Saturday, May 2, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PS3)

I'm sorry for the lack of reviews lately. As a self-financed reviewer, I'm loathe to part with money for shit I know I'm going to hate. I've cleaned out the bargain bin of everything interesting. The used rack at GameStop is a wasteland. I even pulled out GTA:IV and went on endless, wife-annoying killspree rampages, envisioning each self-involved pedestrian and feckless cop I firebombed as an unproductive game development executive.

Then I saw that X-Men Origins Wolverine was coming out yesterday. My wife quickly reminded me of the old adage: thou shalt not buy movie tie-in games, for invariably they suck. But, I like Wolverine well enough as a character. And, I'd read an interview a few months ago with a designer in which he said, roughly, that previous video-game incarnations Wolverine had sucked and that he wanted the player to feel like an unstoppable nuclear-powered, nightmare blender of dismemberment. Roughly.

He's absolutely right on the first point. The issue always comes down to claws and regeneration. In some video game incarnations, these are both treated as "mutant powers" requiring "mutant energy" (or whatever) for each usage, as if they were equivalent to an optic blast (or whatever). This generally means that Wolverine's standard attacks will be an assortment of punches and kicks. And, thanks to the treatment of regeneration, Wolverine dies almost as easily as the other characters.

The other variant of Wolverine suckage is nerfing him. The developers animate Wolverine using his claws, maybe with a bunch of cool attacks. But, to keep him from unbalancing gameplay, they reduce the amount of damage Wolverine does to that of a kitten (or, say, Cyclops). Regeneration in these instances is either voluntary (i.e. press a button) or automatic but very slow.

The net result is that playing as Wolverine, you never feel like you're Wolverine. You feel like you're playing a weirdly neutered Wolverine, more of just a generic bruiser with a stellar haircut (or stupid suit, depending on generation). Maybe sometimes it even crossed over to feeling more like Edward Scissorhands on crank. But, I've always known that somewhere, at some point, somebody was going to tap the vast potential of the Wolverine trip. I kinda hoped this might do it.

But, you know, it's a movie tie-in game.

When I booted Origins, and saw the Raven Software logo, I cast aside all fears. Raven doesn't make bad games. They sometimes make okay games, and they sometimes make great games. But, they don't make bad ones.

The overwhelming sense of Origins is that, more or less, you feel like Wolverine. I'm not saying that it emotionally motivates you to sympathize deeply with the tortured character. I'm saying that you feel like an inhuman killing machine. A demon sent from the other side to rend asunder human flesh. You feel powerful.

First, your claws do damage--whether bone or metal. If you just run up and weak-attack repeatedly, you'll eventually fell any enemy. His friends may have beat you around the head and shoulders while you were doing it, though. So, you have a wide array of simply brutal attacks to dispatch foes more efficiently. My favorite is to leap from across the room at my target, knock him to the floor, and plunge my claws repeatedly into his chest. The targeting system is excellent, and it's intuitive to chain together attacks against multiple targets.

Next, you can absorb and recover from damn-near anything. No fight is ever over. Your health bar constantly regenerates (more on regen later), meaning that the only thing that can take you down in combat is rapidly inflicted damage. Huge gangs of enemies can do it, boss characters can do it, but you can literally stand in front of a dude or two with machineguns and remain alive indefinitely. So, if you're quick, you can take down huge swaths of enemies without any danger whatsoever.

Last, the game has beautiful gore and blood. Now, in general, I would say that gratuitous blood and entrails doesn't add much but humor and shock value to a game. But, in the case of Wolverine and his story, it's not gratuitous. Cuts from claws (and knives) sling streamers of blood into the air--a realistic amount, actually, if not too little. Excellent sound design contributes hugely to the experience. Fatalities often result in pieces of badguys flying in random directions.

But, you're fucking Wolverine. He hurts people. It's what he does. And rarely has a Wolverine property (book, game, or movie) had the balls to treat the damage Wolverine must inflict so graphically. And while it's usually fun to watch the carnage, I literally felt sorry for some of the digital dudes I had to kill.

Oh, and before I forget, there's almost no quicktime. There's somebody sitting in its chair, and it's far better. Instead of stopping the action and giving you some random code (as Yahtzee puts it "press x to not die"), Origins slows time for a fraction of a second. And you just do what comes naturally.

