This is by no means a terrible game. The artistry is very nice, the controls are fine... it just falls hugely short in a very unacceptable way. I'm inclined to start my review right there because I'm still pretty pissed about it, but I want to give you some spoiler space first where we can talk about the good bits.
Shadow of Apokolips is based on the recent animated Superman series (which in turn came out of the '90s animated Batman series.) Following the cartoon's designs and style, it comes off very well. As Superman, you must engage enemy robots and a handfull of supervillains across Metropolis. What little plot there is involves unknown super-weapons and a Stryker's Island breakout. You'll see the usual cast: Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Perry White, Intergang, Kanto, Maggie, Jimmy, Lois.
The characters look very nice... there are some cutscenes where the lighting will surprise you with how clean and realistic a cartoon figure can look. Unfortunately, the clean design can be overdone: some objects (cars, buildings) are so clean that they have no detail whatsoever. Watch for the vehicles in the tutorial level; they're probably the simplest graphics ever rendered on a PS2. They look very embarrassing and unfinished. But on the other hand, the fiery smoke sent up by an exploding enemy drone is beautiful... I'm not kidding, it does look great.
This is the first video game to allow Superman a wide variety of super-powers right from the start. As soon as you get past the tutorial levels, you can fly, hover, heat vision, x-ray vision, super-breath, spin attack, dive bomb, flying punch and regular ol' super-brawling. It sounds like a lot for one Dual Shock, but it very neatly divides into a set of controls for in the air and another set for on the ground.
Flying is done very nicely. You can switch from walking to hovering with a quick up on the right analog stick. While hovering, you can jink to either side for avoiding laser fire, or go into full flying mode with a shoulder button press. While flying, you go into the traditional horizontal Superman posture. These actions really show off how well Superman is animated. His arms will change positions depending on your speed and direction, and his red cape ripples and billows very naturally. Several levels allow for full open-air flying, and I found these much more fun than the claustrophobic indoor maze levels.
Heat vision is very important throughout the game. It's your primary distance attack (aside from the flying punch) and can be used at any time to fry unlucky baddies. The game uses a lock-on feature so you can select what item of enemy gets the red glare. Double-tapping the button fires a powerful heat energy burst, while just holding the button sends out a steady stream of heat vision. The burst will knock guys off their feet, while the stream will slowly set them on fire or heat up an targetable object.
The other powers are largely unused, except for particular obvious points in certain levels. X-Ray vision/telescopic vision is not nearly as useful as it should be, and super-breath is used mainly for cooling off overheating machinery or blowing out fires. What this game dubs "super-hearing" is actually just a radar in the lower left corner. Radar blips indicate trouble spots and enemy locations, but I give them points for trying to keep the radar in theme.
To bring Superman down to a video game level, these super-powers all operate off a secondary life meter. When that meter is drained, you're stuck with regular moves like punching and flying. But both the super-power meter and the life meter are constantly refilling, which is a very clever way to simulate Superman's invulnerability. The only missing super-power I would have liked to see included was super-speed. It's kinda represented by the flying dodge and flying punch maneuvers, but you can't move at super-speed to punchout a roomful of robots in a second.
Many levels include junk you can pick up. Such items are all targetable for easy identification... you can rip a metal pipe off the wall to use as a baddie bat, you can pick up cars and toss them around, that sort of thing. The "picking up" animation is terribly slow, as if Superman really has to focus on the object before he tries to pick it up. This also applies to putting stuff down, which can really suck in the levels where you have to pick stuff up and put stuff somewhere else.
The level objectives are surprisingly varied, given the track record of most super-hero games. They are not all just punching out robots! One level requires you to sneak into LexLabs as Clark Kent. Another has you escorting police guards through a prison riot. If you ever can't figure out what to do (and it will happen), the pause will show your list of objectives. Had I not paused during the boss fight with Livewire, I would never had thought to destroy the extinguisher locks hidden in the room's ceiling.
So far, it seems pretty solid, right? The story is building speed, the Stryker's Island bit allowed for a full test of your powers, even a couple button mashing mini-mini-games. Sure, you've noticed a couple weak spots... the nuclear reactor level has some pretty cheap falling rock attacks, the timed laser barriers were designed by someone with no depth perception, the guards you're escorting have no life meters, and the spoken dialogue can get pretty weak... but on the whole, you're ready for three boss fights in a row: Livewire, Parasite and Metallo.
Livewire is the funniest. In usual three-stage boss form, you have to figure out how to douse her with water. Parasite glitched on me. I guess he was supposed to be a colossal mano y mano battle for the ages - since he absorbed my powers during the cutscene - but about 20 seconds in, he flew under a Metropolis bridge and got stuck there. So I punched and heat blasted him until his life meter ended.
Metallo starts off great. He had lots of attacks and a completely free-range area to run around in. After dodging his laser and kryptonite attacks for a while, you have to pull off a trick to get him stuck to a magnet. I found this bit annoying, because you have about three seconds to turn on the magnet device. I missed my opportunity several times, meaning Metallo got to come back with some of his life meter back. Repeat.
But you get through it. Metallo's head gets pulled off and you stroll back out to confront Luthor about the high-tech weaponry. Darkseid - having already endured Kanto's defeat a few levels back - mutters some prophetic words. Time for Superman to take this fight to Apokolips.
No. Credits roll.
Yes, "Shadow of Apokolips" ends without ever setting red bootie on Apokolips. The three Stryker's escapees are the game's big ending. The whole game you'll watch Luthor and Darkseid cutscenes and you never actually deal with either of them. Sure, I can see Luthor getting off scot-free, but you should definitely have taken a Boom Tube to Apokolips and tackled the lowlies there before a massive boss fight with Darkseid... and ending with a stern message to keep his weapons off Earth.
Did I mention that the entire game can be finished in about four hours? I really think the development team intended more levels, but just ran out of money and wrapped it up. The Metallo fight feels like a halfway point, not a dramatic finale. Metallo wasn't even involved with this crime! He just escaped from prison with the help of some well-placed Apokoliptian weaponry!
Here's a game that should have offered so much more. The Superman engine is solid. The levels show promise. I wonder if the game was originally just called "Superman: Apokolips" and had to be changed when they stopped just short of actually taking him to Apokolips. As it stands, it's an easy rental with no reason to ever play again.