Summer is here, and that means box-office sequels and the ream of movie-tie-ins they bring with them. Marvel and Activision have done a serviceable job thus far, with the Spider-Man franchise garnering modest reviews, but the most recent X-Men game is not the same story. X-Men: the Official Game is not based on the third movie’s plot, but rather the events that transpire between the second and third films. This is a good idea and ties up some loose threads that go unanswered by the movies, but the execution is severely lacking. What’s even more surprising is that Z-Axis developed the game, and they are known for their meticulous, quality work.
Instead of throwing a glut of playable characters around like the superb X-Men Legends series, this game focuses on only three of the iconic mutants: Iceman, Wolverine and Nightcrawler. I had hoped for some deeper character development and more in-depth super powers, but these things failed to materialize. Each character has their high points, but each fails to reach the potential this game set up for them.
Wolverine is the biggest offender. His claws, endurance and enhanced senses could have made for some ingenious level design, but what we get is generic hack n’ slash that’s no better than the yawn-worthy SNES beat-em-ups of old. Logan can pull off about three combos and string together some nasty slash-impale moves, but the experience comes off as stale after the third level or so. I spent literally ten minutes in a single room, slashing the snot out of baddies, with no level progression or gameplay changes. Just reams of enemies. This would have been fine for a training bonus game, but it doesn’t fit into the story mode at all.
Wolverine’s boss fights are also the most uninspired. The battle with Lady Deathstrike had some potential, as Storm was kicking up a tornado in the background, but again it took too much time. I slashed away at Deathstrike until my thumbs cramped up, and her regenerating health didn’t help matters. It felt like a particularly bad episode of Mad TV; one idea, taken far beyond the point where it was actually fun.
Iceman had an interesting gameplay technique that was underused, and at times poorly implemented. His levels are played like a rail-shooter/flight combat hybrid, because he is always surfing on a sheet of ice. The effect is pretty slick looking and the change of pace from Logan’s ho-hum levels is welcome, but Iceman could’ve used some diversity. He’s constantly chasing down some flying projectile or putting out fires, and his rail-levels are a real pain to retry, mainly because there is a lack of mid-level checkpoints. His boss fight with the giant fire dragon was a high point, however.
Nightcrawler is by far the most innovative and overall fun character in the game. It’s a mystery why he hasn’t been given his own game already. His combat it fresh and frenetic, taking cues from the second movie’s brief but memorable fight scenes. Nearly all of his moves are based on his teleport ability, allowing him to “bamf” in behind enemies and give them a good thwacking. His missions are also partially stealth based, giving Nightcrawler a feeling of versatility. Moving through the rather linear levels is made easier through quickly teleporting from place to place, using a blue cursor controlled with the C-stick. Out of all three characters, Nightcrawler’s campaign feels the most polished and refined, as if Wolverine and Iceman were thrown in simply to keep the X-Men title on the box, instead of calling it “The Nighcrawler Game.”
As with most licensed titles, X-Men has above-average production values. Graphics are decent for a GameCube title and take advantage of the hardware’s understated capability, most notably the distortion effect for Nightcrawler. Iceman’s surfing effect is original, with a trail of rapidly crumbling ice forming beneath his feet. Wolverine is again the least impressive character, with merely sufficient animations and no real glitz to his moves or powers. All enemies sport Havok ragdoll physics, but such a feature is mandatory these days in any reputable game.
X-Men’s most redeeming element is its sound, oddly enough. The developers have really pulled out all the stops here, hiring the actual movie talent and using some of the score as well. All of the actors do an excellent job, as I’ve come to expect from the likes of Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and the others. The music is rousing and orchestral, but lacks some of the morose, melancholy aspects of X3’s score, probably because the film has a much darker, graver tone than the game. Sound effects do their job, and only that, with no frills or surprises—it’s the same stuff you’ve heard, ripped straight from the movies.
All in all the presentation hits more marks than it misses, except in one regard: cutscenes. Every last level intro and outro is done in a flat, almost static graphics novel style, with cutouts of each character and minimal animation. I would accept this if the game were based on the X-Men comic, but it’s not—it’s based on a movie that’s based on a comic, and I want real, fully rendered and animated cinematics to emulate the movie. Not only does this development shortcut make the game less immersive, but it almost cheapens the venerable performances of the actors. Patrick Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and not seeing the nuances of his Shakespearean acting was a real disappointment. I was also looking forward to seeing Alan Cumming reprise Nightcrawler, as he isn’t in the third film. Incidentally, Ultimate Spider Man, a game that is based on a comic, has very cleverly done cutscenes with full animation, which gives X-Men even less of an excuse for N64-era cinematics.
With such uniform, mediocre gameplay, save for a few rare high points, I really can’t recommend X-Men: the Official Game for more than a rent. The game won’t take more than a few hours to beat for the dedicated player, and the total experience doesn’t really warrant that amount of time anyway. There are a few unlockable extras, such as costumes, but replaying the tedious, uninteresting levels over again to hunt out all the little collectables is far from appealing. If you want some interesting back story that rounds out the films, and the unique rush of playing as Nightcrawler, give this one a go. Like so many other movie games, like Enter the Matrix or The Da Vinci Code, this one promises more than it delivers and ends up as only a passing distraction.
Z-Axis tries to capture the intense, ethically-charged feel of the X-Men films, but ends up with an average brawler and little replay value. All but one of the main characters feel unfulfilled, and the one that works doesn’t make up for the two that don’t. Cutscenes are disappointingly low-tech, but the graphics and sound make this game passable. Rent it if you’ve always wanted to play as Nightcrawler.