Review: Never thought I'd see the day where Nightcrawler has more play than Wolverine?
Spider-Man may have raised the bar when it came to solid production values in both movie and video game collaborative properties, but it was 2000's X-Men that originally stirred crowds over comic book movies once again. These rival franchises pushed back and forth for comic movie dominance in the years since, but while the webhead's games were praised, the X-Men were X-ed out. So with Spider-Man 3 a year away, Activision and developer Z-Axis have the superhero field all to themselves with the movie-to-game adaptation X-Men: The Official Game.
Most movie-based games retell their story from front to back. X-Men: The Official Game instead bridges the gap between the second and third theatrical sequels. It's here where players take on the roles of Wolverine, Iceman, and Nightcrawler. Afflicted with the death of Jean Grey, Wolverine is the short strong man able to cut his "problems" in half. Iceman is a middle man, gliding along his frozen stream while picking off enemies with icy projectiles. Nightcrawler, the last, is well-rounded being that he's a fighter and a puzzle solver. Capable of transporting from one location to another at will, he'll pull a Houdini act on his enemies again and again. All three characters follow solo paths, ultimately leading them through a brawl-fest against foes from previous films (e.g., Sabretooth, Lady Deathstrike, etc.) and some new ones.
You've got to wonder to yourself, why these three? Angel or Beast, Gambit or Rogue, Cable or Bishop would all have made fine additions to the game, provided they stay true to their comic heritage. It's just odd having such an unlikely trio composing the group, especially when they're everyone's pick of the litter. Iceman has notably been depicted as one of the least powerful characters in the X-Men movie trilogy. That's no different in the game. Wolverine's an obligatory addition; however, paired up with a less impressive cast doesn't say much about his importance. Wolverine is without his every idiosyncrasy anyhow, and as such is characterized as less magnetic than Nightcrawler is. Kurt's the only one whose time in the game isn't as difficult as Wolvie's or as dull as Bobbo's. People who play this game are going to move up a ladder of selectable missions. At times there's a freedom to dive into any of the three branching story paths that you want, but unfortunately are still responsible for completing those segments once they're activated. If you start down Wolverine's aisle, you can't get out until you're through.
From three dissimilar points of view, your character will change and essentially so will the controls of the game. Wolverine's missions are on foot, most of the time tied up splashing waves of HYDRA agents. These guys are regular folk, except they come in their varying ranks brandishing voltaic claws, electric stabbing posts, and some machine guns and rocket launchers. Wolverine must not only survive multiple chapters of their onslaughts, he must do so while tackling other responsibilities like slicing through a series of control panels that will electrocute him as he works. Iceman has things considerably easier since he skates, or more to the point surfs through life. Coasting, airborne the whole time, his objectives range from dousing fires with ice and targeting missiles with a cluster of snowballs. One stage will have him slipping and sliding through a pipe channel lined with hurdles, and inside he'll pause to freeze pipes to both repair and shatter them. Nightcrawler has pleasantries written in his code, because he can pop up all around enemies just hitting one *boo-bop-bam* and then moving onto the next. He'll slow down to disable security panels and disarm bombs here and there, but ultimately his levels are sturdier than the others.
The fun factor in X-Men: The Official Game isn't low, but neither is it great. One such reason is that the camera is out of whack. Many times when entering a new destination, fixed angles take a hold of the screen around corners and focus in on the player instead of the enemy. Tweaking the camera is like trying to tighten up a flimsy string. The other already obvious issue pertains to X-Men's lackluster nature. It's not just that the characters are imbalanced, but that the combos themselves are rather ordinary. Aside from blocking, clawing, and initiating the jump move that combines the standard light and strong attacks (square and triangle buttons), anything else with Wolverine isn't needed. With Iceman you're just sliding, stopping, and shooting, and with Nightcrawler all you'll ever have to do is the zap attack. That is besides character-specific meters, of course. Once you've beaten enough enemies, a gauge will fill to heal Wolverine in a berserker mode or for Nightcrawler to tell Storm to shower lightning bolts on the Brooklyn Bridge to defeat all of Multiple Man's clones. Scattered pickups that unlock costumes and bonus missions, in addition to a gene mutating system that'll have you leveling each character's attributes after every stage completion also makes things kind of interesting.
Of its few available benefits, the best compliment you can pay X-Men is by signifying that the graphics aren't too shabby. There is a dry quality to the game, as it's not nearly as vibrant or flashy as superior games across the system, at least in the state of level environments. From a bamboo-surrounded oriental dojo and into the murky tunnel systems under Alkali Lake, there's a drabness exhibited in the bareness of levels and overall in the cheaper quality used to make them be. Characters are better off, as they show a few appealing signs of life through their animations. Wolverine will actually hike his body into the air and thrust his claw hand down. Nightcrawler's blurry warp mold will shape and disperse as his body appears and pauses midair to kick and punch with a sort of dancing grace. Enemy soldiers packing lots of voltage materials will jab and poke and roll around a lot, and you get effects that spark before your eyes. Sure the game could be more aesthetically pleasing, but it's got an energy to keep comic nerds entertained.
Another up and down for X-Men goes with its inner sound workings. An electrical buzzing noise accompanies enemy weapon, whereas metal scraping does so for Wolverine's claws. Ice crinkling with Iceman's freezing powers and Nightcrawler's whooshing erratic behavior is all spot on and not terrible by any means. Musically the game is on a sour note. Not because it falls, but because it's really nothing to write home about. The music is also mysteriously not there. These lightly synthesized theme tracks try to match up with the action but are hardly noticeable. Voice acting has a small amount of decency at best, because a portion of cast members decided they do care about their fans. Or that they just want an extra check. Stars like Hugh Jackman, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, and Patrick Stewart all reprise their roles for the bigger parts in the game. They do an okay job particularly compared to the unknown talents who utterly fail to sound anything like the mutants they're trying to represent.