This review was originally written for Reset Games, a video game store in the Pacific Northwest.
The final comic book movie-to-game adaptation of the year has hit game stores everywhere in Captain America: Super Soldier. I’m holding a particular standard with this game maybe more than the others, because Steve Rogers happens to be my favorite character in the entire stable of Marvel Comics. Because of this, I think Cap deserves a great gaming experience (whether it’s tied to a film or not), and that his potential for a game is very high. Super human strength and agility, an unbreakable shield that can be thrown as an awesome offensive weapon, along with one of the most evil villains in comics as your arch nemesis? How can you mess this up?
The Marvel games have a lot to answer for as well, after spitting the travesty that was Thor: God of Thunder into stores this past May. While both Thor and Cap are published by Sega, both games have two different development houses and should be distinctly different from each other. Thankfully, when directly comparing the Thor game to this one starring the First Avenger, the difference can be accurately characterized as "night and day."
Design and Story
Obviously, since we're talking about a movie tie-in game, most of the visual language will be derived from the recent Captain America film. Because of this, the overall style of Captain America: Super Soldier has far more in common with a game like Call of Duty 2 or 3 than it does something like Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, or Thor: God of Thunder for that matter. The entire thing feels grittier, and the overall aesthetic of both the movie and a heightened reality version of the European theater in World War II makes the game look terrific.
Story-wise, it looks as if the entire narrative of the game takes place sometime during the quick montage of different battles we saw in the film, but confined to one specific campaign. In the game, Captain America and the Invaders (which are actually the Howling Commandos, but hey, what do I know?) are tasked with dropping into a Bavarian castle that belongs to Baron Zemo, and they have to confront Dr. Arnim Zola and Hydra senior official Baron Wolfgang von Strucker before they create a new genetic-based weapon to combat the Allies in general, and Captain America specifically. The story was written by Marvel Comics scribe Christos Gage, and feels very authentic to the mythology of both the film and the comics as a result.
Several cast members from The First Avenger return to the game to reprise their roles, including Chris Evans (Captain America), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Neal McDonough (Dum Dum Dugan), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), and JJ Feild (James Montgomery Falsworth/Union Jack). Conspicuously absent is Toby Jones as Arnim Zola and the incomparable Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, but beyond that, this could very well be an actual side story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe considering how much of the film's talent there is. Exciting! (2017 Update: Because 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron used Wolfgang von Strucker and 2016's Captain America: Civil War reimagined Baron Zemo's history, this is now very clearly not the case.)
Overall, the design of the game is great, and the addition of so many cast members from the film it's based on makes it feel like an authentic World War II-era Captain America adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those facts alone make it the design and story two solid wins in the game's favor.
When it comes to besting the other two major comic book movie video games of the year, the competition isn’t very heavy. The aforementioned Thor game, without bogging you down in having to read yet another review of it, was very, very bad. The second of the season, Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, was a fun and respectable entry if not a little repetitive. So how does Cap rank? Happily, I'm going to have to say that it ranks first! It's leaps and bounds better than Thor, and bests Green Lantern by virtue of the fact that it doesn't feel nearly as repetitive as that God of War clone ultimately was. Still, at times Super Soldier seems as if it’s partially confused about what it wants to be: is it a platformer, or is it a fighting game? It does one better than the other, but in the end it doesn’t quite do either format enough definitive justice to carve a solid distinction between the two.
The obvious inferior of the two is the platforming. This is an interesting addition to the game, and an admittedly inspired way to try and show off the superhuman balance and agility of Captain America. It seems straightforward: walk onto the starting position, and tap the jump button to initiate an ascent or descent to a location. The game rewards you for getting “perfect timing” on executing a jump or a swing, but unless you’re tapping the jump button repeatedly as you get to the next part, a lack of precise responsiveness may not assure that you get that reward. This makes the whole system a little less-than-stellar.
Some of the platform obstacles are can be frustrating. When scaling a pipe for instance, normally when hot steam or some other damaging influence comes out of the pipe, there’s a discernible pattern so that you can make your way safely across. Not so with this game, as when you think you’ve got a pattern figured out, some other steam hole presents itself as soon as you try and move past the first one.
