Reviewed: May 18, 2006
Released: May 17, 2006
X-Men: The Official Game (not to be confused with all those unofficial games) is the companion piece to the upcoming summer blockbuster that will have mutants invading theaters everywhere this Memorial Day weekend. Unlike most movie knockoffs, this game actually covers new territory starting where X2 left off and leading up to the events in the new film.
Thanks to Activision, gamers who crave superhero titles have more games than they can likely play, and X-Men is one of their core Marvel franchises. In the past we’ve been treated to action games with an RPG twist, but for this new outing Z-Axis has gone for the pure action experience. There is still a very minor upgrade system in place for the available characters, but it is nothing compared to past titles.
Previous X-Men titles have offered up a large cast of playable characters, and why not? The X-Men franchise sports the largest ensemble cast with some of the most creative superheroes to ever live in the Marvel Universe. However, for this adventure we only get to play as three, Wolverine, Iceman, and Nightcrawler, and only one at a time.
The story starts in the Danger Room, the training facility for the X-Men and the perfect place to learn the ropes. From there the narrative branches and weaves its way like a DNA strand with circular nodes indicating chapters for the various characters. Sometimes the characters are working together in parallel sub-plots, and other times they are off doing their own thing. As you progress through the available chapters new chapters and plot branches are unlocked.
The story that ties these plot nodes together is cleverly crafted by Zak Penn (screenwriter for X2) and famed comic book writer, Chris Claremont. The dialogue leaps from the screen with stylish animated comic book panels and Patrick Stewart heading up a quality cast of voice actors.
X-Men: The Official Game is actually three games in one, or at least you’ll think so since each character plays out so differently. None of the characters are particularly hard to master, but that doesn’t mean the game is easy - far from it. Some of the levels are painfully long and with nary a checkpoint in sight you’ll be cursing the designers about midway through the game.
So let’s explore each character and how their version of the game unfolds. I’ve even scored the gameplay for each character, which was averaged to get the final gameplay score for the review.
Wolverine is your quintessential button-masher. His gameplay is actually quite boring and for the first few levels you can mindlessly press the fast, heavy, and sweep attacks and pretty much clean house. He has no ranged attack so everything is melee and you will often be heavily outnumbered. By performing jump attacks and sweeps to knock back enemies you can manage to stay alive, at least until you get to the Zen Garden.
Wolverine, as we all know, is a “healer” and slowly regenerates his health. His health bar is dual layer with a serious damage and minor damage. It’s the minor damage that heals automatically and you will have to use mutant energy to restore the underlying health bar.
The challenge in later levels comes from melee attackers backed up by those with guns. You’ll need to prioritize the gunmen or you will eat a lot of lead. Additionally, you’ll get guys with stun staffs who can pretty much kill you with two or three hits if you don’t jump away to heal. The problem here is that it is all too easy to get “stuck” in the middle of a swarm of enemies or even get hung up on the environment, die, and be forced to replay the level.
With mindless button mashing, long levels with no checkpoints, and retro fisticuffs gameplay, I give the Wolverine portion of the game a generous 5.
Iceman’s levels play out almost like a flight-action game. He is always in a state of motion, being propelled forward on slippery paths of ice that you are free to control with the directional stick. If you do slip, crash, or fall off the ice you are quickly put back into motion.
Iceman can accelerate to fast speeds and brake to an almost-complete halt. He also has a handy ice shield that must be perfectly timed to block incoming shots as well as the ability to shoot ice and hail. Ice is similar to a laser attack while hail is a ranged shot that can be made even more accurate with a lock-on system.
I found the Iceman levels thoroughly engaging, even the reactor level that puts you on a rail ride of sorts as you zip through twisting passages chasing down Pyro’s missiles and dodging spinning laser blockades. I was reminded of a certain “trench run” sequence from a famous sci-fi movie.
The gameplay is fast and smooth and does a great job of mixing up both types of ice attacks as well as defensive strategies. Iceman also has probably one of the coolest boss battles in the game, at least if you like a giant fire dragon wrapped around a nuclear reactor. Iceman gets a cool 7 for gameplay.
Close your eyes and think back to the scene in X2 where Nightcrawler is kicking butt in the Whitehouse – poofing in and out of the material plane and totally catching the Secret Service off guard. That pretty much sums up Kurt’s portion of the game.
Truth be told, Nightcrawler’s levels and heavy focus on combat are not all that different from Wolverine, but it’s the execution of that combat and navigation that makes all the difference in the world. Nightcrawler’s levels are populated with hundreds of glowing blue teleport zones. Simply aim towards one and press the button and you are there. You can cover large distances at amazing speeds.
Kurt has the standard punch and kick attacks that can be combo’d together. He also sticks to rails and pipes like a squirrel on a power line, and scampers freely along these narrow paths. Of course his best ability is his teleport attack where you lock onto a nearby target and push the button to teleport behind the unsuspecting enemy where you are free to unleash a flurry of punches and kicks. By rapidly retargeting and attacking Nightcrawler can easily take out dozens of targets.
While the combat does start to wear thin after a few hundred of these teleport attacks there is still something quite remarkable about these levels. Kudos to Z-Axis for actually figuring out how to blend teleporting and combat together into something totally intuitive. Nightcrawler steals the show and the gameplay with a solid score of 8. Give this guy his own game.
