Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: "Deadpool"

It was around the time Deadpool went up for pre-order that things started to seem… off. High Moon was hit with layoffs, the team working on Deadpool hit hardest. The release date of June 25th seemed too early for a game with such a high-profile company’s license attached to it, and the fact that Activision didn’t send out early review copies made it all the more clear that they were kicking this one out the door as quickly and quietly as possible. For $30.

I was all good and ready to either love Deadpool like one would love an ugly, braindead puppy, or hate it with an unbridled vengeance. It was either going to be a diamond in the rough, a fantastic game struggling to find its time behind a low budget and a butchered development team, or it was going to be a throwaway piece of cash-grabbing garbage. A masterpiece, or a failure. A hit, or a flop. I didn’t consider it could be a third thing.

Because what I got was much worse.

Deadpool’s greatest crime is that of being utterly unremarkable. It is not good, but I can’t in all honesty say it’s bad either. It’s not particularly funny, but it’s never actively unfunny. Deadpool feels like a half-baked shell of a potentially awesome game, occasionally raising above the threshold of “average” for long enough to make its fall back down all the more insulting. I cannot bring myself to give it a broad recommendation, and yet I cannot bring myself to condemn it. It is blatantly broken, this much is true, but… hmmm.

Let me start from the top. Y’all know who Deadpool is, right?

Well, just in case…

Deadpool! He’s the Merc with the Mouth. The dude with the ‘tude. The Rob Liefeld original creation that has evolved from a mildly psychopathic villain into a full-blown, impossibly psychotic anti-hero. He’s also a fan-favourite Marvel character, so there’s a lot of people holding their breath for this first Deadpool-starring videogame to fulfill their ultimate wishes for the character. Just a heads up: you should stop holding your breath.

Deadpool’s powers (and mental psychosis) has varied over the years, but the most prominent features are this: he can’t die, he has a healing factor borrowed from Wolverine, and he is self-aware to the point that he “knows” (thinks?) that he is in a comic book. Logically, then, in a Deadpool game, Deadpool must ergo know he is in a game. I was expecting the fourth wall to be leaned on, maybe kicked through a few times. I did not expect the fourth wall to be utterly and completely nonexistant. Seriously, there’s breaking the fourth wall, and there’s not having a fourth wall in the freakin’ first place – and that’s the approach this Deadpool game decided to take.

Written by fan-not-favourite Deadpool scribe, Daniel Way, the game’s plot starts off merely odd. In his run-down apartment, Deadpool phones up High Moon and asks to make them his game for him. Then Deadpool (as voiced by Nolan North) phones up Nolan North to ask if he’s going to voice Deadpool for him, between bites of pizza and pancakes. (The game they made, in case it wasn’t obvious, being the one I’m reviewing right now.) There’s a level of meta-narrative that would be wholly appropriate in a Bioshock game – disposed of for the sake of a handful of not particularly clever jokes. But it isn’t overbearing at all, it’s just Deadpool’s nature, so it doesn’t negatively impact anything on a narrative level. It’s just a bit of fun. All in good fun.

…at first.

It’s important to establish this game’s status quo up front, because it will make or break your potential for squeezing enjoyment out of this game. Do you like the idea that Deadpool talks to a floating taco? Do you enjoy the absurdity of Family Guy-esque non-sequiturs showing up out of buttfuck nowhere? Do you think Deadpool being wholly aware that he is in a game for the whole game – the whole fucking game – would get old? Does Deadpool’s obsession with “da hawt babes” and “boobies” make you cringe at all? Chimichangas? Your answers to these questions determine whether or not this is “your” Deadpool. For the record, I enjoy it immensely (coming from a guy that actually liked Duke Nukem Forever’s sense of humour, that might not instill you with any confidence). But if you prefer your Cable and Deadpool to your Deadpool: Dead Presidents, then you might find this game too “full on” for your tastes. You might even find it a little insulting to your dedication.

Like I said, though, I enjoy it. It feels like something Adult Swim would put up between episodes of Robot Chicken, with Deadpool’s warped delusions of reality becoming the game’s reality coming off as immensely gratifying. The things that happen in the game, happen with absolutely no regard for the player’s comprehension of the situation; series of events, strung together in an inane, incomprehensible sequence of backwards-talking gobbledygook. It doesn’t always seem that way from the outset, but the game reaches a critical mass in which it becomes a demented, Marvel-flavoured fever dream. That’s just fine by me. Especially with the neverending “we’re inside a game!” aspect, it reminds me (pleasantly!) of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, which I know a lot of the fans who make up that title's cult following will be chuffed to hear.

…it’s less fine, however, that the rest of the game doesn’t actually seem to support the idea that it was meant to be that way. I said the game felt broken earlier, perhaps that was a little harsh – it feels half finished. The levels are connected barely tangentially, the plot developing on a whim, and characters dropping in and out like ducks on a shooting range. The result is that the game feels fractured and disjointed – befitting of Deadpool’s mental state throughout the entirety of the campaign. And yet… there are definite marks that this game was meant to have more. Areas feel padded for the sake of extending gameplay length, things are introduced in orders unrelated to their importance, and… it honestly feels like a game that is missing its middle. And its front. And most of its back. A game strung together on the dreams of its handful of remaining developers; a broken, mangled, incomplete mess.

