On the face of it, Deadpool’s a fine fit for a videogame. The wisecracking comic book antihero is as capable with a firearm as with the twin blades in his hands. He can get around at speed, too, with a double jump and teleportation powers. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, meaning High Moon can use a barrage of jokes to, at best, distract from the mediocrity of this thirdperson action game or, at worst, excuse it.
After a short intro in which Deadpool is introduced to the uninitiated as a cheerfully puerile fart-joking man of action – wandering around his apartment pointing out hollow props and even making a small deposit in his bathroom – we’re dropped into a sewer for a tutorial. From the command to “see what the A button does” onwards, it’s made repeatedly, wearingly clear that Deadpool doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as smash his head into its every component brick until it shatters, barely pausing for High Moon to replace it before doing it again, and again. This makes sense in a comic book setting, where Deadpool is a refreshing counterpoint to scores of po-faced, latex-clad peers. In a videogame, it needs to be handled delicately.
There is evidence here of the developer’s gentle hand. Deadpool – voiced by a barely recognisable Nolan North – knows he’s in a videogame, and is in regular contact with High Moon president Peter Della Penna. When an early chapter ends with a explosion-filled CG cutscene, the next begins as a top-down 8bit-style dungeon crawler, and our hero takes an angry phone call in which he’s told he’s squandered his budget.
Deadpool frequently speaks to the player, offering advice during combat and chiding them at the game over screen. Videogame references come thick and fast. Activision’s cash cow is lampooned in a slow-mo breach and clear section that Deadpool introduces by saying: “Time for a spot of cross-promotion.” There are nods to pop culture, too, with our hero checking in, Foursquare-style, to a boss arena. One tooltip references the Rickroll; one weapon description ends with #YOLO.
For every joke that hits there are half a dozen that miss, and Deadpool’s casual chauvinism starts out grating and gets steadily worse. He’s a lecherous presence, the camera switching to firstperson whenever a woman’s onscreen and zooming in tightly on the predictable points of interest. He calls one fallen female boss “hot tits”; there are jokes about necrophilia and motorboating. A pair of hefty sledgehammers, we’re told, “knock the meat out of bitches”. There’s a ‘that’s what she said’ joke, for pity’s sake. We’re no strangers to misogyny and misfiring jokes in videogames, of course, but they’re rarely delivered with such gusto or at such a wearingly breakneck pace.
When Deadpool’s not ogling breasts, cracking wise or talking to the player, he’s mocking the developer. On paper, these moments are ripe for comic potential. In practice, they serve only to highlight, as if by way of apology, dull design. Take our ascent up the side of a skyscraper, in which we pull a lever to make a window cleaner’s elevator rise a few floors, jump to another and repeat. One of Deadpool’s split personalities – the deep-voiced, serious one – asks if we’re sure this is the right way. “The designers wouldn’t have put ’em here if they didn’t want us to use ’em,” comes the reply. When a trudge through the dreary sewer system is completed, Deadpool emerges into the daylight and chides the developer: “No more sewers, High Moon.”
It would be tolerable if the systems at Deadpool’s core were good enough, but this is a hybrid thirdperson combat game and shooter in which neither element is done well. Gunplay is clunky, with imprecise hit detection and recoil (among the few things that can’t be improved in the upgrade menus). The light-light-heavy combat system isn’t without merit – there’s some depth here with dodge and jump cancels – but your options are limited, with three melee weapons and a paltry moveset for each. The whole thing is hamstrung by a camera so bad even Ninja Gaiden-era Tomonobu Itagaki would think it needs fixing. It’s wayward enough in open arenas; take the action inside and the only proof that you’re hitting anything comes in rivers of claret spurting from offscreen foes. You’re told you can use guns mid-combo, but do so and Deadpool shoots right into the centre of the screen, a system obviously introduced on the assumption the camera would work.
Some instafail stealth sections aside, it’s smooth sailing until the final third of the game, when enemies ramp up in health, number and damage output while checkpoints are yanked farther and farther apart and the whole thing becomes a slog. But it’s not in its mechanics, camera or misfiring wit that Deadpool really unravels: its fate is ultimately sealed by a single button. Tap B and our hero teleports a short distance to safety, but that same button also performs a Batman: Arkham Asylum-style counter. Too often, instead of retreating to let your health recharge, you’re plunged right back into trouble. Late on, you’ll also press B to trigger a weapon-specific takedown on a stunned enemy. These canned animations might instantly kill a foe, but they have no invincibility, so you’ve got no option but to take damage from the rest of the mob while they play out. Oddly, this is one design sin Deadpool lets pass without comment.
And therein lies the problem with breaking videogames’ fourth wall: it can only work if the systems underpinning it are beyond reproach. While we’ll accept that Deadpool the character is an acquired taste, this is an indisputably poor game, one whose knowing winks and quips come off not as metacommentary but as tacit apologia for its litany of specific failings.
Deadpool is out now on 360. PC and PS3. 360 version tested.