It seemed like the most natural idea in gaming history: Combine the Avengers and the JLA -- two of the most popular superhero franchises -- into one ultimate game. Unfortunately, as seems to happen with most "Big Event" games, expectations far outpaced execution.
Things got off to a promising start. Busiek and Perez, two of the most popular superhero developers in the biz, were hired to bring Avengers/JLA to consoles everywhere. Early screenshots and demos looked promising. And after a period of relatively few crossovers, the industry seemed due for a good universe-meets-universe team-up.
I wish I could say that Avengers/JLA fulfills that need, but I can't. If you really want some mindless superhero fun, you're better off digging out your old games and playing those. Sure, many of those games are simple and crude by today's gaming standards, but at least they're fun. Avengers/JLA is an unplayable mess that collapses under the weight of its own ambitions.
I suppose gaming fans should have been worried when the developers announced that they would be cramming in every single character who ever appeared on the Avengers or JLA rosters. Most fans were probably too excited by the thought that their favorite character wouldn't be left out, though, so they failed to consider the implications of the "pack 'em all in" approach. Gameplay and storyline are sacrificed in an effort to spotlight every character.
In order to ensure each and every character gets some screentime, the developers adopted two main approaches: First, they've made the graphics extremely tiny and detailed (no large polygons here!); and, second, they've employed a "Chronal Instability" engine that can randomly alternate costumes (see below for a sample of two varied looks Green Lantern and Atom undergo) as well as entire characters. Both of these devices lead to problems, however. The small graphics often result in a cluttered screen, making it extremely difficult to navigate. And the "Chronal Instability" waves seem like fun at first, but the trick gets old fast. Yeah, it's fun to see characters cycling through their various looks, but it gets annoying when whole characters are swapped in and out seemingly at random. (Why is Aquaman replaced with Green Arrow?) Even when a character appears to stay the same, the results are often disappointing. For example, in one level, Batman is arbitrarily depowered, just so that Batroc (the thug at that stage) can pose a threat for the Caped Crusader.
At first it appeared that Avengers/JLA would be either a platformer (collect all the artifacts!) or fighter (I've always wondered if Superman could beat up Thor), but in the end it's a simple melee brawler: In order to save the universe, you have to battle through wave after wave of increasingly powerful villains until you reach the Big Boss himself - Krona! The developers have planted plenty of rewards along the way in an effort to keep the game entertaining, but, as noted earlier, the desirability of these bonuses in undermined by making them so random. Players are unable to save costumes or characters, so they're often gone as soon as they were unlocked. There are also problems with the consistency of power levels: At the very end, it's possible to destroy Krona's big cosmic doohickey sphere thing with an arrow. I don't know if this is a bug in the game, or if one of the developers just had an overly sentimental soft spot for archers.
There are some bright touches that save this game from being a total failure, though. Many of the power-ups are quite creative. (One of my favorites involved Superman getting a boost from the Vision's solar energy eyebeams, thus counteracting the Kryptonite radiation blasts of Radioactive Man.) And characters can use other characters' weapons in interesting combos: Superman is nearly unstoppable with Captain America's shield and Thor's magic Uru hammer, for example. (I was disappointed that I couldn't get Captain America to pick up Green Lantern's power ring. Imagine what Cap could have done with that ring and his willpower!)
Several of the cut scenes between the repetitive battles are also worthwhile. An extended sequence in the League's Watchtower is particularly nice, with many good moments between the various characters, but, alas, it's over much too quickly.
In the end, playing Avengers/JLA is about as satisfying as watching a flashy demo for an upcoming game. Yeah, the graphics can be captivating; the many different characters and levels are frequently amusing (Ooo, Galactus-World!); certain cut scenes may even be extremely well-crafted and clever. But in the end the overall package lacks a compelling, engaging storyline to pull everything together. Bottom line? Save your money by passing on this over-rendered spectacle and pull out a classic game instead. The graphics may be simpler, but the gameplay will probably be much stronger.