[Sigh] I seem to be in something of a licensed rut lately. After the snooze fest that was Over the Hedge, I was eagerly looking forward to playing X-Men: The Official Game. The brand and I go back a long way, and it was one of my favorite comic books when I was younger, which immediately (and foolishly) raised my hopes. The games have always had their place on my shelf as well, from the two Genesis releases all the way to the excellent X-Men Legends on modern consoles. Yes, I'm a big fan of these mutants, which is why I'm so outraged at what's been done to them with this release.
Taking place between the second and third films, the Official Game attempts to bridge their storylines through cut scenes that are questionable, to say the least. Players can choose from Nightcrawler, Iceman, and fan favorite Wolverine for each stage, which unfortunately sounds better than it is. The low production values and bland voice work (not all the original actors lend their talents) are all part of the cookie-cutter package that awaits the player, and the lack of any consistency in quality permeate the game from top to bottom. It's odd how there's such a combination of extremes here. Some things, such as Iceman's stages for example, are well done. Played almost like an on-rail shooter, they offer some much-needed variety to the plain and uninteresting fighting action that dominates both Nightcrawler's and Wolverine's stages. But just when you thought you'd gotten over the hump and had reached the part where everything clicked, those darn cut scenes come back to remind you that X-Men: The Official Game is still a licensed product. They eventually lead into the other two characters, both of which come off as decidedly generic and dull compared to Iceman's romp. Nightcrawler's teleport combo attacks, though fun for a while, were simply not enough to save the gameplay.
One could argue that all of this is a direct consequence of all the liberties taken with the characters for the films. They're not true to the comics! I've heard people cry, and these changes inevitably lead to further “refinements” of the mythos and character origins. Nuts, I say. There's nothing wrong with the movies, and if anything should be blamed for the mediocrity that is X-Men: The Official Game, it should be the developer's lack of imagination and laziness.
Let's start with the lack of imagination. When using either Wolverine or Nightcrawler, most of the levels consist of repetitive beat-'em-up action that grows old very quickly. It reminded me a lot of Ubisoft's Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu in that you spent the entirety of the levels just beating your way through nameless opponents who almost too eagerly jump into your punches and kicks. Unlike that game, however, X-Men is decidedly skimpy on the combos, forcing you use the same move selection over and over until you either complete the stage or just shut the game off from lack of interest. Even the boss battles are this mind-numbing. The same basic button mashing balls-to-the-walls techniques that work so well in each stage are just as effective against them.
Wait, would that last observation possibly qualify as laziness, or is it still just developers being unimaginative? Probably, but given that the rush to make retail in time for the movie has its prints all over this title, the two tend to overlap here. Even worse, the licensing curse is complimented by some shoddy programming and even glitches (characters stuck in walls, yay!). There's simply no excuse for this in this day and age.
The most glaring flaw has to be the lack of polish and consistency X-Men brazenly shows. Everything just seems so tossed together without any regard for context or narrative flow. Many of the levels don't even seem to have anything to do with each other, and you're taken from one area to the other without any real explanation of why you're there and where the previous level fits into it all. Moreover, many of the boring aspects of the level design can be avoided entirely when using Nightcrawler. It's almost entirely possible to teleport your way past many obstacles, something I'd expect from the 16-bit games and not this latest entry.
Sadly, seeing the name X-men on the cover is going to be enough to make quite a few unfortunate souls spend their hard-earned cash on The Official Game. Had Z-Axis actually spent more time refining the concept and gameplay and less time trying to make the launch date, we might actually of had a pretty good game here. Instead, the released product only hurts the mutant's cause.