Hulk SMASH! ... And Smash! ... And smash!... and smash...
Hollywood, aka the place where creativity goes to die, is notorious for taking a movie concept that the $uits $ee $'s in and then spending $27 million on the marketing and only $.27 on the story. It's the classic example of the fiscal tail wagging the creative dog, and the results are often crappy movies that have you walking out of the theater thinking, “Man, that movie didn't HAVE to suck,” as well as wanting to slap yourself for dropping upwards of $15 on another crappy summer movie, when you really should have known better.
Now, I know you're asking what any of this has to do with a video game review, and the answer is that not only is this a review of a video game based on a movie, but it's also based on a concept that should have made for a great game: The Hulk. I mean, how hard is it? Ang Lee (and his “Bah, Hulk daddy mean to Hulk” abortion) aside, a Hulk title should simply be about him breaking stuff and fighting throngs of puny enemies. Unfortunately, this video game outing is a lot like those summer movies that leave you wishing the creators had put as much effort into making it as you did waiting for it.
Like the Hulk movies, this translation goes off the tracks by dismissing the very core of any kind of fiction: the storytelling. The story here is tepid at best, and – like many a Hollywood blockbuster – it feels forced into the game as an afterthought, rather than as a well thought-out part of the experience. It mainly consists of cut-scenes where Bruce Banner, voiced by Edward Norton in a performance only remarkable for its lack of passion (Come on, Ed, why don't you just yawn after every line so we know how you really feel!), speaks to someone and then POOF! you're the Hulk in the middle of New York City, expected to do whatever the previous cut-scene needs the Hulk to do. This, of course, begs the question: How did Banner get to the middle of the city and, err..., turn into the Hulk? Did he just take a cab downtown and punch himself in the face in masochistic anger?
Actually, a cab ride in New York is enough to turn anyone into a green ball of anger, but since the game starts with Bruce Banner trying to off himself by eating a gun (a riff stolen from Brian Azzarello's superlative Banner comic book) because he doesn't want to continue on as the Hulk, it seems funny he would so willingly 'Hulk up' when it suits his needs. Anyway, as the Hulk you fight both the U.S. Army and a hoard of baddies, known as the... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... Yes, the story is that unimportant, because each cut-scene and “plotline” is just an excuse for the Hulk to smash ... and smash he does.
See, here's where the game gets it right: All you do is leap around and smash. You smash cars, you smash buildings, you smash people, robots, tanks, and dreams. Just don't ask how New York “heals” so quickly, or question the morality of playing a character that kills thousands of innocent people and causes billions in destruction ... hey, it's just a game! The nuts and bolts of the game are familiar: the Hulk gets “rage points” for each act of destruction which allow him to power up his abilities like his thunderclap and his healing factor. Wait, healing factor? Yup, Hulk goes all Wolverine on us in this game, as he has the ability to heal damage taken from enemies and the US government, which pursues you based on how much damage you inflict on the city (it's a vicious cycle, really). The problem with this is that a Hulk who can heal is – if you monitor your health meter closely – indestructible, and not in the way he's supposed to be. Oh,except the Hulk can somehow be killed by laser beams.
The gameplay also offers a mix of Crackdown and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, without being as good as either game. Like the main character in Crackdown, The Hulk can power up his leaping and gamma abilities by finding red and green orbs (100 of each) placed throughout the city. However in Crackdown, when you stand on the edge of a building or leap through the air, there's a real feeling of gravity, a feeling that's lacking in this game. And that's not even bringing up the question of who placed these orbs around the city for the Hulk to find. Likewise in Marvel: Ultimate Destruction, you not only get to play a variety of characters but you fight a variety of enemies, two things this game is sorely lacking.
In fact, no matter who you fight in The Incredible Hulk – be it Enclave robots, or US soldiers, or classic Hulk enemies – the fighting is the same. You smash, and smash, and smash ... and that's all you do. While smashing stuff is fun, there is a limit to how much fun it is and this Hulk quickly meets that limit, and aside from mini-games that involve, that's right, destroying things, really has nowhere to go from there. There was one baffling point where the Hulk had to destroy a series of tanks, and it got so repetitive that I thought I had discovered a bug, only to discover that after destroying the 258th (or whatever) tank, that this WAS the mission.
The graphics are passable enough, but certainly don't stand out as being exceptional for the 360. Truth be told, they're more like impressive last-gen graphics than cutting edge high-definition visuals. In other words, you might not kick them out of bed for eating crackers, but you also wouldn't be eager to share said bed with them again, if you catch my drift. The bigger problem is that though the New York City you destroy (and boy do you destroy it) is certainly large, it lacks the detail to immerse you. There's also a strange sense that you, as the Hulk, aren't actually part of the world you inhabit, but are instead laid over it. It's almost like a moving Colorforms rather than an interactive universe.
In the end, The Incredible Hulk is like so many Hollywood Summer blockbusters: It starts with a cool idea (Hulk destroying stuff) but, from there, grinds to a halt in terms of delivering on its promise. I won't say it's a bad game, because you can get a couple hours of fun out of it running around smashing stuff, but none of it stands out as being exceptional, or even well-done. I have a friend with whom I see most action movies with mediocre CGI and a lackluster story, and he often calls them “watchable”, which roughly translates to "it wasn't the worst piece of crap we've seen this summer". That being said, the Incredible Hulk is "playable" - very, very "playable".