Developer: Z-Axis Ltd.
Release Date: May 16, 2006
A Couple of Dim Stars, No Garters
Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Iceman have much important work to do between Jean Grey’s death/transformation at the end of "X2: X-Men United" and Magneto’s war against the so-called cure in "X-Men: The Last Stand." X-Men: The Official Game for the Xbox is a third-person action-adventure that lets you play through the inter-blockbuster drama as each of those three X-Men in a branching, mission-based story. I came to the game after the movie, not exactly because I wanted to extend the experience of the film, but because I hoped the game would defy expectations and somehow make up for the big-budget disappointment of "The Last Stand." No matter the quality of the film, there remain 40-plus years of X-Men heritage -- Ultimate, Astonishing, Uncanny and more -- and therefore there’s always a chance that something interesting will sneak in, especially since longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont has story credit on The Official Game.
The Official Game’s story promises some drama -- at first -- on a grander scale than the movie, sending the X-Men back to Alkali Lake after the events of X2 to find out what else Stryker was up to and put a stop to it. A Master Mold appearance, a Jason Stryker haunting, digging deeper into the government’s anti-mutant activities and clashing with Sentinels sound more exciting than The Last Stand’s car-tossing anticlimax, but fail to deliver in the practical execution. Bits of expository dialogue repeatedly reveal the cracks in the dramatic conception, as when Professor X explains that Stryker was such a wily villain because he had many different agendas. Multiple agendas. Scary.
The Official Game sends you on separate story arcs for each of the playable characters to handle situations both official and personal, from penetrating Dark Cerebro’s defenses to thwarting Pyro’s attempts at causing a nuclear disaster. Other X-Men and Brotherhood of Mutants members appear in supporting roles, either helping you by providing additional muscle and cover fire like Storm and Colossus, or adding to your troubles like Multiple Man, who leads Nightcrawler in a race across the Brooklyn Bridge, planting bombs as quickly as the teleporter can find and defuse them. Other cameos include a villain you may have thought dead from X2 who shows up to torment Wolverine, though to not-very-dramatic effect.
So it sounds like there’s a lot going on in The Official Game, and I suppose there is in terms of plotting, with the story taking you from a mountainside castle in Japan to tunnels threading through a nuclear power plant, all the while throwing canonical X-Men villains at you. When you arrive at the exotic locations, though, you find that there’s not much to do that’s actually fun or challenging. Each character has unique attacks and signature moves, but the stark simplicity of the mission tasks and lack of attention-holding level design constrain the heroes to such an extent that they don’t feel all that extraordinary after a couple hours of play. The same goes for the villains. Pyro comes off barely more formidable against Iceman than the innumerable HYDRA troops Wolverine hacks apart with his adamantium claws. When you come across an interesting situation, it usually involves environmental obstacles, like cage traps or transformers you knock enemies into while trying to avoid them yourself.
Some novelty is to be found in the characters’ varying abilities before you master them and grow tired of mashing the buttons. Wolverine sports the melee moves, with a slash, a heavy attack and a knock-back as well as a few combos. Iceman is your ranged fighter, flying on his ice slide while shooting an ice beam, a lock-on-able hailstorm projectile and protecting himself with an ice shield. Like Wolverine, Nightcrawler is adept at basic punches and kicks, but his teleport power makes him a bit more engaging to play. One of the game’s more satisfying moves is his ability to lock onto enemies and teleport directly behind them, landing a punch or kick to the back of the head before most enemies can turn around and fight back. Soon enough, though, the fun of pounding hapless enemies and teleporting to the next batch of the same fades away, and Nightcrawler’s teleportation is reduced to a convenient fast-travel device that lets you tend more effectively to tedious or nonsensical tasks like protecting Colossus, who in his organic steel form should be a more accomplished fighter who’s good for more than just smashing equipment.
Controls work with little difficulty, making it quite easy to pick up and play any of the characters despite the differences in their powers and movement. The limited camera control when playing as Wolverine creates familiar frustrations when fighting in closed spaces like the Alkali Lake mutant holding pens. Nightcrawler enjoys greater control over the camera, letting you more easily look around you to identify pipes and platforms above or below that make good teleportation destinations. Teleporting mid-jump provides a bit of fun, as you can jump off a landing without fear of what’s below with the knowledge that you can pull the right trigger and teleport to safety. Iceman’s controls take the most practice. As soon as you train yourself to use his brakes and learn to take advantage of the forgiving aiming system, though, you’re easily taking care of important mutant business like sealing leaking pipes with ice, a particular bit of tedium that recalls the less-than-compelling welding sequences from last year’s Fantastic Four game.
Enemy AI never poses that much of a threat on the default difficulty, though Pyro’s flame raptors do at least fly fast as you try to take them down with hailstorm shots, and some of the craftier HYDRA troops block and evade successfully until you figure out which of Wolverine’s attacks work best to circumvent their defenses. If you do take damage, the characters’ healing abilities -- Wolverine’s healing factor, Nightcrawler’s shadow aura and Iceman’s ice healing -- refill their health meters to give you a fighting chance. In most scenarios, healing abilities plus button-mashing equals enough to get you through. At the end of each a mission, you can apply a handful of customizable mutations to beef up attack power, health and other attributes before you move on.
A few environments deliver some healthy visual excitement, especially as you teleport from girder to girder atop the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain or guide Iceman through silver tunnels for of arcing electricity and glowing blue tubes of coolant. Some models and animations do the characters justice, too. Wolverine moves comfortably in his leather suit -- though some of the still drawings in the between-mission narration look more like Wolverine impersonators -- and Nightcrawler’s teleportation effect pops him in and out of tangibility in clouds of stringy smoke. Colossus, on the other hand, plods about more like Frankenstein’s monster than a noble X-Man. Multiple Man’s multiplier effect is simple, but it’s tops among the villains’ visual treatments.
Repetitive dialogue does its best to contribute a not-so-dramatic feel to the action -- despite the presence of several of the film’s actors doing voice-over work -- with a constant stream of pathetic taunts from bad guys like “I see you!” and “You’ll never catch them all, but I bet you’ll try!” You’d just as soon they remain mute so you can hear Wolverine’s clanking claws and the hollow plunk of severed bamboo and not be distracted by all the chitchat.
The Official Game is a single-player experience only, though it does offer some extras. You can pick up Sentinel technology and Weapon X files, and if you collect enough, you unlock costumes and Danger Room scenarios that provide some practice you don’t particularly need. Even though the extras don’t feel essential to the experience, the collectibles are easy enough to come by with a modest amount of hunting, so it’s probably worth the trouble for anyone trying to squeeze maximum entertainment value out of the game.
An Uncanny Disappointment
And so a desperate hope at salvaging an exciting X-Men experience from this summer’s game-movie combo did not come to pass. The broad strokes of story in the Official Game aren’t without their intrigue, but the overwhelming pedestrian nature of the combat and uninspired treatment of the villains crush both the dramatic potential of the story and the gameplay possibilities of the characters’ unique abilities. Your best bet is to go back to X-Men Legends, reread back issues of Astonishing X-Men and hope that the X-Men get treated a little better the next time around.
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