How will Wolverine, Iceman, and Magneto ever get across the gap in the bridge? Spend two levels walking around it, of course!
With Game Boy Advance releases slowing to a crawl, the Nintendo DS is in the process of becoming the new de facto home for licensed drivel. And you might expect that X-Men: The Official Game for DS fits into that category, but it really doesn't. It's certainly not a great game, but it does try some interesting things that, sadly, just don't work out. I don't want to call it ambitious, because it is a simple game with not much to offer, but at least it doesn't directly copy any other game, to my knowledge. It is a unique failure.
This is a top-down action game that resembles X-Men Legends, though it plays very differently. The levels are quite short and involve very little exploration, though they couldn't exactly be called linear. You are usually in control of Wolverine, Iceman, or Magneto and can switch among them with either shoulder button. Each one has a distinct method of attack, which sets up a paper-rock-scissors theme that ties into the enemy designs. The D-pad controls character movement, while the touch screen is used for all attacks – that's the interesting bit. Wolverine's melee attacks are activated and targeted by touching a nearby enemy, while Iceman's projectiles are done the same way, but they work at long range and are a bit weaker. Magneto is completely different, as he depends on metallic objects for his attacks. You touch an object and drag or flick it into an enemy. The idea of basing all these attacks on touch screen input, and forcing the player to quickly switch from one character to another to deal with certain enemy types, is compelling stuff for a while. The game also requires some tricky manipulation of the D-pad and touch screen simultaneously, so that you are often moving the character in one direction but attacking in another. It's like a modern take on Robotron controls.
Initially, this formula works. The game feels fresh and challenging. But before long, the repetition sets in. There are only a few enemy types in the game, and many levels are little more than arenas where you must put down dozens of troops with nothing to break it up. Some beat-'em-up games get away with this sort of design by offering combos, special moves, and upgrades, but this X-Men game features none of those things. Each character has exactly one attack, plus a limited X-Factor move (the only useful one is Wolverine's healing ability) that is activated by tapping your character, which tends to happen by accident more than on purpose.
For fans of the comics and movies, the more crushing fact is that these powerful characters are castrated by the design of the game. Wolverine slashes, and that's it – he can't sniff out prey or slice through walls or anything. Iceman is only capable of shooting little pellets. Where are his ice slides and frost-covered body? Magneto is even more crippled. This is one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe, but all he can do in this game is lift barrels and toss them around. No flying, no force fields, no dismantling guns, no nothing. Compare this situation to the X-Men Legends games, in which the characters' powers are used in the context of the levels and in combat in ways that make sense and are true to the source material. The "Official" Game on DS plays like its designers watched the trailer for X-Men: The Last Stand and crafted the gameplay after what little they could remember from those scenes. Not that this game has anything at all to do with the movies…no, the plot is almost completely separate, and other than the dull squabbling between Wolverine and Magneto, the characters don't behave like they should, either.
The most extreme example of this game's ignorance is in the sporadic Nightcrawler levels. In this game, Nightcrawler swings his fists for a melee attack, meaning he plays exactly like Wolverine but moves a bit faster. That's supposed to be important, because all of his stages involve punching a certain number of bombs or terrorists before time runs out. You'd think that his teleportation ability and maybe his stealth would be helpful in such tasks, but the stealth is nonexistent in this game, and his teleportation has been replaced with a simple time freeze. Yep, just tap on Nightcrawler to activate his X-Factor special move, which stops time for everything but himself. That'll give you ample opportunity to run around and punch more barrels and bombs. Nevermind that this ability has nothing to do with the Nightcrawler character, whatsoever, and that these levels not only don't fit into the movie storyline (Nightcrawler isn't even in the third movie), but they don't even pertain to the parallel activities of the other X-Men in the game. It absolutely boggles my mind that someone thought these levels were a good idea or made sense in any context.
There really are some cool gameplay concepts in this game, and they are eventually put to good use in some of the later boss battles. The soundtrack also deserves some praise in the midst of all this criticism. All of the music is original, and some of the tracks really stand out and give some identity to the otherwise bland levels. Even the controls should be credited with being simple and responsive, though you may get wrist strain as in Metroid Prime: Hunters.
But these few bright points cannot save such a repetitive, bland game that also happens to be the worst use of a license I've ever seen. Anyone who has read a single issue of the comics or seen one of the movies could put the X-Men characters to better use than this game does. Activision would have done much better to bring one of the X-Men Legends games or some adaptation thereof to the DS, because this false movie tie-in is not worth playing.