It would be fair to say that my neighbours (some of whom are impressionable children, I'm sad to say) have heard a lot of swearing recently. But before Kristan, Martin, Rob and Rupert jump in with a collective "what's new?", let me clarify that this is a volume of swearing that would frighten the hosts of a Tourette's support group. In fact, if you compiled every four letter word uttered during the last ten years and condensed it into an evening, that'd be the equivalent of my reaction to the second major boss in X-Men 2: Wolverine's Revenge. Wendigo: I salute your ability to raise my blood pressure.
Weapon X, man
It would also be fair to say that frustration is a fairly common thing in Wolvie's latest (and, oddly, his greatest) outing, although that's not to say that the game is all bad. It merely suffers at the hands of - let's be charitable - those pesky developmental deadlines. We can imagine that Activision at some point said "look, X-Men 2 hits movie screens in April, let's get that ruddy game out, right?" and Warthog/Genepool winced before answering "yes" and running off to pay the bills with the world's second biggest publisher's freshly printed sterling. We feel obliged to point that out now, to save us looking like total bastards when we start laying into WR in a couple of minutes' time.
Wolverine's Revenge, then, is a third-person action title that aims to capture the essence of that most imitable of superheroes, the frizzly-sideburned Weapon X (just call him Logan), a genetic experiment to create the ultimate weapon gone wrong and escaped. As it turns out, Wolvie is infected with a virus designed to kill him should he disobey his military minders - and it's fairly safe to say he's done that. So he's got 48 hours to figure out how to stop this, with a little telepathic help from Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart as the slightly anorexic-looking Dr. Xavier), and this proves the perfect opportunity to vent some of that much-bottled anger that he has so much trouble suppressing.
The game is handled with a fairly familiar control system utilising the left stick for movement and the right stick for camera tweaking, with X for jump and so on. Annoyingly though, the camera is twitchy and generally quite awkward (and needs masses of manual adjustment where it clearly shouldn't), so it's a game of trying to keep both sticks angled correctly to have Wolvie move where you want while managing to see any imposing threats.
This is something you'll need to do, because a lot of the levels in WR are best dealt with using the game's Mark of Kri-esque stealth mechanics (activated by holding L1) rather than it's often clumsy combat system. Generally speaking you can dispatch the uniformly dense guards with flashy stealth finishing moves, by creeping up behind them as they meander around and tapping circle when a "STRIKE!" prompt appears. However this is somewhat stunted, as "STRIKE!" seems to make its own mind up when to appear outside hand-to-hand combat situations (where a tap of circle at the right time pulls off a little combo move on one or more enemies), and you can often creep up behind a guard and end up having to batter him by hand instead of just snapping his neck, simply because the game seemingly forgot to prompt you.
We're also somewhat puzzled by the very inclusion of stealth, particularly the painstaking MGS2-style 'stealth kill or restart level' sections and all the sidling up against the wall, because we never took Wolvie for a patient man, or a patient beast, or whatever. He's meant to be brutal and vicious and psychopathically endowed with superhuman kicking-the-buggery abilities. That's why he's got claws which extend out of his hands! The developers make a pretty solid effort in this area, let down by the aforementioned camera issues and a lack of AI.
Stab in the dark
Guards throw a few limp kicks and blocks at you (and at distance resort to weaponry) but they mainly feel like claw fodder, lining up dutifully to be slashed with square or Kung Fu kicked with triangle. You can also throw enemies, or just pick them up and pump them with your fists, knock 'em down with a slide, or perform Strike combos (rather than finishing moves) on them with circle - and you unlock more of these as you progress. However, the process of beating up enemies (particularly in numbers) feels more like a game of chance - perhaps even like a modern day Golden Axe or Streets of Rage. It's quite fun, but ultimately it's also fairly random, and we grew tired of it after about 10 levels or so.
And between fighting and stealth killing, that's most of the actual gameplay. There are boss fights too, but these are often quite disappointing. The first fellow (we won't spoil it) just needs a bit of a pasting before being propelled into a gas canister headfirst to finish him off, which seems like a good idea, until you realise that you have only one way of sending him headlong anywhere - and you have very little control of the direction. Cue lots of attempts until you finally get the trajectory down.
