Review: PowerUp Heroes

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When you get right down to it, we don’t ask much from our Kinect peripherals. Basically, we just want to feel super: We want to stick our hands out and have bolts of lightning erupt across the screen. We want to smash our hands down on the imaginary ground and have earthquakes ravage the virtual landscape. Can we wave our mitts around and summon up a black hole, too? That’d be awesome, thanks!

In this sense, Ubisoft’s PowerUp Heroes seems like it could be the Kinect-based answer to our seven-year-old playground dreams of playing superhero. The package and presentation are only about as deep as your average rebooted issue of the Avengers, but for a few hours of controller-free beat-‘em up action, it scratches that superpowered itch. Well, at least until the villains start kicking your ass ten ways to Sunday, that is.

You can think of PowerUp Heroes as the Xbox Live Avatar-lite version of Mortal Kombat–sans any of the blood, spinal extractions or decapitations, obviously. The game’s main campaign mode finds you—or rather your Xbox Live Avatar– tackling Malignance, a costumed alien nasty who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel Comics’ Penance (sans the psychotic, self-flagellating backstory). Big M is intent on dropping his nefarious plan to subjugate Earth by dropping emitters that turn the morally dubious among us into super-powered bastards.

In a twist that proves the developers were totally watching the Green Lantern movie when they planned their intro, you come across Voltra, a good guy in an electrically themed super-suit, just a few minutes after he’s nose-planted his spaceship into the heart of concrete downtown. With his final dying breath, he hands you his emitter, and you’ve got your first super-suit. Time to unleash the beatdown and go collect a bunch more.

Aside from the over-the-shoulder presentation, the one-on-one battles are so very Mortal Kombat, right down to the “FIGHT!” and “KO!” exclamations the announcer unleashes at the front and end of each bout and the ever-present rage meter that amps the damage when it’s full. Each of the various super-suited enemies you’ll face has three special moves that can be unleashed when the timer-meter is full—and so do the two suits you’ll bring to each fight. The super-suits and superpowers themselves are entertaining, cool and creative (I found myself actually wishing for action figures), even if the themes are as obvious as an unzipped fly. As the death-masked Necro, you can wave your arms and summon a set of undead skeletons to hogpile your opponent to the ground. As the tribally themed Soothsayer, you can raise and drop your arm to pincushion your opponent with an astral bow and arrow. The game’s most devastating damage is unleashed when you can chain attacks from both of the super-suits you’ve brought into a battle, switching between them by raising your left hand to the sky. If you’re smooth enough to land an ultra-chain—three super attacks with two suit shifts in a row—you really are a superhero.

Ubi’s been down this Kinect beat-‘em up road before, with last year’s horrific Fighters Uncaged, quite possibly the worst Kinect game ever unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. But where the motion-recognition features in that game were more broken than a noob’s nose after a UFC bout with Chris Leben, here the Kinect camera is a little less likely to join the forces of evil, even going so far as to give you a few extra seconds to re-bust your attack if it doesn’t register immediately. When it does happen, it’s often during the melee sequences where you thrust a hand forward to zoom up all close and personal, following the on-screen cues as you trade punches, kicks to the groin and finishing moves. Even if the camera doesn’t register your first two or three punches, you can always wait to pull off the finishing move and send your opponent flying onto his butt.

The higher up the villain chain you traipse, the tougher your opponents become—at least in terms of the power of their attacks and their ability to dodge and deflect yours. It’s hilarious to watch Malignance fold his arms and shake his head dismissively at you when your super-cool power attack lands on empty air. (Awkward!) Beating him is the point at which the game begins to tilt foward from fun to frustrating, as the same set of super-suits return for a second go-round, this time with additional super-strength and speed. Suddenly, those moments when your moves don’t trigger immediately spell a quick K and O for you.

Flap your arms and legs long enough to survive these battles, and you’ll unlock 20 different suits, including supercharged (and alternatively colored) versions of the main suits and suits based on Ezio from Assassin’s Creed and the Prince of Persia—let’s hear it for intra-publisher tie-ins.

This wouldn’t be any kind of fighting game if it forced you to only punch solo. There’s also a split-screen versus mode that lets you bang your elbows into a friend in your living room or tackle an online opponent. Up to four players can see who can KO enemies the fastest in the game’s tournament mode. Add in the practice mode and you’ve reached the limits of PowerUp Heroes’ superpowers.

Before each battle begins, you’re given the option to wear a helmet or let your Xbox Live avatar go cranium commando. Your choice will likely depend on how artistic you’ve been in creating your avatar: Rocking my From Dust native mask proved almost as interesting as any of the super-helmets, but your mileage may vary. And sporting a helmet means you’ll miss out on the goofy/angry expressions the avatars show when they’re dealing or receiving damage.

Given that the super-suits are so cool, you’d think at least one or two of them would be tucked into the game as avatar awards for you to unlock. You’d be wrong. If you’d like to trick out your Xbox Live avatar outside the confines of the game, plan to pony up around 400 Xbox points per full costume, a move that feels like a cheap double-dip uppercut. The title is also meshed in with Ubisoft’s UPlay service, but several of the features appear to be works in progress at this point. For instance, while you can earn UPlay points by hitting milestones in the game, the store feature only has a “coming soon” sign hanging in its window.

PowerUp Heroes isn’t the deepest Kinect game you’ll play, nor is it the most technically polished. It does, however, sport enough satisfying/super moments to make it worth a gut punch or two. Fight!

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Pros:
+ Cartoony Xbox Live Avatar art style translates well to the world of beat ‘em ups
+ Super attacks make you feel super. Lightning whips and molten boulders!
+ Multiplayer modes get everyone involved

Cons:
- Occasional Kinect camera glitches annoy, especially when you’re taking on more powerful enemies
- No avatar-award super-suits
- UPlay functions are a major work in progress

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Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 Kinect
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 10/18/2011
Genre: Fighting / Beat-’em-up
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.