Time freezes, you ascertain that somebody's about to impale you, and what do you do? You don't press X, X, O and twirl the control stick. You just press the dodge button at the right time. And then, after you've gotten the upper hand a half second later, you might want to press the attack button. Want to take down the boss? Dodge, spin and leap, hang on to his back, and stab him repeatedly with your claws. Almost none of this is prompted. Furthermore, the moment of opportunity is simply a slowing down of regular time. As a result, the consequences of missing your moment are invariably just your opponent completing his move

But, Origins is hardly without fault. It attempts a bold (for gaming) non-linear story, with flash backs and flash forwards. One thread of the story is a particular mission with Team X in everybody's favorite carnage convention retreat, a temple thingie in a jungle in Africa. The other thread of the story deals directly with the timeframe of the film, taking Wolverine through a number of Stryker's anti-mutant weapon labs.

So, you bounce back and forth between labs and jungle/temple. The two most worn-out and busted video game settings. I understand a little lab time, what with the adamantium bonding process and all. And I'd forgive one short jungle level--'cause nobody seems to be able to make a game without one. But, all of the missions blur together, two endless and intertwined exercises in environmental monotony. There's nothing they do in either that I haven't seen a hundred times before. It's like the level designers were on strike, and they left level design to the guy who also had to paint the textures. But, despite their lack of interesting architecture, the levels are polished, unconfusing, and professional.

Some of the enemies are pretty neat. And some of the boss battles are phenomenal. And some of the enemies (in the jungle) babble constantly in what I can only assume is mock-African. Maybe it's a real language. But, I think it was just funny noises. But, many of the enemy types act identically... I've found one AI routine that's used for three different enemies.

And, of course, the levels are filled with platforming and "puzzles". I guess Raven felt combat was getting stale and so they threw this shit in to break it up. The puzzles are simplistic, although there're a couple that had me stumped for a few minutes. And the platforming always feels out of place in a Wolverine game. And, of course, there's the obligatory you-don't-have-your-powers level. That also doubles as the, uh, "stealth" level... but, again, you're fucking Wolverine, so you hardly handle it like Garrett.

I mentioned the regeneration as a game mechanic above, where it works flawlessly. But, Raven also included a visual regeneration system for Wolverine. Basically, as you take damage, your flesh is rent asunder revealing muscles, bones, and organs. Then, as you regenerate, the tissue regenerates and the wounds close up. It's kinda cool, but also a mixed bag.

It's all done in texturing the character model. So, you'll take a little damage, it'll reveal the "bloody" layer; then, you take more, it reveals the "muscle" layer. Probably the most straightforward approach for the effect. But, it means you can see the seams if, for instance, your shoulder blade is computed to take a lot of damage but your shoulder itself isn't. It also means that your viscera are sometimes weirdly lit, giving Wolverine the appearance of a mangled Ken doll.

And then there're Wolverine's clothes. Apparently, according to the game, Wolverine can regenerate bluejeans but not wifebeaters. Wounds to the torso regenerate to bare skin; wounds to the ass and legs regenerate to bloody bluejeans. Furthermore, his wifebeater is glued to his skin with an even film of spray adhesive. I conclude this because you can have the entire back of your wifebeater gone (only skin back there) but the front will hang on.

But, of course, some cutscenes will regenerate your wifebeater. My wife and I concluded that Wolverine must carry a supply of shirts in his pocket. Basically, the visual regeneration is cool enough if you don't pay it much attention, but doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

And then there's the plot. It deviates wildly from the movie. And yet it quotes some scenes line for line. But, the chronology of events can't match that of the movie. But, it answers certain questions I had after the movie. But, those answers don't make any sense with any other established Marvel continuity. It's some bastard amalgam of the movie plot and poorly-researched comic lore, all tied together with typically atrocious game writing.

I would liken X-Men Origins: Wolverine to Spiderman 2 on the PS2. In Spiderman, Treyarch so perfectly captured the exhilarating joy of swinging through New York City that gamers happily overlooked the lame story and repetitive random missions. In Origins, Raven captures Wolverine's primal spirit, brutal and visceral battle, effectively enough for me to happily overlook the unimaginative backdrop.

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