Video games based off of comic books have almost always been a dodgy proposition. At their best, they've been generic platformers or beat-em-ups with the particular comic's most popular characters slapped in. At their worst, we get bottom-of-the-barrel stuff like Superman 64 or Aquaman -- games so horrible that even die-hard fanboys deny their existence. Thankfully, though, both the comic publishers and the studios that create the games based off of their work have begun to take the genre more seriously, which has resulted in several A-list titles over the past year or two like Spider-Man 2 and X-Men Legends. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is another solid entry; even though it has a few problems, both long-time fans of the comic and those people who have never even read one should find a lot to enjoy here.
You play as Bruce Banner, a scientist who was exposed to a large dose of gamma radiation, which causes him to turn into a creature known as The Hulk when he becomes angry. Bruce has been hiding away in the woods, trying to get his "condition" under control, but the army (led by a demented scientist named Blonsky) won't let him escape so easily, and leads an attack on Bruce's cabin, destroying all of his equipment. Bruce meets up with his old friend, Doc Samson, who is trying to help. But time is running out, as Bruce becomes less able to control his impulses to turn into the Hulk -- who, ironically, is Bruce's only hope, as the Hulk's great strength is the only way Bruce and Doc will be able to get the equipment to hopefully cure Bruce.
The cutscenes are done well, with (as is pretty common these days) some Hollywood actors lending their talents to the proceedings. Bruce Banner is voiced by Minority Report's Neal McDonough (who also played the character for a short-lived Hulk animated series back in the late 90's) and Blonsky is brought to life by action-movie heavy Ron Perlman (Blade 2, Hellboy). However, despite the solid acting and nice visuals of the cinema sequences, the story still comes off as paper-thin. This isn't really a bad thing in my book, since I play games to actually play the games, not watch them, but I do think some of the comic's die-hard fans will come off felling a bit shafted.
Graphically, Ultimate Destruction is a bit of a mixed bag. The Hulk himself and some of his bigger special moves look great, but the environments are a bit dull. Granted, there are more pyrotechnics going on than in other free-roaming games (with perhaps the exception of Mercenaries) and they go off without a big drop in frame rate, but a lot of the buildings look the same, which can make finding your way around the city a bit tough (thankfully, there is a little radar on-screen and a nice map which you can call up via the pause menu). There is also a lot of repetition in the ambient life of the city -- there are about a dozen vehicles and fewer pedestrian models. Don't get me wrong -- this isn't an ugly game per se, but it lacks that extra spit-and-polish most gamers expect nowadays.
The soundtrack has its' ups and downs as well. As I said before, the voice acting during the cutscenes is fine, but you're going to hear the same phrases uttered over and over during gameplay, and the musical score is fairly generic as well. It's actually nice to hear a game that doesn't load itself up with lame licensed tunes, but, on the other hand, the music doesn't quite create the "crush and destroy" mood that the game calls for.
Unlike the previous Hulk game (which was loosely based on Ang Lee's ill-fated film), which combined stealth levels featuring Bruce Banner and linear beat-em-up Hulk stages, Ultimate Destruction is an "urban sandbox" (free-roaming action) title in the vein of Grand Theft Auto. I wouldn't go so far as to call this game Grand Theft Hulk, but there are definitely some similarities.
You start off in the middle of a fairly large city and you can either go do missions that advance the storyline, side missions such as "racing" or using large poles to play baseball with falling soldiers, or simply go around smashing stuff. As you progress further in the game, another area is unlocked, a desert area with a military base and small town. Even with this addition, Ultimate Destruction's world isn't nearly as big as San Andreas's environment; it's actually closer to the size of Vice City. Though, to its' credit, there is a large amount of vertical space to transverse in Ultimate Destruction -- there are many very tall buildings and you can get to the top of them all, so there is still a good amount to explore.
By completing missions or destroying things around the city, the Hulk earns "smash points", which can be spent between missions to earn new moves. Even though he eventually gains quite a few moves, the Hulk's control is easy and intutive, which is good, because a lot of times, you'll be facing multiple enemies of varying sizes (everything from soldiers to huge mechs) coming at you from all directions. One of the coolest things about the game is that the Hulk can gain the ability to manipulate vehicles and environmental pieces into weapons. For instance, you can rip a car in half and use the parts to throw at your opponents or as metal "boxing gloves", or flatten out a bus to use either as a shield or as a "skateboard" to run over the opposition. It might sound complicated, but even during the heat of battle, you'll still be able to perform the Hulk's most devastating moves to fantastic effect.
Unfortunately, even though the base gameplay is very fun, the story missions themselves get pretty repetitve after a while; most of them consist of simply making your way to a place on the map, busting up some stuff, and bringing a piece of equipment back to Doc Samson's base. There are a few escort missions and some pretty intense boss battles, but I think it says something that I had more fun playing the side missions than the "real" ones. The side missions show a good deal of creativity, and I wish that had been applied more to the main game itself, especially since it felt a bit short; most players will be able to complete Ultimate Destruction within ten hours. True, there are hidden comic book covers which unlock artwork, making-of movies and cheat codes, and doing all of the side missions will burn up two or three more hours, but there isn't a huge amount of replay value here -- once you beat Ultimate Destruction, it's fun to play for a quick blast, but the repetitveness of the story missions doesn't really encourage you to play the whole game over again.
The Bottom Line
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction certainly has some flaws, but what it does well, it does really well. Radical has planted the seeds for a solid franchise here. Seriously, how could you not like using a city as your own oversized golf course, taking a giant inflated gorilla and hang-gliding with it, or just leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper, smashing mechs and helicopters along the way? Even if you've never picked up a Hulk comic in your life, you should still give Ultimate Destruction a try. It might be a bit on the short side, but you'll have a blast during that time.
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Genre: free-roaming action
Rated T for violence and language
Version reviewed: Xbox
Available at Amazon.com