Done Playing: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Xbox 360)

For real promo for the game's initial release

Arguably one of the more playable movie tie-ins so far, X-Men Origins: Wolverine serves as a companion piece to 2009’s Summer blockbuster flick of the same name. With scrappy Hugh Jackman and the oddly-cast Liev Schreiber in tow the game outpaces its cinematic cousin on every level; violence, running time, comic book cameos, gore, angst, blood, and convoluted plots for revenge and quadruple-crossed backstabs. Did I mention that it’s violent too?

Peculiarly M-rated next to the movie’s tame PG-13 content, Wolverine is a dead ringer for Tomonobu Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden in both its bloodletting and its tough love. Challenging even on the easiest setting, it takes hours of perilous brawling with machete-wielding jungle mutants and gun-toting henchmen before you have access to Logan’s full complement of abilities and things start to even out. The game plays pretty standard with weak and strong attacks, a grab, power moves restricted by a Fury meter and a few dodge/counter abilities. It’s the game’s violence and speed combined with Mortal Kombat approved death-arenas that help you really feel like the classic, unstoppable Wolverine.

Once I got the hang of things I could routinely pull off a string of improvised kills almost without thinking about it. A four-hit combo sends an enemy (and Wolverine) airborne where a throw smashes them back to the ground with enough force that they bounce up. I grab them by the foot and pummel their body into the ground before doing a “rising upper” move to launch them skyward once again and then — after a slow-mo power punch — across the room and, almost magically, onto some deadly spike or into a painful contraption. All this is accompanied by the highest quality viscera; sprays of blood, dismembered limbs, floppy ragdoll physics. Logan himself is a technical triumph with layers of flesh, muscle and Adamantium-coated bones peeking through and regenerating in real-time as he takes (and avoids) damage.

As empowering as clearing out room after room of mutants, robots, and elite troopers is, the game hits some low points repeatedly. Platform jumping, ledge shimmying, and rope climbing break up the good stuff frequently. It’s no different than any other game only Logan moves so slowly in these sections that it’s hard to accept that he wouldn’t just flip out and cut a hole in a wall instead of courteously scaling up and around it. Raven also throws in more than a few puzzles and while they’re simple find-the-key or move-that-thing-to-make-a-platform diversions it seems way too level headed for Weapon X.

That other stuff is a bummer, it’s kinda boring, and sometimes you’ll jump wrong and have to climb back up but what bugs me the most is the level design.The “optimization of 3D space” was novel at first — one path eventually leading you over and around the same area later in the level — but it happens with almost every space you enter. Some “arenas” you’ll criss-cross once or twice while other spaces you’ll see repeatedly from three or four different angles. It feels cheap, like one of Activision’s fun-crushing tactics to make the most game out of the least amount of geometry. This constant criss-crossing is what adds hours onto your total play time and it’s usually the slow-going platforming/puzzle solving tedium, not the fun slicey-slicey stuff.

I’d say by about hour 7/12 that I put into the initial playthrough I was ready for it to be over. With the confusing ping-ponging from “a not too distant future” and “a mission in Africa several years earlier” finally sorted out I thought I was done. Suddenly I’m riding The Blob around a grocery store, chasing Gambit through a Louisiana casino palace, abusing half-finished Sentinels, and — WTF!? — more flashbacks to Africa?! By the time I reached the legit climax I was underwhelmed, expecting it to just keep going. When the credits started to roll it was a total shoulder-shrugger.

Once back to the title screen, however, I found myself immediately checking for un-achieved Achievements and diving back into specific Chapters. The combat is definitely the best part and the slow evolution of your abilities (and their satisfyingly violent animations) provides more reward than the guest shots or plotlines. I still haven’t seen the movie but I can’t imagine it being much more entertaining than this so if the film let you down don’t write this off just because it shares some source material; it’s another perfect long-weekend rental.

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