Version tested: Xbox 360
While it may not have been quite the same cinematic calibre as Chris Nolan's Dark Knight, Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of Mark Millar-J.G. Jones' Wanted comic book, released last June, was frequently just as inventive, and in any other year the Russian director's instinct for pace, escalation and stabs of dark humour might have found greater acclaim. And all this despite that bloke out of Atonment's American accent, and Morgan Freeman saying the F-word.
But of course, the inevitable videogame adaptation was a bleak prospect. As soon as James McAvoy's character started bending bullets around obstacles by learning to control his superhuman adrenaline, you could almost see the icons forming on the HUD, and wherever you looked, there was a quick time event waiting to happen. What's impressive about the actual game, developed by crafty Swedish outfit GRIN, is that it comes so close to working out well anyway.
First though, a bit of background. James McAvoy is Wesley Gibson, who discovers he's a master assassin in waiting. With a bit of help from Angelina Jolie and friends, he lives up to his genes and turns into a sort of Jedi version of Leon, capping executives as they lounge at conference tables by bending the flight of a bullet through a fifth-storey window as he speeds past on the roof of a train. The game picks up after the film - with Gibson trying to find out more about his mother as assassin group the Fraternity does its best to stop him - and gives you control of his father in alternate levels to help fill out the backstory.
It's a cover shooter in the same vein as Gears of War, with a few gimmicks. These include the obvious bullet-curving (and oh look, an adrenaline meter), performed by holding the right bumper to lock onto target and using the right analogue stick to arc a suitable trajectory, releasing the bumper when your enemy's icon goes white. With a bit of luck, he'll be down in one shot, and if the game's feeling particularly generous, the camera follows the bullet into his head with a satisfying crunch. Besides that, you lock onto cover, move left and right, and poke your head up or out with the left trigger to take shots with the right.
Standard stuff, but there are some other tricks. Levels are set out so you can move from cover to cover quickly and frequently, without exposing yourself. By first blindfiring on your adversaries, you can change position before they notice and flank them, giving yourself a free shot. Later the adrenaline build-up allows you to move between positions with a slow-motion window of opportunity to fire a few rounds on the way. Unsticking yourself from cover and moving freely is clunky, but you soon realise that the point is you shouldn't have to; this is as close to kill.switch as the genre popularised by Gears of War has ever dared return.
Sensibly, GRIN also changes the pace occasionally with canned levels that rely on expanded quick time events. In one of the best examples, about a third of the way through, the player clambers through the interior of a nose-diving plane, pausing to fire off a few rounds every few seconds. The action may not be as elaborate and exotic as McAvoy's silver screen antics on a train or in the textile factory, but it hits the right balance between reaction-based gameplay and dynamic in-engine cut sequences.
Disappointingly, however, that's about it, and the run-time isn't that much longer than the film the game follows either. Short games can be marvellous (ICO! Braid!), but Wanted doesn't fill its few hours with enough variation to justify repeat play. Bullet-curving and flanking are nicely done, but there's no real escalation. Enemies never come up with anything special to try and stop you, and you're never forced to improvise or look beyond the most obvious interpretations of the mechanics.
What's more, they often behave badly by their own mediocre standards, refusing to take hits on limbs and extremities exposed to give away their positions, where you would expect a well-aimed shot to register at least a contributory blow. They're also slow on the uptake, often allowing you to race up to them when they're isolated and hit the melee button to attack with a blade. This is handy if you want a human shield, but rather disappointing if you want to be challenged.
And the game hits a few really bad notes as well. The sniper sections, including one where Gibson's dad protects his mum on a dash through a town and up some scaffolding, lack the invention evident elsewhere, even though they are engaging enough diversions, while turret gun sections can't even make the latter claim, and lack any sense of urgency. If there's someone left to kill, you just pop up a few times to pick the unmoving straggler out of the dazzling bloom and do the business.
The story too, told through frequent cut-scenes, unsurprisingly lacks Bekmambetov's speed and eloquence, not to mention humour. Where the film's director realised he could only afford to linger upon exposition in search of a payoff, and to lower blood pressure between set-pieces in the process, the game's equivalents are more like what we expected: people saying things to vaguely justify whatever you're about to do with your hands. It's also noticeable that Gibson's whinging-nobody-turned-superhero is less sympathetic now he's basically just an amoral killing machine with a puzzle.
Among the lines of interesting code there still lurks plenty of potential - perhaps for a speed-based high-scores shooter in the same mould as The Club, or for more exotic tactics that call upon the destructive cover and explosive ornaments that occasionally brush against the rank-and-file run-and-gun. Or perhaps for something else entirely. GRIN clearly has the capacity to go beyond what it does in Wanted, and it's a shame that the game only aspires to be a competent, mildly inventive extension of the film.
6 / 10