Reviewed: May 2, 2009
Released: May 1, 2009
Activision has the corner on the super-hero videogame genre these days with awesome Marvel licenses like Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to hear that they would be taking on one of this spring’s biggest and most anticipated action movies, and with Raven Software at the helm, X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Uncaged Edition is very likely to be one of the few videogames to live up, and quite possibly exceed the action of the film that inspired it.
First, let’s get this whole “uncaged” thing out of the way. This subtitle appears on the 360, PS3, and PC versions of the game and alerts potential gamers that this game is rated Mature for a reason. I’ve spilt more blood in the past 12 hours than I did all last year. The opening movie is one of the most violent cutscenes of recent memory – the type of blood and extreme violence typically reserved for unrated DVD releases. Wolverine is a badass, and Raven Software has created quite the bloodbath extravaganza for fans of decapitation, dismemberment, and disembowelment.
I was all ready to post this review and then I decided to go see the movie on opening night, so I have the luxury of making some comparisons to the film that other reviewers might not. For the most part, Wolverine, the game, does a great job of touching on numerous key events from the film while adding in about 80% new and original material to fill in the gaps.
The movie starts off in 1847 when Logan was just a boy coming to grips with his “special” abilities – mostly regeneration and some creepy bone claws – they weren’t always polished razors. The opening credits show Logan and his brother fighting in nearly every major war recorded in the history books until they land themselves in the brig for assaulting a superior officer. That is when they get recruited by Stryker to join a special group of gifted warriors and one of their first missions takes place in Africa. Welcome to the game.
The storyline for Wolverine, the game, is a non-linear flashback and flash forward to those events in Africa that started to shape our hero as well as current events set about three years after Africa. The opening level not only introduces us to many of Logan’s amazing abilities, leaping, feral senses, claw attacks, etc., but we also find out more about the conflict with his brother that all culminates in a major bar fight that leaves Logan shattered – literally. Logan agrees to undergo a special treatment that will coat his bones with adamantium making him virtually indestructible. The treatment would kill most men, but his special regeneration abilities make Logan the perfect candidate to become the ultimate weapon.
While the game highlights some key story points from the film, most of it is totally original and totally awesome. The first time you take control of Wolverine you are freefalling from an exploded chopper, steering yourself into the ground where you impact an enemy soldier at terminal velocity and watch him explode in a shower of blood and body parts.
Game controls are flawless with quick and slow attacks that do less and more damage. These can be combined into dozens of combos and then further enhanced with jumping and grab moves. There is a fairly sophisticated character-building feature that allows you to earn experience and skill points then assign those points to numerous abilities giving you additional powers. There are also mutagens lying around the levels, and you have up to three slots to equip these valuable bits of DNA to enhance your combat and performance. And then you have combat reflexes, which tracks your success in combat with each of several enemy types and rewards you with bonuses the more you fight.
This seemingly complicated stat system lurks behind the fast and frantic gameplay, easily accessed from the Pause menu through an intuitive interface. On screen, you have a visible health and rage meter. Logan has a regenerative health system that appears both as a bar and a circle of vital organs. If the bar is depleted then Logan starts to take serious damage that isn’t healed nearly as quick. The onscreen character model for Wolverine does an amazing (and often sickening) job of showing you Logan’s health at any given moment ranging from minor scratches to entire sections of flesh removed for visible access to his rib cage. You’ll see entry and exit wounds from a single gunshot and they are realistic in size. And then you can watch as all the skin and flesh repairs itself in real-time.
There is a great mix of enemies that are both smart and numerous, often attacking in mixed clusters forcing you to change your tactics often and think on your feet. Most enemies are defenseless against your leaping attack, but some do have shields or shotguns and they can see you flying at them. For a game where you have no weapons whatsoever, there is a surprising amount of flexibility in the combat and gameplay that continually keeps things fresh.
As twisted as it might sound, a big part of the satisfaction, even when things get repetitive, is the insane level of gore and blood. Heads will roll, arms and legs go flying off in random directions, and then you have the quick-kill finishing moves that are unique to each type of enemy. Imagine Logan jamming his fist down the throat of an enemy then extending his claws and gutting the guy from the inside out – all in glorious slow motion so you don’t miss one drop of blood that is certain to spray the screen. Or how about grabbing a shotgun and turning it back on its owner for a quick decap.
The first time you see Logan punch through a chopper windshield, rip the pilot out of his seat, and then thrust him up into the chopper blades for a bloody decapitation is probably when you realize this is one of the most violent games ever made. I’ve played zombie and vampire games that pale in comparison to the bloodletting going on in Wolverine.
