As the old saying goes, nobody sets out to make a bad game. (Though that's hard to believe while playing Golden Balls.) Developers always set out to make a great game, as they'll always tell you, using words like "raise the bar" and "push the envelope" and "heavily influenced by God of War".
During our chat about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Raven Software producer Jeff Poffenbarger says all those things. But the most interesting thing he reveals about Raven's aims refers to the Marvel hero himself. Put bluntly, they wanted to give Wolverine his balls back.
"We wanted to take a character who has always been neutered as far as gameplay's concerned, and really over-deliver," he says. "We wanted to make something true to character. Activision really got on board, saying, 'Okay, whatever 'true to character' means to you guys - let's see that.'"
For Raven it means a Wolverine who's not afraid to show his claws, or to slice someone's face open with them. The level of violence and gore is well above what you'd expect from a typical comic book movie tie-in, as is evident from the moment you start playing.
There's blood everywhere. It spurts out of gaping wounds as Wolverine slashes open his enemies' stomachs. It jets from arteries as he severs heads with a single swipe. It pools on the ground after he chops off arms, which wiggle horribly on the ground next to the twitching bodies. It even pours out of Wolverine himself; he takes damage in real-time, and procedural animations show wounds appearing, supperating then healing.
At one point Wolverine hijacks a helicopter (sounds familiar) by leaping onto the nose and plucking the pilot out of his seat. He then shoves the pilot's head into the whirring helicopter blades. Anyone standing below would think it was raining ketchup. In one cut-scene, Wolverine and a military operative are creeping along different sides of the same wall. Our hero makes his presence known by stabbing his claws right the way through the wall, and right the way through his enemy's head. There's a lot of spurting.
"We didn't set out to make the bloodiest game you've ever seen," protests Poffenbarger. "We wanted to capture who the character actually is. In previous games we've seen him pretty much neutered down. But you don't take the webs away from Spider-Man, so you don't take the claws away from Wolverine."
In fact, if you're Raven, you give him a whole range of super-powerful, hyper-violent moves to play around with. In the brief playtime we get there's not much time to investigate how combos work, but just bashing away on the buttons produces satisfying results. It's easy to pull off uppercuts, flurries, throws and impressive finishing moves. There's also the highly enjoyable lunge manoeuvre - pressing RB locks onto an enemy who is further away, then LB sends Wolverine zooming across the screen for a powerful close-up kill.
"We want the combat to be fluid, to look cool and be easy, in the vein of God of War," says Poffenarger. "So if I just hit a couple of buttons, I'm doing something awesome on-screen."
He goes on to cite Ninja Gaiden as another big influence on the development of Origins. "We wanted to get into the triple-A action-adventure genre and make a splash, and really that comes down to combat," Poffenbarger explains.
"The combat in both God of War and Ninja Gaiden is very polished and they deliver a very visceral experience. With minimal controller inputs you see a lot happen on-screen; you see an awesome display of effects and powers. So when developing this game, we were certainly striving to be in line with those two."
Seems like a sound plan. Better to pick a gaming genre and take your inspiration from the best examples of it than to try emulating other great movie tie-ins, not least because there aren't any. It's also good to know that Raven decided not to worry about levels of gore or age ratings, and that Activision allowed them not to. "They agreed to see the game before making any determinations about how it might net out, ratings-wise," explains Poffenbarger. "Once they saw it and got to play it, they were really on board. It was like, let's use this character we're all big fans of, and not just neuter him for the bottom line."
But this is a comic book game we're talking about, and for all the blood, gore and brooding menace, there's still a bit of good old cheese. Wolverine has a power called "phero sense". When activated, this allows him to perceive the world around him using primal animal instincts. In other words, when you press up on the d-pad the screen goes grey and wibbly and all the things you can hang off turn green. And a blue arrow points out where you're supposed to go.
Other potential causes for concern include Raven's answer to quick-time events. "We wanted to turn that whole concept of QTEs on its head and put the user in control," says Poffenbarger. Righto. "The idea was, why not just give the user the ability to move around during these sequences? You can still have these big awesome moments, but to lead up to those moments and let the user be in the moments and actually play, that was a big win for us."
How does that work, exactly?" "In a QTE you see the hero do something cool, then the game slows down for a sec, then you have to hit a button prompt for them to do something else really cool," says Poffenbarger. Yep, got that bit. "Here, instead of hitting a button prompt, you're actually moving them into position to do that thing, and then sometimes executing those really cool moves." Hmm.
To demonstrate this, Poffenbarger shows us a level where Wolverine is speeding down a tunnel on the back of a truck. A set of floodgates open, the tunnel starts to fill with water and our hero needs to get a move on. So he jumps onto the back of the next truck ahead, slices up the baddies on the back of it in with finesse, then leaps acrobatically to the next truck. It certainly looks spectacular, but without having the chance to try it out for ourselves it's hard to judge just how much control you'll have in these scenarios - or what will happen if you get the button presses wrong.
We do get to play a level set in a lush African jungle. (Poffenbarger says he's aware of the controversy over Resident Evil 5's African setting, but isn't too concerned: "When you're playing our game it's whites and blacks, it's an equal mix. Trust me: we're very sensitive to how people feel they are portrayed, and we're taking those things seriously.")
The game has been built using Unreal Engine 3, and it shows. There's an impressive level of detail, with plenty of realistic jungle foliage and natural-looking lighting. "We really filled up the levels as much as possible, and the artists have totally gone to town," says Poffenbarger. It's certainly not the kind of generic backdrop you'd expect to find in your average brawler; in fact, what with all the clay pots, old crates, rope bridges and wooden gates lying about, it's more reminiscent of games like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. There's even a bit of rope climbing and ledge shimmying to do.
Moving around in the environments feels easy and fluid, and there are some nice interactive touches. If Wolverine takes a swipe at a tree trunk, for example, he'll leave a set of scratch marks. There are odd inconsistencies, though; it seems strange that a man who can cut people in half can't slice the top off a nettle.
Perhaps they'll sort out these minor details in time for the game's release. More importantly, here's hoping they'll sort out of the AI. Some of the enemies we came up against were either spectacularly brave or unfeasibly stupid. Often they'd refuse to move from their crouching and firing position, regardless of the fact they were totally exposed, Wolverine was walking right up them and they'd just seen him throw three of their mates off a cliff.
That aside, we came away pleasantly surprised by X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The game certainly looks more impressive than most movie tie-ins, and the brief playtime we spent with it was a lot more enjoyable. It'll take more of an in-depth investigation to establish just how much depth there is to the combat, to experiment with the game's character development system, to test out the balance of action versus adventure and so on. But it looks like Raven's determination to make the lead character as powerful and dangerous as he was always meant to be could well pay off.