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On paper, X-Men Origins: Wolverine isn't the type of venture that would normally court much of a fanfare. A game based on a film that was by-extension based on a comic, it's another stab at a heavy-tone story of rebellious mutant outsiders. But whilst its credentials hardly seem conducive to a successful video game, the end result is really quite surprising.
XMO:W doesn't feel like other superhero games. Any preconceptions of a softly-softly approach to violence go very much out the window here, and fortunately it doesn't swamp itself in gimmicky powers, overt nostalgic winks or save-the-day-in-lycra rhetoric. Indeed, it positively revels in the visceral spectacle afforded it by the central protagonist's Adamantium claws, delivering an array of gory decapitations the like of which will make your eyes water. Perhaps more significantly, this is not your ordinary film adaptation either. It's fast and fun, there's lots of engaging set-pieces and you won't be bored after half an hour. The good-not-great score is indicative not of the usual deadline day corning-cutting that tends to blight such productions, but the lack of variety and a myriad of glitches that suggest the levels (and the Unreal engine, predominantly used in shoot 'em ups) weren't built to accommodate the awesome combat system.
The story is split into two strands that are intertwined. The first runs as a flashback scenario to a jungle mission in Africa set three years in the past, whilst the second sees Wolverine escaping a military mutant holding compound and going in search of his brother Victor Creed (Sabretooth). First and foremost it's a third-person action adventure, but the former sections lean more on platforming, seeing you scaling ruins as well as tackling the occasional block-pushing teaser a la Uncharted. The non-retrospective part of the game is more about action and spectacle, with Hollywood set-pieces and a high body-count as you battle robots, flee from helicopters and outwit annoying invisible gimps with shotguns.
Playing as Wolverine is every bit as brilliant as it should be, as the game mixes a simple but expansive range of attacks with specials and dodge manoeuvres, all tied together by exceptionally fluid controls. It's revels in over-the-top violence; Wolverine's Claw Drive barrel-rolls claws-first through an enemy, a little bit reminiscent of M. Bison in Streetfighter II, except here it usually results in limbs scattering all over the place, whilst various finishers allow him to cleave an enemy in two or shove soldiers heads into the blades of a helicopter - a far cry from the sanitised cartoon violence we've come to expect from X-Men games. There's also the chance to make imaginative use of scenery in order to perform quick kills, from impaling foes on spikes to shoving them into cement mixers or setting them on fire. The variations are numerous, making for gleeful and super-violent combat.
Wolverine has a range of attacks that are easy to master, whilst his roll, block and counter manoeuvres are similarly intuitive. The fighting really is very good, especially as points gained for killing baddies and levelling-up Wolverine allows for some refinement to his health, claw power and various attack techniques. Also worthy of mention is the excellent Feral Senses ability, which allows you to quickly identify everything from enemies, points of interaction and the route forward, collectible dog tags hidden in the surroundings... It's invaluable and you'll rely on it heavily, to the point where the blurry gold and green colour scheme starts to seem like second nature.
They say you can never have too much of a good thing, but whilst the fighting remains enduringly slick and enjoyable, the game leans upon it heavily and a little more variety would have been nice. Whilst the mixture of machine-gunners, machete-wielding tribesmen and robot droids sounds like the making of a broad combat experience, the reality is less expansive. Mini-bosses such as the jungle Leviathan and the military WENDIG0 creatures are a bit of a letdown as they behave very similarly, using similar tactics such as charging Wolverine from a distance or thumping him when up close. As a result, the game plan is nearly identical - dodging at the right moment, and lunging at them from the back.
As alluded to earlier, the game is brought down a peg or two by a host of glitches that make it appear rough around the edges. For the most part, it's not adversely troubled by such occurrences, but they do take some of the shine off. Enemies quite often get wedged in awkward places, whilst every now and again Wolverine's character animation seems to lock, not allowing you to perform fight manoeuvres for a bit.
Unfortunately there are some rather more glaring examples. The most remarkable blooper I encountered involved bypassing a mid-level boss fight after one threw Wolverine clean through a gap in a wall it had just busted open, triggering a checkpoint, and continuing the game as if nothing had happened. The more negative reverse of this is that you can be barged or thrown outside the perimeter of the levels (like being on the wrong side of a fence you can't get back over), thus trapping you in limbo. Another instance saw a chunk of wooden scenery follow about ten feet behind Wolverine for a while which was somewhat distracting to say the least.
Looks-wise there's little here to give the Uncharted's of this world any sleepless nights. It's functional enough but the environments have more than their fair share of glitches and tears. The jungles are pretty vivacious if a touch samey, and they mix it with military bases and icy tundras whereby much the same conclusion can be drawn. These are bettered later on in the game by more impressive, elaborate casino and skyscraper/building site bits. Wolverine himself makes up for it to a large extent, not only in his excellent movement, but unlike his rather underwhelming victims, he really looks the part. Most impressive is his regenerative healing process, which sees wounds heal before your eyes. Hugh Jackman lends his tones to the occasional quips uttered by Wolverine to add some obligatory attitude to the combat, though the other voicing isn't so great elsewhere.
The challenge is slightly blunted once you've beefed-up Wolverine's abilities, but even so there are numerous highlights, like an amusing and destructive boss-fight with The Blob in a grocery store, and a rather more perilous exchange with Gambit from a very high vantage point. For trophy hunters, the range of challenges neatly encourages the player to explore and make use of the different moves, whilst the obligatory "complete the game on Hard" task makes for a do-able challenge and a nice extension to the games already-decent longevity.
Raven Software deserves credit ultimately because, despite all the little niggles, they've come up with a film tie-in that doesn't live in the shadow of its silver-screen counterpart. Through a mixture of superb controls and some of the most satisfying melee combat around, XMO:W distinguishes itself as a worthwhile venture, and one both action game and superhero fans will likely view as a pleasant surprise.