Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Uncaged Edition

Raven Software

PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (‘Caged’ available on PS2, Wii; ‘Neutered’ for DS, PSP)

Wolverine is one of the more popular characters in the Marvel multiverse, but before now he hasn’t been well represented in videogames (other than in Marvel Vs Capcom, which was alone in getting absolutely everything right). X-Men Origins: Wolverine aims to change that, grafting an experience tree and basic RPG elements onto stock-standard action-adventure fare. It’s been scaled down and cutesified for Wii and handheld consoles, but the full blood-and-guts editions are about as lifelike as a game based on a movie based on a comic can get.

For a game that’s apparently all about origins, there’s startlingly little originality involved; Wolverine mixes the rich tropical forests of Uncharted, the illogical and simple puzzles of Tomb Raider series, and a combo and experience points system similar to that of 2007’s difficult-to-master but entirely underrated Conan. And yet, despite its pick-and-mix modularity, at least Wolverine pulls its inspiration from the right places – the combos are easily chained together, even flicking hits back and forth between different enemies; the environments are sufficiently lush and rich to distract from their linear nature; and while the environmental puzzles aren’t anything to write home about, they separate the endless lines of fodder for Wolverine’s adamantium claws.

And that’s really what it’s all about – the ‘Snikt’ sound effect that never gets old, the animal roar, and cutting enemies to shreds. Chaining together light and heavy attacks lets you eviscerate and decapitate any number of generic henchmen; there’s even a lunge attack to quickly close the gap between you. While this works wonders on the low-level fighters you’ll come across at the start of the game, tougher bosses will easily swat you out of the air, necessitating slightly different tactics.

Given Wolverine’s mutant healing factor, you’ll find that the health bar refills within a couple of seconds of withdrawing from the fight; the ubiquitous auto-healing hero finally makes sense. Graphically, too, the healing factor works wonders – you can see Wolverine take enough damage to reduce parts of him to a bloody pulp, and then to bone, but if you can get out of danger for long enough, he’ll heal up. Just as the lunge attack removes the annoyance of having to walk to the next enemy, the healing factor removes all fear of taking damage. It suits the source material, but makes for an easy game – the normal difficulty setting is a breeze, and even the hardest game mode is only a slight challenge.

There are few epic battles in the games – most involve a whirlwind of sharpened adamantium encountering flesh – but the battles with the Blob and a Sentinel do manage to get a little adrenaline pumping. The latter is particularly impressive, but not exactly representative of the rest of the game, which is mainly spent lunging between different groups of fodder and activating the odd quick-time event.

The major criticism of most third-person action games is that they’re not similar enough to God of War, but Wolverine does manage to surpass SCE’s creation in some ways. It’s a matter of swings and roundabouts, though – Wolverine’s healing factor makes the game too easy; the lunge, while cool enough the first few times, encourages a kind of laziness and doesn’t punish a beginner’s lack of skill.

Damning the game with faint praise, it’s been widely touted as one of the best movie adaptations ever. But while both the film and the game take liberties with comic book source material, the game makes very little sense. It’s internally incoherent, which is disconcerting for anyone who likes a reason to cut heads off with retractable claws. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Too Many Subtitles has little connection between its ludic and narrative elements other than, of course, the ever-popular ‘Snikt’. If you think a single sound effect justifies a game – and you’re probably not alone – consider Wolverine justified. Otherwise, borrow or rent the thing before you commit this week’s student loan entitlement to it.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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