As a longtime fan of the Hulk since the 1970s, I've always had a soft spot for videogames based on my favorite superhero. Unfortunately, the Green Goliath hasn't had the same kind of excessive treatment over the years afforded to more mainstream guys like Spider-Man and the X-Men, so the selection of titles out there has been somewhat slim. Luckily, Radical Entertainment's The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction makes that thin assortment a moot point, as it's the deepest, most accurate recreation of the Jade Giant that anybody could ever hope for (and makes other titles based on Banner's alter ego look like the "Rick Jones Hulk" in comparison).
The reason for the game's obvious success is because the production team has gone back to the drawing board and totally rebuilt its project from scratch. As some of you may remember, Radical also developed 2003's movie-inspired Hulk title that was praised for its action sequences but panned for its Banner bits. Radical remembered those sentiments exactly when designing Ultimate Destruction, and removed the stealthy (and tiresome) Banner levels to focus on the aspect that everyone wanted to spend their time with anyway... playing as the Incredible Hulk.
To do so, the development team has axed the structured, linear levels of its last Hulk adventure and opened things up into an expansive free-roaming world. While not based on any real-life city like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Destruction still maintains an authentic urban feel to it -- with bridges, hospitals, moving traffic, and pedestrians that all have one thing in common: they're certain unavoidable targets for the basketball-sized fists of Ol' Greenskin.
What makes attacking these targets so fun, though, is that just about everything you encounter is completely deformable: Various types of autos break and smash into pieces, trees and lampposts are uprooted from their bases, explosions go off in just about every direction, and sometimes even buildings themselves crack and crumble to the ground. "Ultimate Destruction" is exactly what this experience offers and as the Incredible Hulk himself, there's little you can't do to make the game live up to its title.
But if all you could do was run around the city smashing things up with a small repertoire of moves, then the Incredible Hulk would grow old pretty quickly. Fortunately, that's not the case at all and in a pleasant twist, the destructible environments play directly into an absolutely enormous move set... with dozens upon dozens of entertaining attacks that the future "Maestro" can easily unleash on the hapless masses. There are a number of combos, weapon strikes, grabs, throws, and chains that you can perform because of this, as well, and just about every single one of them are incredibly cool.
Want to smash a bus into flattened metal and then use it as a shield? Go right ahead! Would you prefer to shatter a radio tower and use the leftover antenna as a javelin? You can do that too! You can even crush boulders into near-perfect circles and play oversized bowling or clang two cars together to form makeshift boxing gloves that inflict additional damage. And just when you though you've seen it all, a new mission comes along that requires you to hop onto a harrier jet and wrestle it to the ground or bash a cargo truck over your head for use as a Metal Gear Solid-inspired cardboard box disguise for sneaking into military bases. Needless to say, the move progression system here is perfect (using a traditional purchase system not unlike Onimusha or Devil May Cry) and steadily transforms you from a mindless oversized pugilist into an unstoppable engine of destruction. I love it.
I'm also a big fan of the boss fights and the enemies in general. Though you'll begin your quest stacked up against local police officers and other minor foes, your rogue's gallery ultimately overflows with (very) aggressive tanks, bazooka men, mobile rocket launchers, helicopters, government super jets, and various interpretations of the armored Hulkbusters from the mid-to-late '80s (made popular during the whole Peter David / Todd McFarlane run in the early 300s). The end result is a default difficulty setting that isn't too taxing, but should suit seasoned action fans just fine. The challenge can be further adjusted towards a delightfully hardcore intensity too, and it's worth giving a try if you fancy yourself a videogame badass. But it's the level chiefs themselves that are something to behold. My favorite end-stage nemeses since God of War and DMC3, the bosses of Ultimate Destruction range from 'traditional and hard' to 'creative and insane'. Fans of the comic series can expect to see plenty of familiar faces -- The Abomination, Giant Hulkbuster Mechs, the Gamma-irradiated Mercy, and a few other surprises that are best left a secret. Of all the battles I was involved in, though, the titanic struggle against Thunderbolt Ross in his gargantuan Hulkbuster robot was truly epic. His laser beams and missiles leveled entire city blocks (there weren't any buildings left by the time we were finished) and a cool "don't get stomped" mini-game kicked off every time the General tried to step on me. The crazy thing is, he isn't even the last boss, which gives you an idea of the direction that the game eventually takes you.
Ultimate Destruction also boasts a strong team of collaborators on the creative side. Paul Jenkins (whom most Hulk fans should know immediately) and Bryan Hitch lend their writing and artistic talents to a pool that includes ex-Star Wars creature guy Alan Roderick Jones, Any Given Sunday composer Bill Brown, and Hollywood actors Ron Perlman and Neal McDonough who provide voice-over work. All in all, it makes for a pretty solid production value that supports an already-impressive game engine.
Being the Hulk fan that I am, everything I've listed above is enough to keep me happy for the rest of the year. But after doing this job as long as I have, I also can't help but recognize some of the game's problems... most notably the mission structure which, despite being more varied than that of Spider-Man 2, essentially breaks down to finding various ways to destroy things that you can have just as much fun destroying on your own anyway. Don't get me wrong, the game does make for great fun, but it's more of a result of what you can make the Hulk do on his own time rather than stage design itself. Expecting anything other than "Smash this, protect that" 90% of the time is a stretch.
Another problem with Ultimate Destruction is that the environments are also somewhat limited. It's made up primarily of two main areas (The City and The Badlands) with occasional trips to smaller areas made possible later on in the game. To the team's credit, it did try and vary things up a bit by allowing you to visit these places during different times of the day and with alternate weather effects, but they aren't dynamic and, let's face it, are still the same two areas no matter how you cut it. They're also much smaller in scope compared to other open-ended worlds like San Andreas, which makes them less inviting for repeated trips.
The only remaining problems left are just slight graphical issues (there's some noticeable slowdown on the GameCube version, for example, and less frequent framerate problems when running the Xbox or PS2 versions in progressive scan). Those setbacks are minor at best, though, since the game runs at a consistent and presentable framerate most of the way through. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the storytelling as it shifts back and forth between the occasional cool CG cutscene and several overly bland dialogue screens with voice-overs that amount to nothing more than black backgrounds with green text. For such a strong plot, that kind of presentation is pretty unfair.
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