It's practically a truism that video games built on film and book licenses suck; probably due to the motivation for using a license from another medium being more about attempting to cash-in on name recognition than actually delivering a compelling gaming experience. Of course there are exceptions to the rule and you do get a fun game from time to time. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is definitely one of those games and is not only a fun game, but an insanely fun game.
Referred to internally by developers Radical Entertainment as "Hulk 2", this is a follow-up to the first "Hulk" which depicted events following the Ang Lee film of the same name. That game got mixed reviews at the time due to its linear story progression and slow sections with players controlling Bruce Banner, but was praised for the amount of moves Hulk was capable of and fun gameplay. Ultimate Destruction builds upon the good aspects whilst addressing many of the criticisms of the first game, and delivers what is still the best comic-book gaming experience around - even five years after its original release.
Bruce Banner's character is limited to the CGI cutscenes which tell the story: Banner and his friend Doc Sampson have hidden themselves in a church in the middle of nowhere trying to build a machine they hope can eventually cure Bruce of being the Hulk and, more pressingly, contain a third emerging personality which threatens to break free of Banner's mind and unleash unbridled destruction upon the world. Unfortunately General "Thunder" Ross and NSA operative Emil Blonsky are on his trail and determined to contain or destroy the Hulk if they can. The plotting is pretty solid, courtesy of an actual writer of Hulk comics, and the voice acting present throughout is also of good quality.
The story conceit which explains the normally less-than-clever behemoth taking on detailed missions is that Doctor Sampson is able to trigger Banner's transformations and implant subconscious suggestions to guide the Hulk persona's actions. As a result the player will be controlling Hulk full-time throughout the 10-15 hour main story. Whilst missions are still presented in a linear fashion they're situated in an open game world and can be started by the player when-and-as they see fit. The church hideout acts as the game's hub; from here players can access files that carry along the plot, review the story, save and load games and purchase new moves using "smash points" earned through the course of the game.
From the church Hulk can jump to two different environments: The Badlands, which is where you'll find a small town and military bases, and The City: an amalgamation of New York and other American cities, which is where the story begins. What has been achieved by the developers in creating these environments is simply amazing - especially considering the hardware being used. Both of these environments are vast contiguous areas with long draw distances. You can climb up to a skyscraper in the city and pan the camera around using the C-Stick and see out across it without any fogging being used (the fact that it's perpetually evening probably helps). In both cases you can run about on foot from one end of the map to the other without ever noticing any slowdown due to level loading. It will take quite awhile to cross these environments on foot, so thankfully there are jump points outside of the starting one which you can discover as you play.
There are three kinds of missions: fetch quests that involve collecting technology needed to build the machine Banner and Sampson are working on, assaults involving the destruction of specific targets to try to slow the development of anti-Hulk technology by the military and missions involving the defence of structures or vehicles. Regular missions are broken up by special missions which generally involve a boss fight of some kind and mark a turning point in the story.
In addition to these main game missions are optional Challenge Missions that are often fanciful and just played for fun or to earn extra smash points. These involve races through icon-dotted courses, whacking soldiers jumping from helicopters with clubs or playing "Hulk-style" sporting events like kicking field goals with cars or playing golf using part of an oil derrick and a super-sized golf ball. If you don't want any mission structure at all you can just run about destroying cars and buildings at random until you get the attention of the local authorities who will eventually send out a full military strike team to take you down; which can also be fun to try and dispatch!
All of this is nice enough, but what makes Ultimate Destruction so brilliant is the almost perfectly realised control players have over the Hulk using a mere handful of buttons. A is a basic punch and Y a downward strike, whilst B makes Hulk jump. All of these can be charged by holding the button down before release (indicated by Hulk starting to glow green) and they can be used in combinations to pull off various additional moves on the ground and in the air. Pressing R causes Hulk to run and when he gets up a full head of steam he can run right up the sides of buildings - great for evading enemies or getting to high vantage points. L allows for targeting of nearby enemies (targets can be changed by pressing left and right on the C-Stick) which is handy when you're looking for a place to chuck that taxi cab you just picked up using the X button.
