Let me preface this review to say that I am nothing if not heavily biased when I talk about anything dealing with Wolverine. With the birth name of James Howlett, it is like he is my great-great-great-great-grandfather and I take after him quite a bit. That is, without the super powers, metal skeleton, generally not-so-sunny disposition and yellow spandex. However, I did grow pretty terrible sideburns in high school, so that must count for something.
X-Men video games have been a part of my life since a very early age, when the X-Men Arcade Game occupied long ferry rides along the east coast of Canada, so whenever a new one arrives on shelves it will generally pique my interest for a bit longer than most of them probably merit. The most recent addition to the series of superhero games is a companion piece to the most recent film in the genre, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. More specifically, the Uncaged Edition, which is the full-blown HD version of the game that has been released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 and comes from Raven Software, who have had their hands in the license before with Marvel Ultimate Alliance and X-Men Legends, both generally well-received titles. Seems to be a natural fit to have them tackle this new series considering the success they’ve had previous, and given that this title primarily deals with a rage-filled, brawling protagonist, their work with Gauntlet-like battles could be distilled down to a more individual experience.
Wolverine starts out with a big shock, especially to anyone that has seen the film that accompanies it. The first being that it seems to divert significantly from the path of the movie’s story, most likely due to the fact the game must have been started before a final script was even available, and the second point being how unbelievable gory and violent the opening of the game is. Bones are broken, blood is spilled, all in glorious high definition and with all the gentle choreography of a bar-room brawl. It is a portrait of a violent and angry super-powered human, ripping apart anyone who stands in his way, which is one of the most brutal portrayals of the character I’ve seen. In a video game context, however, it works, because it instantly establishes you as a very powerful individual and with every combo you perform from here on out you recognize the impact that is behind each hit. When you move through the game, every time you are shot or sliced your flesh is ripped off and your bones exposed, and Wolverine’s healing ability gradually returns all your bits to their rightful places.
The game is basically a relatively standard 3D beat-em-up game, which will place you into a room with multiple foes and your job is to make them all stop attacking you, and the best way to do that is to perform combos involving slicing, dicing and acts of extreme violence. Lots of button tapping and strange action sequences that can often pay huge dividends in both the presentation and lethality of the actions that you are performing. When the game puts you in these situations, it’s doing what it does best. When the game shifts to boss fights, however, the equation changes quite a bit. The game then turns into a sequence of dodging, leaping onto their backs, and then tapping a button for a while before being thrown off. Rinse, repeat, and that means repeat for just about every boss in the game. Granted, this applies mostly to the mini-bosses you will face, but given the fact that the actual boss fights are relatively sparse in the game you will be charged with this task quite a few times, and it gets old very quickly. While the attack combinations shine in the game, the defensive moves show off a weaker side of the game, where the lock-on mechanic for enemies can be a bit finicky, and the dodging and deflecting has a timing that doesn’t necessary match up with the visual feedback the game gives you. Basically, you can dive out of the way of an enemy and still find yourself smashed, but if you time it right you can lend in the middle of an attack completely unaffected.
How the game really tries to draw you in is through a level-up system that sees Wolverine glow and regenerate his wifebeater, should it be ripped off by stray shotgun fire. For every x amount of baddie you take down in a brutal way, you are given a set of skill points to apply to your basic attacks, healing, special attacks, etc. The game even offers special slots called “mutagens” that allow you to enhance your powers, which are set out as (somewhat) hidden collectibles throughout the game. It’s an interesting element that does become somewhat important as you progress in the game, but doesn’t add a whole lot of depth given the limited amount of enhancements you can muster on a single playthrough. There are other collectible items, and a few odd hidden set-pieces like a room with a cake, a strange ice-sword and a hatch emblazoned with some mysterious numbers that are a good chuckle for any pop culture junkie, but generally doesn’t give you a lot beyond moving from room to room.
The game does switch it up enough, adding some relatively simple puzzles into the fray, although some of them involve running around in circles until you figure out which magic pillar you are supposed to stand on. The game offers a special “feral” sense that points out important elements, something that is almost necessary to distinguish elements that can be moved or destroyed, since it is not always obvious. There are some genuinely interesting boss fights towards the end of the game, as well, but even the final boss feels like a bit of a cop-out, especially considering a few accidental jumps sent me to an instant death several times. There are a few moments in the game where I ended up falling through the world geometry, or getting stuck in a corner unable to move. The game even froze my system completely during a few boss fights, something that is pretty hard to forgive when it involves shutting off your system and starting your progress all over again from your last checkpoint.
The story is exceptionally disjointed, confusing and basically throws a lot of the canon out the window. It does loosely follow some of the events from the film, but given that cutscenes happen very rarely, even more so when talking about the pre-rendered scenes, you aren’t given much context or consequence for your actions. Attack dudes in Africa, attack dudes in America, attack dudes in some underground base, and so on and so forth. The game tries to add some backstory elements by providing audio logs from various characters, but most of these fall relatively flat and do not have much impact on what happens in the world around you. The convoluted story doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall experience, however, and almost gives it a B-Movie type quality that simply thinly explains away the motivations and set pieces. It works well enough for what you’re supposed to do in the game, and the voice acting isn’t completely atrocious so you won’t necessarily want to throw the mute switch up.
Graphically, the game is fairly adequate. The pre-rendered cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous, but the levels tend to look a bit lacklustre, especially approaching the end of the game where all the fights and sets seem to be thrown together. Explosions are generally flat looking, but the battle animations and blood splattering is as visceral as it is awesome, so you get a real charge out of delivering a final blow. The sound helps that, too, with the crunches, slashes and kabooms matching up nicely with what is on screen. The game is not the pinacle of the current generation games, but it doesn’t feel like a scaled up last-gen experience and really takes advantage of large landscapes with virtually no loading.
So what I’m really trying to say is…
Wolverine is an absolutely visceral experience from start to finish. You will always find new moves that surprise you at the level of violence achieved, and for anyone that is intrigued by that prospect the game really works. Standard beat-em-up mechanics done reasonably well make the experience easy to get through, although the last quarter of the game almost feels rushed out the door and has a few immersion-crushing bugs. The lengths is adequate, if not slightly outstaying its welcome through the middle portions of the game, and the story isn’t great but it’s good enough to keep you moving. What you have is a relatively well done brawler that distills the experience of being Wolverine down to a science.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine Uncaged Edition is developed by Raven Software and published by Activision-Blizzard. The game is out now for the PS3 and Xbox 360, available for $69.99 (CDN) and the PS3 version was rented for the purposes of this review. Played to completion on Normal difficulty, roughly 10 hours of play. 3/4 bonus challenges completed.