There's a very good reason why people are instantly suspicious about movie-licensed games - because nine times out of ten they're a monumental waste of time that insult the intelligence of even the most dim-witted gamer. Case in point X-Men: The Official Game, a tired, generic beat 'em up so bored with its own pointless existence that it even decided to commit suicide on us shortly before the (anti) climax.
Set 'loosely' between the events of the second and third movie, the action centres on the three distinct abilities of three of the mutant heroes: Nightcrawler, Iceman and Wolverine. In theory, a game where you're constantly switching character and therefore playing styles ought to offer a good template for another half-decent superhero game, but not one of them provides more than the absolute bare minimum playability that you'd expect these days - and at times it borders on the unacceptable.
After a trio of wholly undemanding tutorial missions the scene is set for a couple of dozen levels of the most generic basic videogaming we've seen for a long time. The only plus is that the game clocks in at under six hours, meaning you can make the pain end relatively swiftly.
Wolverine, from Wolverhampton
For the bulk of the game you're stuck with Wolverine, which is a real shame as his levels are, without doubt, the most painful example of lazy beat 'em up game design for a generation. With a control system evidently designed for pre-school gamers (the 12 certificate is an insult) you can hammer through the game almost exclusively pressing X (for a fast but weaker flurry of punches and kicks), or Y (for a stronger but slower attack). The push attack (with B) is basically redundant and there's no need to bother jumping (with A) either. Nor is there any need to worry about careful use of block or evade - just steaming in like a button-mashing nutter does the trick for most of the game. Only on the occasional boss level is there any need to block, and even then it's so blatantly obvious that you're required to do this that it boggles the mind. In fact, the overall design of Wolverine's boss encounters involves little more than hitting one another, hitting a gaggle of their goons for a bit, and then hitting one another again until they eventually go down with zero fanfare. It's like 20-odd years of fighting game evolution never happened.
And before anyone asks, we played the game on the Superhero difficulty after it became obvious that normal Hero difficulty was not only exceptionally easy, but doesn't reward you as handsomely with permanent mutant power ups (including health, attack power, health recharge rate, and special power). Bizarrely, there's barely any difference between the latter two difficulty levels, in any case, largely because of a wonky health system that lets you recharge to its maximum, and a 'fury' mechanic which lets you not only become super powerful for a brief period, but also recharges your health while it's at it. Everything's far too weighted in the player's favour, so the game quickly become a perfunctory trudge, with only a few minor setbacks (like stupid checkpointing that forces you to re-do several sections) halting your swift progress.
On occasion you'll step into Nightcrawler's shoes and get to grips with his acrobatic moves and teleportation powers. In practise, though, the game takes any sense of fun and challenge away from the player by allowing you to constantly teleport to practically anywhere within your field of vision by simply hitting the right trigger repeatedly. With no need to worry too hard about lining up jumps or timing things well, even the sloppiest jump is rescued in an instant with a quick stab of the right trigger. And once you've mastered the ability to teleport behind an enemy (by pressing B), all that's really necessary in terms of combat is a few quick jabs or X or Y to finish them off in no time. With little to no AI resistance worthy of the name, you'll master all you need to know within the first level or two, and beyond that Nightcrawler's role is of button presser extraordinaire. His final two levels were by far the most challenging of all, but only because of a hateful instant death mechanic in one, and stupid respawning hell demons that literally appear in a gang all around you and proceed to club you to death in about two seconds. Even against these ridiculous design decisions you'll still romp through it - which probably says a lot about how quickly you'll get through most of it (within one memorable half-hour midway through the game we cleared four levels).
Hail to the king
By far the most fun levels come about when you're not actually fighting at all, but speeding around in mid air and firing hailstorms as Iceman. In what amounts to a combination of shooting and racing missions you'll cruise along on a constantly regenerating sheet of ice (like a hoverboard, effectively) and be tasked with putting out fires with your ice beam, killing huge robots, negotiating trap-filled tunnels, preventing a reactor core overheating and stopping giant stompy robots in their tracks. At times (in the tunnel sections, at least) it has the visual pyrotechnics of the long forgotten Forsaken, and apart from the bit where the game decides to vomit polygons in fury at your rubbishness (i.e. it repeatedly glitches to the point that you can't see), these sections worked rather well. Chasing after little fire demons while trying to save the power plant was also excellent fun while it lasted - but we're talking mere minutes of inspiration, sadly.
It's just as well that we don't care too much about Zak Penn and Chris Claremont's storyline (the film writer and comic book writer, respectively), because the game makes it perilously tricky to keep up with what the hell's going on. In a cursory nod to non-linearity, the structure of the levels makes it occasionally possible to tackle certain portions of the game in the order of your choosing, but once you've worked through that character's 'channel' you still have to go back to the missions you haven't cleared to make further progression. By the time it all joins together again, you've no real clear connection with why you've just progressed to the section you're on or what the real purpose is. The lengthy absence of Iceman from the story is particularly odd, especially when you discover that his missions are the most agreeable. The decision to lumber the player with beat 'em up sludge for ages is puzzling at best, and all but the hardcore Marvel heads will quickly lose interest.
Inevitably, we thought the 360 version would be the best one to review, but, in fact, it's barely any different and - at times - one of the most deeply unimpressive games we've seen on the platform to date. Sure, in high def there's a small amount of extra clarity to be gained, but it's certainly not worth shelling out the extra cash to see high res versions of bland environments and stiffly animated rent-a-goons spawning onto the scene for the 2000th time of asking. To compound matters, the 360 version still has frame rate issues! 360 heads will be exasperated to learn that the game makes you go through extraordinary hoops to even extract Gamerscore points from it, by making you collect every single pointless artefact from the game and max out each and every character's mutant abilities before you can unlock more than the 90 or so points you accumulate for finishing the game. And in a first for a 360 game, three of the 16 achievements gain you zero points. Thanks guys!
A small round of applause goes to Marvel for providing some nice comic art to use between missions, but why on earth don't we get more than a split second to read the damn thing? And a golfer's hand clap to Activision for hiring some big name voice actors and the likenesses of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Alan Cumming and Shawn Ashmore. It does no more than add a perfunctory dressing to a fundamentally flawed, sub-par game, but we thought we'd give it a mention.
With some pointless costume unlockables and (even more) generic unlockable missions for each character (like practise runs, basically), there's not even a shred of replay value - unless you're obsessed about Gamerscore points.
When something as high profile as X-Men: The Official Game arrives on the quiet summer scene, there's a real opportunity to piggyback the movie hype and claim a few bored gamers looking for something to get them through the quiet months. Activision has pulled this off pretty successfully over the years (think Spider-Man), but this year's attempt is a crushing disappointment that serves as a reminder that the bad old days of lazy, cobbled together licensed fodder are by no means behind us. There's nothing wrong with using a brand name to sell you game, unless that game happens to be among the most uninspired beat 'em ups released in several years. If you remember Activision's Minority Report game, then this is about as good as that.