X-Men Origins: Wolverine, First Impressions

Wolverine, you're not the man you used to be. I remember those golden days when you looked less like a frothing killer than a surly fashionista, a svelte butter-and-turquoise superstar with impossibly tall head-fins and stubbly arm-hair prettier than George Michael's five o'clock shadow.

Now look at you. You're Hugh Jackman with a bristly chin-straddling mono-chop and the internal Stan Winston-y ligature of the T-800. And man can you kill stuff dead. In your new game, you're like the Tasmanian Devil possessed by Freddy Krueger. You're a whirling dervish in a wife-beater, the guy Jason Voorhees dreams of being. What's weird? Your video game got a Mature 18+ rating, while the movie's only PG-13.

So I guess you've figured out I'm playing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the Official Movie Tie-In, which ships tomorrow for all the majors plus handhelds, including Windows PCs. Speaking of, bravo for remembering us "little guys," i.e. PC gamers, Activision. Maybe the other guys (et tu Madden NFL 10, Electronic Arts?) missed the PCs-are-important-too phone call, but you didn't, so good on you for that.

Where to start? Sorry, but I've got to get this off my chest. Hardest difficulty setting locked at outset = fail. Hey design team, some of us only have time for single-pass play here. You want us not to complain about the "stupid" AI in these games? Then let us select "hard" off the plate. It's not a panacea, but sometimes downshifts in damage inflicted and buffs for bad-guy hit points force us to play more intelligently. In any case, let us be the judge of how much is too much, not you. Find other ways to string out the gameplay, not this silly last-century difficulty crutch.

Rant off, and hey, did you know Raven Software's been around since 1990? I played their second game Shadowcaster way back in 1993 on a 486 something-or-other. You know, the pre-Doom Origin-published action-RPG that let you polymorph into different critters, and which used a relatively groundbreaking 3D approach that shifted your perspective to represent the thing you'd changed into? If you're a bit more recently on the scene, you might remember Raven for stuff like Hexen, Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Kind of cool that they're still around, Activision subsidiary or no.

Okay, so in we go, full-on Crysis style apparently, with Wolverine leaping out of a plane as we trail him down through the clouds and into the steaming thick of a lush jungle flush with Indiana Jones style ruins and mercenaries in Ray-Bans.

Wolverine responds to your taps like a turbo-charged Ginsu set. He can one-two slash, lunge across a crowded area, grab opponents and hurl or impale them on pointy stuff, claw his way up special surfaces, even lock-and-leap at bad guys perched on ledges or hunkered on the opposite end of a clearing. His health recharges slowly — a nod to his mutant healing factor — but let it drop too low and a pulsing heart graphic ticks down to the point of death.

Standing in for spider-sense, Raven slipped in a "feral" mode that highlights important objects like ropes and ledges if you tap the d-pad. It'll also produce a Donnie Darko style trail that seems to emanate from your chest and swirl off in the direction you're supposed to go.

Speaking of, the game's not open form, meaning you're following One Path to Rule Them All, far as I can tell. You're meant to shuffle between mob-style encounters, in other words, slicing up enemies who wade into battle like thuggish lemmings. Occasional mid-level bosses show up and test your mettle. Tearing open barrels and boxes yields "rage orbs," which replenish a secondary meter that fuels special attacks.

Every so often you'll level up, causing Wolverine to howl like someone just shot off his one body part that's not adamantine. Net effect? A couple extra health points.

Hey, there's a rare console bug! For some reason there's now a plank of wood stuck floating a few feet behind Wolverine. Can't shake it, can't slice it, it's just hanging out on my six o'clock like a piece of haunted timber.

Reload.

So far so good, for the most part. Back with more shortly.

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