Back in early high school, I spent way too many quarters playing Street Fighter II in my local arcade, and while I’ve dabbled in fighting games here and there, I’ve long argued that the genre has been pretty much stagnant since then, despite Capcom’s best efforts to suggest otherwise by releasing a thousand versions of essentially the same game and Midway/Warner Bros. dropping endless Mortal Kombat sequels on the marketplace.
But while there seems to be an audience for Mortal Kombat 74 or Marvel vs. Capcom vs. Street Fighter XVI, there has to be room for something else. Ubisoft’s PowerUp Heroes gives me hope that that something else may be here. Something I haven’t experienced in a fighting game in almost two decades: fun.
The Parent Perspective
PowerUp Heroes feels like a great sleepover party game, the kind that you’ll be telling the kids to turn off at 3:00 in the morning. Built from the ground for what I would suspect is a younger audience, PowerUp Heroes should definitely appeal to a 10+ audience, though parents of kids 7 and up may feel comfortable letting their kids play. For grown ups, this isn’t going to replace Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat on your shelf, but it is still fun to see how the technology can be used. But ultimately, this is a kids game that adults can have fun with.
There’s no bloodshed or bodily harm, but because the gameplay in PowerUp Heroes consists largely of punching and kicking, parents will definitely want to make sure their kids know that what happens in the game should never take place out of the game.
Other than a good, vigorous play session and the opportunity to virtually KO your friends, family, and siblings, there’s not a lot of other real tangible benefits or learning opportunities here, and the length of time this game spends in your Xbox will depend heavily on how much the multiplayer (on-line or off-line) will be played. If you foresee a lot of family gaming, online gaming, or the aforementioned sleepovers, then PowerUp Heroes can be a lot of fun.
PowerUp Heroes could be considered a success simply for demonstrating that a fighting game is possible on Kinect, but it gains points here for making the whole experience fun, in spite of some drawbacks.
In PowerUp Heroes, the evil space entity Malignance has plans to enslave Earth, using hockey puck-sized emitters to turn ordinary citizens into superpowered villains with a variety of attack powers. Volta, a fellow alien trying to stop Malignance crashes to earth, giving you his emitter right before his death. With that, you are given his electric powers, to take on the armies of Malignance and save the planet. And when I say you, I mean literally you, as PowerUp Heroes uses your Avatar as your in-game character.
Yes, that’s not really the most interesting or original story, but it doesn’t really matter. PowerUp Heroes isn’t about the story or characters. It’s about air punching and air kicking your way to victory.
Gameplay is an odd hybrid that seems to recreate button mashing with an absence of buttons. There’s strategy to be employed, especially later in the game as the difficulty ramps up, but a good chunk of the gameplay will involve just wailing with as many imaginary punches and kicks as you can. If your shoulders aren’t aching at least a little bit at the end, you might not be trying hard enough. Or the Kinect sensor might be doing what it always does: not quite work perfectly.
The game’s simply storyline sets you up for a series of head to head battles against the forces of Malignance, and if you defeat the enemy, your emitter absorbs their powers and gives you new suits and powers to utilize. You always have the basic options of punching projectiles at your enemies or kick to rush in for close combat (the flurry of punches and kicks mentioned above), but each suit also has a trio of special powerful attacks that are triggered by unique gestures. Whether it’s Scorch’s fire attacks, Bionic’s military hardware, Shadow’s Scorpion-inspired moves, or any of the other suit powers (20 in total, including some that have fun with Ubisoft’s iconic characters), they provide enough visual difference and unique attacks to make collecting them worthwhile.
In each encounter (after the first one), you can equip two different suits and switch between them quickly during each battle, including a challenging but rewarding ability to chain abilities from suit to suit for massive damage. It’s not the easiest move to pull off, but when you get it right, you’ll celebrate as your opponent’s life bar drops significantly.
But while PowerUp Heroes scores high in fun, there are other parts of the game that don’t rate as highly, yet don’t completely detract from the final outcome.
The story is largely inconsequential, serving only to deliver you to the next combatant. Granted, fighting games have never been confused with Shakespeare, but the storytelling and cinematics are threadbare at best. That leads to an ultimately shallow experience. You beat up a bad guy, then you beat up another bad guy, and so on and so forth. Eventually, you might want to beat up your friends, or strangers on Xbox Live, but it’s still just beating up another character.
Visually, PowerUp Heroes is a mixed bag. The designs for each suit are varied and colourful, and the encounters take place in a wide variety of locales, but despite heavy use of bright colour, the game never really pops and doesn’t feel like it takes advantage of what the Xbox can do.
And since this is a Kinect game, there is an obligatory mention that the Kinect controls aren’t perfect. At this point, in the second generation of Kinect titles, it’s fair to question whether perfection will ever be achieved, or if we have to start looking at things as the best we’re going to get. The sensor definitely misses or fails to track some moves, and the ability to dodge is dodgy, but it’s more annoying than gamebreaking. On the flipside, the menus are surprisingly tight and well done, which often seems to fall victim to an end of development mindset.
The GamerPops Recommendation
PowerUp Heroes may not be, by numbers, the best Kinect game, you can make a strong argument that it is one of the most fun. This isn’t the next great game for the traditional fighting game crowd, but it is a welcome member of the quickly growing roster of fun Kinect titles, and should be popular with pre-teen boys.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of PowerUp heroes is that it shows what is possible with Kinect. There is no doubt that a fighting game can and does work with Kinect, which should potentially excite fans of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, if those stale franchises are actually capable of evolving. But better than that, imagine taking the core of PowerUp Heroes and grafting Marvel or DC’s pantheon of heroes and villains on top. That could be a very bright and fun future, and one I would definitely want to play in.
Until then though, PowerUp Heroes gets a solid recommendation by making something old new again, and giving us something different from our Kinect hardware. While imperfect, it can provide enough fun to overcome its weaknesses, and in the end, fun should count for something.
Hopefully this isn’t the end for this concept, and we’ll see Ubisoft continue to grow and fine tune the concept, and whether it’s PowerUp Heroes 2 or PowerUp Marvel Heroes (a guy can dream right?) there seems to be the potential for this franchise to continue to grow and improve. Personally, I look forward to that.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
ESRB Rating Summary
Rating: Everyone 10+
Content descriptors: Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes
Rating summary: This is a fighting game in which players assume the role of superheroes that must stop robotic villains from taking over the world. Players mimic on-screen gestures (e.g., arm swipes, leg sweeps) to kick and punch at cartoonlike enemies. Each character can also use fantastical attacks (e.g., fireballs, electric beams, telekinetic blasts, black holes) to stun or knock out opponents; impact sounds can be heard during each round, and some attacks result in colorful light effects. One rabbit-like fighter throws small plungers to incapacitate enemies; another character uses ‘cartoony’ Gatling guns to shoot colorful pellets. Some female fighters are depicted in skintight outfits that accentuate their buttocks.