High Moon Studios are carving out a niche for themselves as developers of games by fans, for fans. Their "Transformers" games, "War for Cybertron" and "Fall of Cybertron" were reviewed as solid but unremarkable games for their gameplay, but as pitch-perfect treatments of the source material that "Transformers" fans would adore.
Now High Moon have brought a similar treatment to the Marvel character of Deadpool, The Merc With The Mouth. For those of you who don't know, Deadpool, AKA Wade WIlson, is a sword- and gun-wielding mercenary with severe mental instability and a ridiculously powerful healing factor who literally cannot die. This, you might think, would introduce some serious game design challenges for the High Moon team.
The conceit of the game is that Deadpool submitted a script to High Moon Studios and then proceeded to terrorise them into making it despite their initial protests. The opening scene lets you explore the mouthy merc's apartment as he waits for the edited script to be delivered, and you get to interact with random items in the environment while you explore. This "playing with Deadpool's junk" (as the on-screen popups call it) results in laugh-out-loud moments and sets the tone for the entire game.
Deadpool spends the rest of the game knowing that he is in his own video game, a call-out to the character's signature habit of regularly breaking the fourth wall. This is used to great comic effect when Highmoon 'runs out of budget' and presents a section of the game in classic top-down dungeon crawling mode or side-scrolling beat-'em-up mode.
This is also how they deal with Deadpool's teleportation device, insane healing factor and superhuman combat abilities. Early in the game he explains to the player that his abilities have been nerfed because "advancement is important in video games".
The story is a shallow affair that starts with a straightforward kidnapping and then moves to the mutant island of Genosha with the X-Men in tow and an evil super-villain's Sinister scheme (Marvel fans, did you see what I did there?). To be honest, the story doesn't matter because "Deadpool" is so idiosyncratic and odd (a reflection of Deadpool's insanity, since he supposedly designed the game) that it's all about enjoying the ride. And what a ride it is.
Sound and Graphics
"Deadpool" looks and sounds great. It doesn't make any significant advances on current gen technology, but it has rich colours, detailed environments and fluid animations. Nolan North reprises his role as Deadpool and the voices in his head are portrayed with two different voices and with on-screen speech bubbles (which are used in one memorable sequence as stepping stones to get from one side of the map to the other). When the X-men make a guest appearance they're voiced well, with Steve Blum doing an excellent, growly Wolverine.
The game plays a lot like "Ninja Gaiden 2" or "Devil May Cry" in that it focuses primarily on fluid hand-to-hand combat. Wade does also have a range of guns, which can be aimed in over-the-shoulder third person view with a cross hair or used in hand-to-hand combat "gunkata" mode (an idea they snatched from the movie "Equilibrium", right down to the animation he uses). Aimed shooting is a little fussy but there's a lock-on feature that makes it a bit more usable, though it takes an age to kill enemies by shooting their centre of mass and you get more Dead Pool Points for headshots.
Dead Pool Points are arbitrary points you receive for killing bad guys. The more brutal and violent the method of execution and the higher your max combo, the more of these arbitrary points you can collect. This encourages headshots and the use of grenades, landmines and Momentum attacks to kill your opponents. You can spend Dead Pool points to unlock weapons (melee, thrown and ranged), weapon upgrades and player upgrades and the sense of progression is smooth and steady; it's rare that you have go to for more than 10-20 minutes without unlocking something.
Momentum is a form of "power bar" that fills as you execute combo attacks and then depletes when you're not attacking anything. Once it fills you gain access to a Momentum Attack. There are three of these per melee weapon (once you unlock them) and one for your ranged weapon so they're pretty varied. They're also a lot of fun to execute because they really tear stuff up in the environment. Later upgrades also provide you with bonuses following a full Momentum Attack, including temporary invulnerability.
The hand to hand combat is fast and fluid. You can aim towards specific targets with the left stick and teleport short distances to completely evade attacks including splash damage. The same button is also responsible for "Arkham City"-esque countering which was actually a source of frustration for me during the game. Quite often I'd be surrounded by a mob of weak bad guys and a few big bad guys and I'd want to teleport to avoid a splash attack but would find myself countering one of the weak guy's attacks instead, leaving me vulnerable and, often, dead.
Deadpool's essentially unkillable and his health regenerates completely after a short delay. Should he take enough damage to "die", (which happened often for me on the hardest difficulty setting - one or two hits from even a weak enemy was enough to send Deadpool into oblivion) then you will restart from the nearest checkpoint. When this happens your Dead Pool points reset but crucially you don't lose any upgrades you bought since the last checkpoint. This means you can farm encounters for upgrades by killing a bunch of mooks, buying an upgrade and then deliberately dying. Wash, rinse and repeat for rapid development of your abilities.
This brings me to my largest source of frustration with the game; the placement of checkpoints. I'd often get through a tough fight with full ammunition and fully regenerated health, only to get killed by making a dumb mistake against the next minor opponent I encountered. Bam, back I went to the annoyingly tough fight. I can understand making the checkpoints farther apart if the player can have his health worn down and end up dying through attrition, as this raises tension and costs resources like health kits. When the protagonist regenerates fully after a few seconds' delay I really don't know what's gained by putting the checkpoints farther apart. It just meant I ended up fighting the same fights over and over again and this became frustrating and boring, especially when I'd only just succeeded in a couple of non-checkpointed boss fights.
The other source of frustration is the game's camera, which often ends up in extremely unhelpful positions when you're trying to fight off a group of enemies in hand-to-hand combat. This would be a less significant issue if not for the sudden drop attacks possessed by certain enemies which can kill Deadpool in a single strike (if you're playing on hard mode, at least). With the camera zooming around somewhere it shouldn't these attacks are often impossible to see coming.
Despite its flaws Deadpool is a hugely enjoyable game. Thanks to the comic-book introductions given for each character it should be accessible even for people who who know nothing about the character and much of the humour is universal (if a bit geeky as a lot of it's based on old-school video gaming), but it's undeniable that fans will get the most out of the game. It gets bonus points from me for being balls-to-the wall fun and extremely funny with it. I laughed out loud quite a few times while playing, and for me that makes it worth the price of admission alone.
Losing some points for the frustrating checkpoint decisions and the wobbly camera, Deadpool is a solid 7.5 in my book.