In addition to the three primary characters you will often team up with supporting cast members. In the early levels this includes Colossus, who works in tandem with Nightcrawler and Storm who works with Logan and Kurt, providing a nifty air-support role. Just press the button and she’ll unleash her lightning attack, great for taking out large groups of enemies or disabling force fields.
The designers have built-in some clever concepts to keep you playing and replaying X-Men: The Official Game. First off, you have three skill levels for each mission, Novice, Hero, and Superhero. Often, but not always, you will be rewarded with several blue vials after completing a mission; the number of vials depending on which skill level you pick.
After each mission you get to “spend” these vials by placing them in a cool DNA sequencer that is unique to each character and covers traits like health, attack power, special abilities, recharge rate, etc. The levels scale the difficulty accordingly, so it’s best not to go for Superhero status until you have upgraded your abilities sufficiently.
There are also numerous pick-ups within many of the levels. Some are hidden and others are fairly obvious. These include Sentinel Tech chips and Weapon X files that can be used to unlock special bonus items in the Cerebro Files. Here you will find classic X-Men costumes and special Danger Room challenge missions.
Visually, X-Men: The Official Game doesn’t vary from system to system. The Xbox 360 version offers up a few subtle visual enhancements, but other than some extra texture detail, better lighting, and 720p support, there isn’t much here to justify the extra $20 over the normal Xbox version. What impressed me the most is just how good the PS2 version looks, almost a spot-on twin with the Xbox. The GameCube version had a few minor framerate issues and some washed out colors but looked good nonetheless. The PC version is admittedly a bit crisper than the Xbox 360 if you crank up the resolution, but you’ll probably not want to play this game with a mouse and keyboard so make sure to have a PC gamepad standing by.
Levels include both indoor and outdoor areas and the game engine does a great job of creating some interesting “arenas”. The opening tutorial set against the Statue of Liberty is really nice and Iceman’s level at the nuclear power plant are phenomenal, especially the aforementioned rail ride through narrow twisting tubes lit with the cool blue glow of transparent cooling tubes.
Character animation is subtle and stylish and again, each character almost demands its own score. Admittedly, not much is going on in Wolverine’s world as far as special effects, but he does have some excellent motion and colorful blurring on his blades. Nightcrawler is poetry in motion with his flowing cape and trademark puff of black smoke when he teleports, and with Iceman it’s just fun to switch to the rear-view camera and watch his ice trail crumble away in real-time as you glide forward.
The cutscenes took me by surprise at first – I supposed Blur Studios totally spoiled me with their stunning CG work in X-Men Legends II – but once you get used to the style you start to appreciate just how good these movies are. It’s almost like a time-lapse animation style where characters will move across background panels or the camera will pan across pages larger than your screen. The characters all look like their movie star counterparts and everything leaps from the page (and screen) in vivid colors.
The gameplay is accompanied by a majestic score that I assume is borrowed or at least inspired by the soundtrack from either the last or the forthcoming X-Men movie. It has the unmistakable sound of “X-Men” about it with subtle cues to fit the onscreen action, but it never overwhelms the wonderful sound effects.
Whether you are listening for the “ching” of Wolverine’s claws slicing through…well…anything, or the subtle skating sounds of Iceman gliding along his winding ice trail, or the pitter-patter of Nightcrawler as he scampers about a level or “poofs” behind an enemy, it’s all here and sounds fantastic with a quality Dolby Digital surround mix.
Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Alan Cumming and Shawn Ashmore all lend their voices to their respective characters, and the sound-alikes and other supporting cast for the rest of the speaking parts do an admirable job of keeping up with the big stars.
X-Men: The Official Game is likely a 10-12 hour game that is lurking inside a 20-30 hour presentation. Thanks to some truly wicked levels about midway through, some quirky camera issues, and a lack of checkpoints, you will probably find yourself restarting a lot of these missions over and over again.
The multiple skills levels are pretty ingenious, or rather the increasing DNA quantities that reward you for playing at the higher settings. If you are some type of mutant game master and can manage to play through on Superhero the first time through you can unlock it all on a single pass. The data chips and file folders are also a nice incentive to bring you back in search of unlockable bonus items.
The Xbox 360 version offers the standard 1000 Achievement points spread across 16 objectives, although there are some curious oddities in the rewards system. First off you have three (your first three) Achievements scoring zero points. Admittedly, these are the training levels but still, get a load of this…the final achievement of 50 points is awarded for “scoring 950 achievement points”.
So rather than giving you points for doing the tutorial they just throw 50 leftover points into your pot when you complete the rest of the game. The rest of the achievements are pretty challenging and require you to collect all collectibles, max out all three characters’ abilities, and complete the character specific Danger Room challenge.
X-Men: The Official Game is a curious title. I started off loving it but the Wolverine levels quickly sapped a significant portion of the overall fun from the title. Some of his levels are filled with ridiculous amounts of enemies, and even though the levels appear to have multiple stages or sections, there isn’t a checkpoint in sight. I love a challenge, but I hate mindless repetition.
Thankfully, Iceman and Nightcrawler join forces to lift this game from button-mashing mediocrity, and with cameos from several of your favorite mutant heroes, the sage advice of Professor X, and a finely crafted story that neither requires you to have seen the movie nor spoils it in advance, this is a solid action title that does justice to the X-Men franchise.