Speaking of messes, let’s move on to the core gameplay.

Smart decision: make the game a character action game a la Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. Poor decision: make it not very good.

Perhaps lending credence to my half-finished game theory is that the melee combat is simultaneously weightless and crude, and yet sloppy, clunky, and unrefined. There is a certain cock of the head one makes when you discover that this is a game in which you can string combos together, but you can achieve almost exactly the same results by literally mashing random buttons. Absolutely no skill involved, except maybe knowing when to dodge out of the way – using Deadpool's once-canon short-range teleport. You’re outright given cues when to dodge so you can counter, anyway, so the challenge really does boil down to “press buttons until you’re told to press another button”. So, yeah. Combat? Cheap. Tacky. Throwaway. Next.

Putting down the cheap Devil May Cry-wannabe melee combat, you’ll find the game’s movement system. It’s not awful – you can move around, you can jump, double-jump, and wall jump with relative ease. It’s not really a problem until you’re forced into platforming sections with it. They’re not controls made for platforming, and yet the developers want you to… it isn’t just Deadpool that does this, either. Even Half-Life had absolutely awful forced platforming sections – I thought we all agreed for the medium back then that we should stop having them in things! Yet all the time, I see them pop up. Darksiders had them, the Devil May Cry series continues to have them despite them absolutely being the singular black mark against its otherwise flawless execution of elements… now Deadpool has them. Deadpool hasn’t got much left to ruin, so they’re actually more tolerable than in, say, Devil May Cry 4 (in which they are a hideous distraction from otherwise stellar combat sequences). That doesn’t make them better, though. And the nerve of High Moon to add in a horrid, cheap-looking, recycled-textures-filled 2D “retro” platforming sequence with these physics is just plain stupid. Stupid, I tells ya!

Things pick up when you get into the third-person shooting bit. It plays more or less completely like a stock-standard third-person shooter – like a cheaper version of High Moon’s own Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. It is, unlike the combat, actually working as intended, though. The guns have an actual weight, and a kick to them, so they’re a joy to use, and  it’s something the game never actually hinges on, either, so it’s often a delight to pull out a shotgun and realize… oh, hey, this is actually halfway competent! Kinda wish the whole game was as acceptable.

Bad news time: it kind of… actually… is. It’s by the wayside, no doubt. The mechanics in this game, while not outright broken, are sloppy, barely controllable and just kind of… there. The thing is, there are redeeming values scattered all over the game that completely invalidate a lot of the complaints I have about the crudeness of the mechanics. Perhaps befitting of Deadpool, this game is the fractured, inane mess with a glint of hope in its eyes.

The melee combat. It’s unrefined and clunky and borderline laggy and you can mash buttons to do combos so why bother doing the combos and blah blah blah. But all the animations are… well, I won’t beat around the bush, they’re pretty damn fantastic. Deadpool is animated smoothly and beautifully, pulling off a bunch of moves that look really goddamn impressive. The result is that the simplicity of the combat is offset by the gratuitous satisfaction it provides. It’s an on-the-cheap knock-off Devil May Cry clone that at least looks like it plays well; and, for a minute (or two, or three!) you’ll likely find yourself actually having fun with it. In particular the “gunkata” system, in which you can string gunshots into your regular combos in an intuitive, and kickass, way. There, I used the word “kickass” – this officially a Deadpool game review.

The guns are kind of substandard, but that’s offset by the numerous upgrades you can buy for them. Making the shotguns shoot at 70% their normal firing rate… it’s definitely grin-inducing. Though… look, if you’re gonna have upgrades, that’s fine, but if it’s a linear progression of upgrade to better upgrade, don’t call it an “upgrade tree”. That’s not a tree, that’s a stick. Alright? It’s an important distinction to make. Deadpool has an upgrade stick. You use it to expend earned money to get better gear and shit. There.

That said, there aren’t enough weapons, and this goes back yet again to the “not a finished game” thing. There are three melee weapons and four guns (all of them dual-wielded), and they all have their uses, but it really does seem like the game intended for there to be more. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were way more tools for Deadpool to kill with in early drafts of the game, just, all forced to be scrapped in the name of sparing money. It is an outright shame, and a bit of a disappointment, that for the whole game you can actually see the feint ghost of a much, much better game – a game that, perhaps in an alternate dimension, critics are hailing as “great”. We do not live in that dimension. We live in this one. And it is a pity that we do.

The combat is really a piece of crap to control, but with Deadpool pulling off violently proficient moves with ease, strung together to form a gory, ballet-like storm of blades and bullets, it is not something I can bring myself to call “unenjoyable”. Even at its most insufferably dull, Deadpool still manages to find his own enjoyment… and I think that rubs off a bit on the player. Well with the fourth wall torn down, I’m assuming that’s no coincidence. Deadpool’s jollity and sense of humour is perhaps the only thing the game properly excels at.