But lest you think this is a mindless button-masher rest assured there is some sophistication in the combat, and you actually have to identify and prioritize targets and change up your tactics for each situation. There is a block and counter move that needs mastering as well as a timed three-button quick kill move. You also have to known when to temporarily retreat and recharge your health. Things get really awesome for the final third of the game when you have built up some of your rage and spin attacks not to mention some of the surprise boss fights and levels Raven has included in the game.
Sadly, for as fun and visceral as Wolverine is to play, the game doesn’t come without its problems, some shared between system builds and others exclusive to a certain system. While the first 5-7 hours were relatively trouble-free, game-stopping glitches started to surface about the time I hit the Sentinel Facility that forced me to Restart from Last Checkpoint, which often meant a lot of fighting the same battles over and over. Things got really bad in the boss fight with Gambit on the neon sign. Gambit would either vanish from the fight entirely leaving me no choice but to restart, or often he would appear motionless. He wouldn’t attack and I couldn’t do any damage. I had to restart the Gambit fight 9 times before I finally got through it, which is a shame because this was one of the best sequence of levels in the game.
There are a few other minor quibbles like the magic white t-shirt that appears and vanishes at random. And while I can appreciate the experience and level-up system, it really breaks the logic barrier when you flashback three years, but you are still working on a linear skill progression. I mean, if I just earned some new ability in present day, why would I have that ability three years ago back in Africa. I know…it’s just a game.
Wolverine runs out of steam about six hours in when they start running out of monsters and enemies to throw at you. The Leviathan was pretty cool and he would have been cooler if he were some sort of mystical temple guardian, but you end up fighting a dozen or more of these lava-beasts – sometimes two or three at once. And the same goes for every other mid-size boss. The only truly epic battle in the game is with the Sentinel. Even the final battle with Deadpool is rather lame and predictable, but it’s a dead ringer for the finale of the movie.
For those who like to explore as well as eviscerate, there are lots of collectibles starting with nearly a hundred dog tags, miniature figures, health bonuses, mutagens, and a few Easter eggs that clearly indicate the designers are fans of Lost. The Wolverine figures are the most valuable find since they unlock special Danger Room levels where you get to fight any of three classic Wolverines as Wolverine, and if you win you get that costume.
The game tracks dozens of stats, often leading to achievements. Killing 2000 enemies will take nearly two passes through the game while maximizing all your reflexes and skills will take 2-3 passes. The game doesn’t summarize collectibles by chapter, so it can take some serious effort to go back and pick up the missing items. Most fans will certainly play this game through at least twice so expect a solid 18-24 hours. Finishing the game on Hard will get you an extra Achievement, but once you reset the difficulty you reset all your stats and collectibles so be careful.
From a technical standpoint Wolverine looks amazing at times, but can just as quickly revert to some mere average level design. The limited enemy types get repetitive rather quickly and they all share the same movement and animations. Raven manages to throw some killer surprises in the mix every chapter though, just in case you start to doze off. I loved the relatively short sequence where you played part of a level as seen through the night vision scope of a sniper, trying to kill enemies and stay out of the crosshairs.
Lighting and special effects are great as is the feral sense effect that reveals enemies and color-codes the environment. Damage modeling is great on Logan and simple vivisection on enemies. Levels are full of stuff that either breaks or explodes, and there are numerous impact points for tossing enemies onto poles, spikes, electrical boxes, or anything else that will kill them. The sense of scale is excellent and some vertigo-inducing camera angles will have you sweating as you climb jungle towers or make your way to the top of a skyscraper under construction in New Orleans.
There are some great cutscenes and these often blend right into gameplay moments, often so seamless that I was hoping for some QTE button presses. Once scene has you crashing a temple gate with a jeep then attacking two guys while flying off the jeep. I was waiting for the button prompts to actually make the attacks but it all just happened. Sadly, there are a lot of these moments that could have been extremely cool and interactive that simply play out.
There is a modest soundtrack that maintains the X-Men themes we expect and then you have a nice surround sound mix of environmental sounds combined with insane amounts of combat effects, slashing, shots, explosions, robotic hums, and the metallic slicing of Wolverine’s six blades that slice and dice like a human blender. The Dolby Digital mix surrounds you in the experience.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Uncaged Edition rises above the normal sanitized superhero games we typically expect from the genre. Wolverine is a very violent man and he is very good at what he does. I’m guessing a lot of parents are going to unsuspectingly buy this game for their kids and then be shocked later. Personally, I found the violence so over-the-top it almost reverted back to comical…or at least comic book. It was more stylized than offensive, but conservative parents should be warned, this isn’t your Saturday morning superhero. This is Wolverine, and he’s back, bigger, better, and uncaged. Check it out!