A little bit of messing about in town reveals a lot about what Hulk is capable of; pressing X whilst at the side of a building will cause Hulk to dig his fingertips into it allowing him to climb right up the side using his own handholds. This works even whilst falling, though you do a great deal of damage grabbing the side of the building until you come to a stop! Jumps and attacks can be charged whilst in motion meaning you can do a series of super jumps just like the comics - the next fastest way to travel outside of jump points. Randomly discovering what you can do is a great deal of fun, but you'll really need to master some moves if you're going to survive an assault from a couple of heavy tanks and four Hulkbuster Mechas or a squadron of attack helicopters. Thankfully more complicated actions are accompanied by tutorials you can replay from the church whenever you like and the pause menu has a handy move list (though it lacks the description present in the Buy Menu at the church).
Wreaking destruction has never been so much fun thanks to the variety of actions on offer. Want to tear apart cars to create boxing gloves? Smash a truck into a shield? Go "surfing" on that shield? Kick the shield into an enemy after surfing on it? Use it like a boomerang? Grab a lamppost and throw it through a mech like a spear? Jump up and grab a helicopter or jump-jet out of the sky and either kick it at an enemy or ride it into the ground? Grab a missile that's been fired at you and throw it back? Stomp enemy mechs after you grab them out of the air and spike them into the ground? Pick up a tank and whirl it around before throwing it at another enemy? You can do all of these things and loads more with literally dozens of moves to purchase over the course of the game.
Visually Ultimate Destruction stands up pretty well compared to current generation graphics. Although texture resolution has clearly been sacrificed in favour of gameplay, there's still nice graphical touches like the trail of broken pavement Hulk leaves just from walking or running about town and the aforementioned damage caused by trying to grab the side of a building mid-fall. The biggest special effects are reserved for Critical Mass attacks which are the most expensive (and destructive) moves in the game. The action switches into slow-mo as Hulk goes into a massive rage with visible shock-waves emanating from the source of impact sending bystanders and enemies flying in all directions - if not destroying them outright. The camera is largely excellent and keeps Hulk in the centre of the frame, though you can have issues when target-locking planes as they zip about, and sometimes you can lose your bearings running along building surfaces when you're under attack due to the required angle changes.
Owners of widescreen televisions will be happy to know that this is among the short list of GameCube games that support a 16:9 aspect ratio. Annoyingly this option isn't saved when selected and it can only be enabled from the top-level options menu, meaning you have to remember to set it every time you start the game. The audio is impressive and gives a lot of realistic feeling to the proceedings; Hulk makes big thumps just running around and even bigger booms when he slams his fists into the ground or makes a trademark thunderclap with his hands. There's also plentiful sounds of smashing metal from scrapping cars, tanks and mechs or reshaping them into weapons. Lastly the film score gives further momentum to the action without being distracting.
Replay value is high given you unlock a hard difficulty mode and have the option to replay at the existing difficulty using the powers you've unlocked. There are also tons of bonus items to find in the form of question-marks denoting game hints (find them all to get a "special prize") and icons which unlock comic book covers, concept and rendered artwork, making of movies and cheat codes. Mostly it's just so much fun running around and smashing things that it's hard to put down the gamepad without giving it another go!
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is a rarity amongst licensed game properties because it makes being a fun game the priority. The result is a lesson for any team working on a comic book game: give the player the abilities of the hero and the tools to use them effectively. Even if you're not a fan of Hulk comics (and we confess that we're not), guiding the Hulk through this well-told tale is incredibly satisfying thanks to rock-solid controls and fun gameplay. You'll find it still commands a decent price on the 2nd-hand market but it's definitely worth tracking down, so go get it and "Hulk out!"