Version tested: PlayStation 3
These days, games based on films can go a lot of ways, but if there is one constant - one inviolable law of adaptation - it's that they agree on age ratings. You can't send the kids to see a film and then miss out on selling them the merchandise. Not so X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If you're 12 years old, you can go and see the film in the UK. And then you'll have to wait six more years to go home and play the game.
That's because Raven's Wolverine isn't just a bit violent; it's relentlessly, unapologetically, 18-rated vicious. From the very first cut-scene onwards, Hugh Jackman's Logan rips people apart. He cuts off legs and arms, and when he's not cutting off heads, he's rending them to slush. When one of his captors thinks he's dead a third of the way through and mocks him, lifting up his hanging head by the hair to pose for a picture, he gets a claw through his neck and face. This is Wolverine at his most bone-splittingly, limb-severingly diabolical.
It's not just the cut-scenes, either. The combat system isn't so much geared towards ultraviolence as avoiding restraint. Your basic light and heavy attacks are a merciless whirlwind; the charged Rage attacks, which unlock at intervals when you level up, are spinning adamantium tops and flying Sideous drill assaults; ground strikes are repeated stab attacks to the face and chest. By comparison, the counters, throws and dodge-based reversals are relatively benign: all you do is break arms at the elbow and impale enemies on standing spikes, eagerly identified by the game's kill-them-with-this! feral sniffovision filter. When it comes to the last guy in the room, the game goes into slow motion so you can savour the carnage. It rarely warrants anything less.
So that's unusual. And now that every hero, superhero and comic book game has gone open-world, it's also rather refreshing to come across a linear, level-by-level hackandslash. Following the twin stories of Wolverine's Team X mission to Africa, and his decision to volunteer for adamantium infusion at Alkali Lake and subsequent escape and vengeance, developer Raven prefers corridors, arenas and set enemy groups: a dozen soldiers here, a few commandos here, a mini-boss here. Occasionally you stop and do a bit of platforming, puzzle-solving or mild exploration, but you're rarely in any doubt where to go. If you are, it's mostly because the environments look the same, and you've got turned around. Sniffovision points the way.
It sounds regressive, but on some level it makes sense. Wolverine is overpowered against regular enemies, but despite his indestructible claws and regeneration, he's always had a lingering fragility. Hit him hard enough and he won't get up - at least not for a while. Bury him in a research facility and he can't just blast his way out. As a former lab rat, he still belongs in a maze. Dial down the Unreal Engine 3 graphics, which are mostly bland but certainly aren't afraid of depth and scale, and you could be playing that other Wolverine game circa 2003.
The headline feature, largely by dint of its authority, is the lunge attack. Facing off against a crowd of enemies with machineguns, your best option is to hold the right bumper to target one of them and then tap the left bumper to spring through the air - often as far as 20 metres - to drive your claws heat-seekingly into their chest. A follow-up heavy attack, which sends Wolverine up and then down again in a crushing finisher, is enough to deal with most enemies. Repetition is enough to deal with most of the others.
The good thing about it is that it's intuitive, fast and ferocious. It's the fury that Victor Creed, Wolvie's brother, is desperate for him to unleash - and since you're not saddled with the movie script's lashings of moderation, it's the perfect answer to everyone else's aggression. Protectors of the canon can even rest relatively easy: Logan can't exactly reason his way out of the crosshairs.
For the first few hours, the lunge is jarringly effective, shortcutting 90 per cent of the combat system, but as the game throws up commandos, Ghost marines, Wendigos and others, you are at least forced to make use of sideways rolls and more elaborate combination attacks to expose your foes to the all-conquering lunge. And when you do, it seals the deal rather spectacularly.
The bad thing about it - and the bad thing about the game in general - is that you have to do it so, so often. Raven works harder to encourage you to diversify as you progress, but there's only so much the enemy variation can do in the context of such relentless, thoughtlessly dense and overlong level design. For example, the second phase of the Alkali escape, post-adamantium, is nearly half an hour of constant fighting over snow-covered, identikit hills and frozen lakes. I had killed 1000 enemies by the time I made it out of there, the game informed me. Most of them fell the same way, and without much rest in between, in environments that all looked the same.
To try and alleviate this some more, Raven goes for an RPG-lite levelling system that funds a non-linear skill tree, enhancing various strengths across your repertoire, but with enemy strength and volume scaling upwards accordingly, the implications are practically non-existent. Mutagens, too - vaguely hidden status buffs you can affix to one of three unlockable mutagen slots - are difficult to appreciate.
The non-fighting bits do a better job, but only relatively. There's quasi-Tomb Raider platforming, and push-the-crate, flick-the-switch and move-the-power-core puzzling, but it's incredibly basic stuff. There are various hidden extras, too, like action figures, glowing bodies with XP-boosting dog tags, and Doom III-style laptop audio recordings, but exploration would be a strong word for the act of locating them: they're generally in-line, or through the one door that doesn't lead onto the arena you're obviously going to do battle in next. Some of the cut-scenes are quite stylish, but they're mostly events from the film (judging by the Wikipedia entry anyway - I haven't seen it!) re-clothed and relocated, like Kayla's speech about the moon.
The game's perhaps best summed up by the mini-bosses, and the way they're utilised. There's Wendigo, and a rocky Leviathan, and quick-time-event helicopters, and the other mutants. Wendigo and the Leviathan are the same thing: dodge one of two or three telegraphed attacks and then lunge onto their weak spot and slash away a dozen times before leaping clear to avoid being grabbed. Repeat four or five times. Victor Creed, to pick the first mutant battle, can be dealt with by repeated lunges followed by backward dodge-rolls to re-sight the lunge. He gets three full health bars the first time, each with no hint of the next.
On paper, there should be lots of options. In practice, there aren't. The little tactical variety available to you is quickly overwhelmed and forgotten by sheer and exhausting, if not nauseating repetition. And it's worse for you - I had the added incentive of getting to the end, at which point I could write it up. You have no excuse: the story's tissue-paper thin, the progression system's anonymous, and any sense of spectacle in the environments is ravenously devoured by the greed of their duration.
The sad thing is that this is actually quite a good film-to-game transition compared to most. There's no multiplayer, and negligible replay value (you'll get enough repetition out of the game anyway), but the combat is empowering and canonically appropriate, and the regenerative health system and checkpointing is sufficiently forgiving that you should have no trouble playing through it without recourse to purple words. Had Raven managed to gather the one good idea and the few half-decent ones here together over a shorter course, and made more of an effort to mix things up, I might actually have liked it.
As it goes, I'm almost grateful they didn't. X-Men Origins: Wolverine may be unapologetically violent, but it's also unapologetically repetitive, and it's the one apology that needs to be made. Over and over again, please. So if you're reading this in 2015, and you're just now in a position to buy it, don't. You've got better things to do. After all, you're probably a mutant yourself by now. Go stab something.
5 / 10