And then there are the Wolvie sense sections. The sense (activated by holding L2) is quite a clever (and colourful) realisation of one of Logan's superpowers. His ability to sense where landmines and spinning laser beams are lurking is accentuated with some class by a tinted and slightly fuzzy red hue which envelopes the environment, along with muffled sound effects (echoing his concentration on the matter in hand, no doubt) and Bullet Time. It also lets him see in the dark, which gives the developers ample opportunity to throw in some pitch black sections - and these are plenty tense thanks to the placement of pitfalls. Of course, Wolvie can only run and jump without his sense attuned...
A sensitive creature
The 'senses' sections are something of a microcosm for the rest of the game's presentation, in fact: smooth and good looking (on PS2 at least), perhaps not the best thing in the history of gaming to beat your eardrum, but at the end of the day fairly glitzy - even if the collision detection and camerawork both need attention. The story and its presentation are a good example. The plot covers the lost chapter of Wolvie's history, split into six acts, with a one-hour-long prologue act charting his escape from the Weapon X facility and several subsequent ones dealing with his attempts to get back in and fix his genes, and it's all done via some nice cut scenes (in and out of the game engine) featuring characters we all remember and some superb voice acting from Mark Hamill as the man himself and Patrick Stewart in particular amongst the supporting cast (he is Xavier). The letdown is in the sound effects, which are so vanilla we reckon they're from one of those LPs of sound effects the BBC used to make. Whir!
Then there are the in-game graphics. Wolverine is finely detailed - with plenty of costumes to unlock for him, too - from his facial hair and Wolf-like features to the surgical implements sticking out of him in act one and his plentiful combat and stealth animations (we particularly like the neck-cracking and jugular-slicing efforts), and the levels are cartoony without being too unrealistic (in that now familiar Kri/Tenchu/TimeSplitters 2/etc engine style). There are faults, like the worrying lack of variation in enemy design, and clichés, like the palette of boring snow-covered wilderness/military installation environments, but on the whole you can't complain too much. There's also a bit of slowdown here and there, which we didn't notice on the Xbox version when we had a peek at that, but it's not enough to spoil our fun.
No, that doesn't spoil it. But a lot of things do, and we've not finished listing them yet. Add to the numerous problems above a few glitches and obvious seams, like having another failed Weapon X experiment (hiding in order to pounce on you in an unalterable scripted sequence) clearly visible round the corner waiting to attack but still quite untouchable. And being unable to save mid-level, forcing you to try levels repeatedly, quickly learning them off by heart so you can conserve health and get through to the harder bits without too much trouble. And confusing the player with scripted elements, like a lift you can't enter until you kill all the guards (or it's Game Over) in a section where even being seen by the guards previously has been suicidal. And being unable to skip in-game cut sequences. And getting "stuck" in stealth mode (up against walls generally), even though the L1 control isn't a toggle! And pausing for about five minutes every time you're low on health so Wolvie's advanced healing mutation can kick in. And that bloody boss… we spent most of the time dying because Wolvie would lock onto him (which slows him down) and it takes a half-second to untoggle the lock - enough for Wendigo to smack us onto the spikes surrounding his lair. Game Over! Argh!
In short, X-Men 2: Wolverine's Revenge wants to be cinematic, it wants to keep comic book fans happy, it wants to be varied and yet it wants to remain fun and engrossing. In the first instance, it does a pretty good job (probably better than the movie anyway!), only suffering on account of its own technical flaws, and it certainly nails the second (with hidden Cerebro pick-ups to unlock background info) and third, even if it falls down somewhat for the same reasons. However at times it's just too frustrating to be described as "fun", and being turned away, a stone's throw from the end of a level, by the Game Over screen just because you didn't understand precisely how to complete a fairly arbitrary objective is enough to saturate you with disbelief like an anvil landing on your face in the middle of a field. Buy it if you loved the comics, we reckon, and otherwise rent it to decide if you can get over the problems.