Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW - Wanted: Weapons of Fate

Better than the average movie tie-in.
But it still sucks.

Let's be clear: there are licensed games that appear in concert with a film's release and don't really try (Iron Man, WALL-E) and there are those that appear months or years later, but really give it their best (The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Stranglehold). Wanted: Weapons of Fate is squarely in the latter camp. It cobbles together some of the more stylish and important mechanics of the great third-person shooters and extends the narrative of the film while referencing the art of its comic book origins. The result is a game that's not all that bad - it's just not good enough to find its own place in a genre saturated with titles like Gears of War, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 and 5.

The game starts off by quite plainly insulting you. Not by way of the difficulty selection, which allows you to insult yourself with a mode thoughtfully labeled "Pussy", but by the protagonist. He calls you out for playing video games and says you're a loser before inviting you along on an escapist power trip of glorified violence.

And it is violent. But... is it violent enough? I have to say no. Wanted is neither as savage and crazy as its comic book origins, or as much of a spectacle grounded in a real-world environment as the film. It tries.

Approaching an enemy will prompt a single button tap that dispatches them with a flying knee to the face or an exaggerated overarm stab of your blade, complete with blood splatter coating the screen. It's cool the first ten times you see these suitably brutal close combat animations, but whenever it happened I would find myself thinking of the more clever techniques of Tenchu and the greater violence of Gears of War.

And (being a cover-based shooter) it's that comparison to the company it tries to join - great titles like Gears and Uncharted - that reveal Wanted's flaws, and make subsequent playthroughs a trial instead of a treat.

Wanted's cover system is well-realized. You latch on to cover intuitively and spring from point to point with fast, smooth animations, allowing you to quickly negotiate a room. The problem is, games with cover systems require more than just dangerous enemies to hide from - they require enemy AI that makes their use of cover feel intelligent and organic, and puts up a real challenge. Wanted lacks this, and the hardest difficulty is still too easy. Enemies will rush to find cover and stick to it, requiring you to use the movie's patented bullet curving to smack them out of their refuge - they will always limp out with a single stock animation - before you can put a few rounds into them and finish them off.

And if all that sounds great, let me assure you at first blush it is. For a time, Wanted is like a decent action movie, and grants you the feeling of being the baddest cat in the room. With little practice you're soon dashing between cover points, throwing out three curving shots in four seconds and enjoying the bullet cam that follows the final round to its target, up-close and personal.

But once you get past the style and look at the substance, the flaws are glaring. Shoot an enemy in the leg or head or stomach and it's all the same - they have a handful of canned death animations that aren't tied to hit detection. At first the pre-rendered cutscenes look a bit better than the in-game graphics, but then you'll see some severe artifacting that muddies gentle textures and realize the whole thing was badly compressed. By the time you're halfway through this three-and-a-half-hour game, it will all crystalize and you notice you're not having any fun. Dumb enemy AI, a been-there-done-that cover system and the just-good-enough shooting reveal themselves to be the ingredients of a decent, but ultimately boring experience that makes occasional bugs like hard freezes all the more unacceptable. Sometimes it's forgivable, but I'm sorry Wanted, you're not Fallout and I'm not gonna' take that crap from you.

It tries to mix things up with sniping and turret segments, but these tedious sections only remove the connection to the violence and - in the case of sniping - point out further flaws. Depth-of-field blur is a hallmark of the current generation, but it doesn't need to remain when I'm looking through a rifle scope.

At least the voice work exceeds par. Thomas Kretschmann returns as the protagonist's late father and Terrence Stamp reprises his role as Pekwarsky. A stand-out is definitely Peter Stormare as The Bad Guy - some folks just refuse to turn in bad work - and Wesley, the lead, is suitably detached, cocky and bloodthirsty.

He's also an asshole who's exceedingly hard to care about. Upon dropping a femme fatale off the side of a building he'll quip "I wouldn't have minded making her scream another way, but hey - at least her ankles are skyward," and you realize Westley's not a hero, or even an anti-hero: Wesley's a villain. I didn't understand why he was such a prick until I went back to the original source material - the comic books - and discovered that the film's Fraternity of Assassins with their faith in a higher power was initially conceived as the fraternity of super-villains, who had long since exterminated cape wearing heroes and ran the world from the shadows.

The comic-book Wesley slaughters buildings of people for the heck of it, and rapes celebrities as a laugh. It's as appallingly barbaric as it is disarmingly creative (another super-villain is named Shithead, the collected feces of the six hundred and sixty-six most evil bastards to ever walk the earth), and in this world of evil Wesley is the most conscienceless, dangerous creature of all.

Wanted tries to stand with the big boys, but to achieve that ambition it should have returned to its roots and sought out the kernel of inspiration that made it worthy of a film adaptation, and designed itself accordingly. Instead, it ignores its grotesque but exceptional heritage, and cribs the exceptional aspects of better games without doing them justice. The Villain King Wesley, who inspired the movie that inspired the game is still in there, under the surface. He's there when he insults your pastime in the game's opening, he's there taking pleasure at ripping off a foe's arm, but he's not well-represented in the mechanics of cowering behind boxes.

He wants to stand tall, to have some fun, to gaudily glorify violence. And like the movie, Wanted: Weapons of Fate is fun for a while. But like the watered-down film it's a merely acceptable diversion, and there's no reason to double-dip. It plays it too safe, and is simply not fun enough to become anything more than a forgettable rental.

-excellent cover system makes room traversal quick and intuitive
-solid voice work
-a capable shooter, just not exceptional


-enemies don't make the cover system feel very necessary
-it's as good as the movie - and that's not a compliment
-doesn't begin to compete with other, better third-person shooters

Worth a rental. Sort of.

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