Gore. Pure, unadulterated, uninhibited gore. Limbs flying, torsos tearing, heads decapitating, blood spewing, soldiers screaming... it is gaming at its most visceral. And it's all in Raven Software's upcoming movie tie-in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
This is the big surprise. Not that its God of War-inspired hack and slash gameplay is addictive fun, nor that the Unreal Engine 3 powered graphics display an impressive level of presentation. What shocks is that Wolverine is so violent, so filled with gore, that it's hard to believe it's a licensed game at all.
Which is silly, really, when you consider the Wolverine has claws. Razor sharp, adamantium-coated claws. In a fight, if he feels like his life is in danger, he is going to cut someone. And, as anyone who's nicked the tips of their fingers while chopping an onion knows, when you get cut your skin tears and your blood spills.
Wolverine's claws are more potent than your average kitchen knife, of course. Wolverine's claws make a mockery of bone. A casual flick of Wolverine's wrist is enough to separate head from spine, or arm from torso, or leg from hip. This is how it would be in real life. And yet the gore in the game surprises. Wolverine's attacks send limbs flying, torsos tearing, heads decapitating, blood spewing and soldiers screaming. Why does this feel wrong, when it should feel so right?
Let's blame the X-Men movie trilogy, a set of films designed to appeal to a mainstream audience. In those films not only did Wolverine cry (what?!) but there was hardly a drop of blood. Hugh Jackman's Logan seemed desperate to keep his claws in check - an attitude that directly opposes the one held by the comic book Wolverine.
So the Wolverine game, due out at the same time as the upcoming movie, seems way too gory to be associated with such a big budget Hollywood superhero flick. Funny that. The Activision-published game is licensed from Marvel, not Fox. While it has Hugh Jackman's likeness, and to an extent follows the film's plot, it isn't constrained by the film's need to be suitable for as many ages as possible. And it's all the better for it.
The game begins with a cinematic that shows Logan as a soldier, before he became an X-Man. From the very first minute Raven pulls no punches with the gore - he pierces the skull of an enemy with his claws before bursting through a wall and slicing up some more. We're then transported into a helicopter flying above an African jungle. It's hit by a rocket and Logan is sent hurtling towards the earth. This is where you first gain control of Wolverine - dodging left and right as enemy fire sprays up towards you. You enter the jungle and time freezes - you see the terrified look on the face of a soldier only a few feet away from your outstretched claws. The title: X-Men Origins: Wolverine appears on the left of the screen, time rights itself and you decimate your enemy. The game has begun.
Wolverine plays like a cross between God of War and Ninja Gaiden. The action is typical third-person hack and slash with a heavy emphasis on carnage and combos. Quick kills can be triggered with a well-timed press of the Y or Triangle button. You regularly see him sticking his claws into enemy throats, revelling in the gurgles and camera-spraying blood. The action goes into slow motion as you tear off limbs, punch falling enemies and quick kill. Wolverine is a very up close and personal fighter, fusing grabs, throws, juggles and fast stabs with incredibly nimble acrobatics. Grab an enemy near a spike, for example, and you can impale them. You can throw them off of cliffs, too. More than any game to star the rage-filled mutant, this is Wolverine unleashed.
Because Wolverine is a melee-only character, Raven encountered a problem when pitting him against enemies with guns. To tackle it, the developer gave him a lunge ability. Here you're able to target a single enemy (RB on the 360 pad, the version tested), which displays the arc the lunge will take, and leap onto them from a great distance (LB). This is a satisfying, fun move that helps Wolverine deal with the many enemies who hang back and shoot him. It also makes him much more manoeuvrable - once you get used to the controls you're able to leap from enemy to enemy like a demented frog with claws.
As fans know, one of Wolverine's mutant powers is rapid regeneration. In the game you'll see this in real-time. Wolverine will get torn to shreds, usually from enemy weapons fire and blades - at times he'll be so cut up from battle that you can see right into his stomach, seeing his adamantium-coated skeleton in all its gory glory. When the carnage ends, though, Wolverine will heal up - his wounds repairing and his skin regenerating. It's hard to tell at this stage if this mechanic makes the game too easy. That's certainly the feeling you get during the opening level, when you rarely fear for Wolverine's health and pretty much ignore enemy soldier attacks simply because you know Wolverine can take it. There is a block, a dodge move and other more advanced techniques available to the hairy one. Here's hoping further into the game you come up against enemies that demand their use.
Pressing up on the d-pad uses Wolverine's Feral Sense. It displays a blue stream that shows you where you need to go to progress, and highlights in green bits of the environment you can interact with. This is guaranteed to save a hell of a lot of time that would otherwise be spent faffing about aimlessly trying to reach new areas, and is welcome.
The opening African jungle level is heavy on action - Wolverine faces off against countless cannon fodder soldiers and the occasional more difficult to kill blade-wielding fire-based enemy before taking on a huge Leviathan monster that acts as the end of level boss. But there's a dash of puzzle solving, no more complicated than pull this switch or find this level, and a sprinkle of platforming elements, again, no more complicated than jump here, swing there and lift yourself off, to add variety to the mix. There's a touch of humour to counter the brutal violence, too. In one scene Wolverine crushes a number of soldiers by pushing over a stone wall, but one somehow survives as the window portion envelopes him. Wolverine mercilessly kills him, then quips: "I bet you thought you were lucky." Raven clearly knows Wolverine inside out.
Later in the game you'll get to escape the Weapon X facility - the place where Logan became Wolverine. In this level Wolverine was wearing his iconic yellow and blue X-Men costume - one for the fans, Raven says. The level demonstrates how the developer has tackled that persistent gaming evil, the Quick Time Event. Water cascades down a tunnel and we see Wolverine running towards the camera and away from his impending doom. This used to be a QTE, but it was changed so that the player retains full control over Wolverine's movement without sacrificing the cinematic feel.
Another example - a boss battle with a chopper manned by two pilots. Wolverine uses his Lunge technique to leap onto the front of the helicopter. Wolverine struggles as the helicopter darts about in the air, but you inch upwards, pulling the pilot out and sticking his head into the spinning blades. Blood everywhere, a scream, no time to digest it all - another chopper is targeted and Wolverine hurtles himself towards it. Inside is rival mutant Agent Zero. Logan clambers towards the tail rotor , absorbing weapon fire along the way, and sticks his claws into the blades to bring it down. During all of this you're in complete control.
The gore though, while welcome in that it represents a more accurate portrayal of Wolverine's character and abilities, won't alone make the game good. It's the gameplay that will determine whether X-Men Origins: Wolverine will be up there with the God of Wars and Ninja Gaidens of this world, or join Iron Man and The Hulk on the great movie-licensed scrap heap. More time with the game will be required to make an accurate judgement on that front, but so far so good. The Unreal Engine 3-fuelled graphics are great despite suffering from being overly shiny, as most powered by Epic's tech are. The combat is relentless, satisfying, accessible and fun. X-Men Origins: Wolverine might be intended to ride the wave of hype generated by the upcoming movie, but it's shaping up to be a quality action game in its own right. With any luck, we might just have the Wolverine game we've always wanted on our hands.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is due out on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, Nintendo DS, PS2 and PSP on May 1 2009 in the US. A UK release date is expected some time in May.