The combat system generally works a lot better in comparison. The most obvious and unique part of Captain America’s fighting style is the use of his vibranium shield as both an indestructible defense and a devastating offense. Throwing the shield in this game works well. The combat upgrade system allows you to periodically increase the amount of targets the shield can bounce off of, and at its max can be pretty devastating when dealing with the regular Hydra foot soldiers. I also loved the touch the developers gave to knocking out the regular enemies: you know for sure that they're down for the count when your last hit knocks their helmets off. Awesome.
The actual hand-to-hand combat system is almost terrific, but some looseness in controlling Cap takes it down a notch. The system here is clearly inspired by the award-winning and pretty innovative freeflow combat system of Batman: Arkham Asylum, but falls short of that very high standard because it's sometimes difficult to direct Cap at specific enemies on the fly. There were a few scenarios when I wanted him to move from one target to another directly behind me, but the system seems to just favor whichever target is closest to you, which may not always be the correct course of action.
The shield is easy to learn, but tough to master. Sometimes, enemies can give out totally intense amounts of damage, but deflecting and reflecting bullets or fire off of it is one of the game's most fun aspects. Still, with the super soldier serum pumping through Cap's veins, it would have made sense for the game to acknowledge Cap’s regenerative capabilities by having regenerative health, but the game doesn't do that. Instead, if you want to regen any health, you’ll have to fill up a critical strike bar (right above the health on your HUD) and use one of them to partially return some of your hit points. You replenish health at the same time you pound your shield into an enemy's face, which is a novel idea.
The system for blocking is helpful, but the execution is confusing. Because throwing the shield is initiated by the right trigger, you’d think the natural follow-up to block would be the left trigger. Instead, on the Xbox 360, the block button is the left bumper. The left trigger initiates Cap’s targeted throwing stance. If you remember back to the aforementioned Arkham Asylum, the left trigger served as the crouch button and the right trigger controlled your batarang. If you held the right trigger, then you’d move to a targeted stance. If you just tapped the right trigger, then you threw a batarang “from the hip.” A system akin to this for using the shield would’ve made things flow a bit easier, but as it stands right now it's not a deal-breaker.
For a super soldier with strength and reflexes beyond that of a regular soldier, Cap can’t run very fast. When you jump or try to evade, it looks cool, but you can’t always control where Cap might end up. It’s also a little too difficult to simply turn a corner, because the character’s turning radius is on the low side. If you try and turn a direct corner, chances are you’ll walk right into a wall.
The diversity of enemies, though, is actually pretty good on the ground. You encounter maybe four or five different enemy types before taking bosses into account, and the game gives you all of them pretty fast. This can give some of the later levels of the game a ring of repetition, but the combat throws them at you in different enough order that you can't always rely on the same tactic to conquer a specific room. The boss fights are generally just longer versions of tougher enemy fights, but you may be glad about that by the time you've "trained" yourself to take on enemies like Strucker.
One aspect of the game I did find frustrating was the collectibles. It seems like you have to pillage nearly everything you see in order to gain any of the game's collection of unlockables. Each object you pick up, ranging from dossier files to ceramic eggs, gives between 10-50 “intelligence points.” Since I’m a classic Cap fan, I’d like to unlock the original costume. How many intel points do I need to do this? 25,000.
After going through the game once, I’m just over halfway there. That’s insane, and takes a lot of the fun out of it. (2017 Update: I finally earned enough intel points to get the classic Cap costume in a 2015 replay.)
In the end, Captain America: Super Soldier is a hell of a lot better than Thor: God of Thunder, and is also a far more balanced and varied experience when compared with the relative (though, admittedly, still enjoyable) monotony that defined Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters. As a movie tie-in game goes, it's a very respectable effort, and stands as the best game made based on a Marvel Studios film thus far. Sure, that's not exactly a high bar, but it definitely helps to show the kinds of heights these games can reach if they pair a good developer with a great character.
Hopefully, this represents a new high for Marvel movie-based games going forward, and Sega should definitely take note about what makes this game work so well, since Cap's soon-to-be Avengers colleagues in the forms of Iron Man and Thor haven't fared nearly as well as good ol' Steve Rogers has. Reward good superhero games, and pick this one up!
(2017 Update: Well, I definitely didn't see it coming that Super Soldier would actually prove to be the last game that, as of now, has ever been released on consoles based on a Marvel Studios film, not counting Lego Avengers. Go figure.)