outdoor levels. Right as you’re about to start having fun swooping around bombing enemies and AA turrets, a robot will punch you and bring it all to a screeching halt. If the brawling actually did any damage, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s the weakest attack in the game and the design is always forcing you to use it.
It’s otherwise the little things that bring the game down. A camera system designed for third person shoulder does not work very well in an open world system. As soon as someone attacks you from behind or the side, the camera veers wildly, and you have to re-orient yourself. The upgrade menu is needlessly confusing because every option can only be viewed one at a time. Unlike something like Diablo 2, where upgrades are all shown in an easily grasped single image, here you have to click through everything over and over just to see what you need. Loading screen pacing is impressively terrible. Around mid-mission, the game stopped to load, showed a cut scene, then loaded again before I could start playing. Checkpoints are often placed before a cut scene. Almost all of the escort missions are rigged to make allies die off no matter how well you play, and the result is that you never can tell if you’re doing badly or if it’s just “part of the mission”.
For the most part, Iron Man 2 plays like a laundry list of things not to do in a video game, which is a shame because it’s almost fun at times. The idea of swooping around in an armored suit while fighting hordes of enemy robots sounds great, and there are moments when it does come together. But just when you’re about to start enjoying yourself, another obnoxious issue will crop up. The camera will suddenly be looking at the ground, another stupid brawler robot will be bashing on your head, or you’ll have to watch the same cut scene for the tenth time as you start a mission over. Iron Man 2 is one of those rare cases where it’s a good thing that the game is over so quickly.