There are “stealth” sections of the game. These are sections in which you crawl up behind enemies and hit a button to watch Deadpool do a kill or something. They’re not complicated, or even necessary, but there is a voyeuristic pleasure to be had as you control a Deadpool animated with cartoonishly exaggerated footsteps, have him line up dual hammers to an unsuspecting guard’s head for a “stealth” kill, and watching the kill take place, blood spurting everywhere and Deadpool himself dizzy with glee.

It’s all on Nolan North’s performance(s), I think. He voices both Deadpool, as a one-liner-spouting joke dispenser (jokes that aren’t that well-written, but, surprisingly, are not frustrating to hear over and over again, thank fuck), and Deadpool’s inner voices. One of them is a polite (usually) well-spoken gentlemen with the soothing, deep tones of a proper Englishman. The other is a cackling buffoon, an incompetent moron who doesn’t understand exactly what it is that’s happening but goes with it anyway. It creates a very compelling illusion that Deadpool is actually three characters, which… well, it makes the game less repetitive, I’ll give it that.

People will take a lot of offence to the nature of the one-liners in this game, spoken at more or less every opportunity – taking the “Merc with the Mouth” tag a little too literally for its own good. I get a very Jim Carrey as The Mask vibe from the character, as he pulls personalities, accents and objects out of thin air for various jokes (impressions and the like), but to High Moon’s – and Nolan North’s – credit: they do never get annoying. Not exactly damning fine praise, but it’s true. If you don’t think what Deadpool is saying is that funny, you can take solace in the fact that he is also not gratingly, pathetically unfunny. He’s like a charming yet failing stand-up comedian… you’re not laughing or clapping, but darn, you can’t bring yourself to boo him off the stage. He’s doing what he does and he’s having a bit of fun. There’s an infectious buzz of energy associated with it… can’t hold it against the guy.

Marvel fans will likely take more out of the references and cameos than they will from the gameplay or “plot,” as it is so-called. If you wanted to know what Deadpool really thinks of, say, Spider-Man? You’ll know. If you want to see Deadpool grate on Wolverine or Cable’s nerves, that’s all here – Cable plays quite a large role in the game, actually, and I’m sure fans of the character will appreciate his involvement… kind of. He is a taco for a bit. Um. Don’t ask.

A lot of D-list Marvel villains show their faces, like Vertigo (which Deadpool finds really, really amusing, exclaiming that she “has just the worst power” even as he’s throwing up his guts through his mask). Deadpool’s refusal to die due to his high healing factor is also abused incredibly well, in particular a scene in which he has been severed from his torso and must pull himself up by his intestines. It’s a nod and a wink to Marvel fans that may - may - soften the blow that Daniel Way wrote it. That and that Doctor Strange isn’t in it. X-Men are neat, but I kind of wanted Doctor Strange to show up. …d’oh well. As someone who is currently knee-deep in Marvel comics, the extension of scope to include a ton of recognizable faces was a stroke of genius… even if Wolverine’s brief visit will probably be nominated for a “most disappointing cameo in anything, ever” award. They give them out at GDC, I think.

Let nobody get me wrong – I’d hate for anyone to do that. Don’t misunderstand my critique here – this is an analysis, a review. When I go to criticize Deadpool, it is with a heavy heart and a lot of humility. A game with inherent design flaws is always fun to beat on – the idea that developers thought one thing or another was actually a good idea, nevermind well-executed, is fuel for my righteous indignation. But games like Deadpool, like Blades of Time, like Dark Void, and like Neverdead, are games which set out with lofty goals they simply, for one reason or another – be it lack of talent, lack of resources, or lack of ambition – failed to reach… and that is always a depressing tale.

I can’t say for absolute certain that Activision’s meddling is what caused this game to feel like it was rushed for release, unfinished. A few in-game “conversations” Deadpool has with High Moon regarding his game’s budget feel somewhat cynically autobiographical. What I can say for certain is that a few more months of polish would have done this game wonders like you would not believe. In the center of Deadpool is a genuinely fresh, exciting, and funny game; a lot of innovation and intuitiveness is represented in a very raw form in what has been presented as “final”. It’s unfortunate that, with the exception of high-octane performances from an energetic cast, a script with a refreshing sense of levity, and all-around Deadpool-ness, this game excels at almost nothing – to say nothing of it starting on a very small bang, and ending on an extremely desperate whimper.

But like I said, it is the biggest insult: the game neither excels nor fails absolute at anything it has set out to do. For a game at a budget price, it is not worth getting angry about in the slightest – and, if I will be completely frank, it has offered a game befitting of the Deadpool character. It has enough uniqueness to stand on its own feet without wobbling over – but the bland, uninspired mess of what you have to play to enjoy that uniqueness will be an absolute dealbreaker for many, many people. Deadpool is not a failure. It’s just not the rousing success it could have been, had it been given more time.

High Moon did an, at least, admirable job. I’d say “better luck next time”… but I’ve little confidence there’ll be a next time.