Get Ready for the Age of Apocalypse

Out of all the American-style comic books out there, I can?t think of any single comic that has had more artistic and literary prestige than that of the X-Men. Feel free to argue with me all you want on this one, but you have to agree, comic fan or not, that they?re quite good for what they are. From the intricacy of the individual characters, to the energy of the artwork, to the gall to take on such a sensitive subject as racism?Okay, I know I?m sounding like a fanboy, but the X-Men have always held a special place in my heart. The games based on the X-Men, however, have been a mixed bag, with the current generation of consoles having plenty of less-than-stellar titles, like X-Men Next Generation and X2: Wolverine?s Revenge. X-Men Legends, however, emerged in 2004 to be the first truly memorably good X-Game for the current generation. Now, it?s a little over a year later, and, as the trend goes for successful games these days, the obligatory sequel has shown up: X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. It certainly is a lot of fun, and those who are eager to find out what happens next in this iteration of the X-Men universe will enjoy it, but it?s not as large of a leap in quality for a sequel as, say, the movie X2: X-Men United was over the first X-Men movie.

It would take too much space to bring those who are unfamiliar with X-Men in the most general sense (all ten of you) up to speed on the famous comic book series, so look them up on Google if you really need to. For the rest, a quick primer ? the X-Men: Legends series is an action-oriented role-playing game (read: hack-and-slash) in the same vein as Icewind Dale and the Baldur?s Gate: Dark Alliance series, except starring everyone?s favorite mutants instead of the usual D&D cast of sword-wielding badasses and brooding wizards. The big question that arises from such a pairing: can the X-Men be used in an action RPG that puts hack-and-slash action before story, without completely butchering the source material? The first X-Men Legends game answered that question with a resounding yes, providing plenty of mutant-powered action-RPG mayhem, without neglecting the complexity of the story of the X-Men. The first game does a good job bringing those not intimately familiar with the X-Men up to speed, with guided tours of Professor X?s mansion, conversations with NPCs (Non-Player Characters), and text files that provide one with the details to know the X-Men universe. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, however, isn?t as kind on the uninitiated. The game?s story assumes you know the events of the first X-Men Legends, and draws upon other, more obscure details of the X-Men universe, such as lesser-known characters (e.g. Polaris, Blink), locations (such as Genosha, Magneto?s private nation for the Brotherhood of Mutants), and events, without providing much explanation for those who are not X-Aficionados. Thusly, understanding the story might be a bit daunting for a newbie to the X-Men.

For those familiar with the X-Men, however, the graphical presentation will not disappoint. All of the characters are rendered in detailed, exquisite polygonal glory, with the character textures taking on a subtle cel-shaded look to give them more of a comic book appearance without appearing too cartoon-like. The environments for each of the levels are visually diverse, from hardened compounds, to frozen tundra, to dense jungle. Within each level itself, though, there?s little variation, even amongst objects that should look different (like explosive barrels, for instance; they look too similar to regular barrels). Each X-Man has a selection of skins that grows as the game progresses, featuring costumes from the various iterations of X-Men, from Ultimate, to the original Uncanny, and more, which will definitely please the die-hard X-Fan. The combat sounds just like it should, with whacks, punches, kicks, and the flashy sounds of mutant powers filling the air. The voice acting is, quite simply, awful, and horribly overacted with lines so clich? as to induce cringing. The only decent voice acting in the game is from Patrick Stewart as Professor X, who can take almost any role and make it sound cool.

While using the X-Men in a game isn?t exactly an original concept, nor is the button-mashing hack-and-slash action of Baldur?s Gate: Dark Alliance, it is the combination of these two elements that make the X-Men Legends series original. Rather than feeling like a clich? hack-and-slasher, the usage of the X-Men universe lends some depth to this RPG subgenre, seeking to destroy narrow genre limitations. I must admit, in this genre, playing the X-Men alongside their antiheroic counterparts, the Brotherhood of Mutants, oozes a certain amount of cool that just can?t be ignored. More than once I thought of how Magneto could wipe the floor with many a D&D warrior (ones with metal equipment, anyway). The same can?t be said for what hack-and-slash does for the X-Men, however ? some of the adaptations for the mutant powers in X-Men Legends II just seem like they were turned into analogs for generic fantasy magic and weapons. Magneto has a ?beam? attack (a beam attack?) for example, and some abilities are even labeled as ?debuffs.?

At least the way the actual combat is structured in-game is fun, albeit flawed. You get two basic melee attack buttons, a jump button which you can press twice for flying, and mutant powers hot-keyed to right trigger-face button combinations. The two basic attacks can be strung together to form combos, and each character has different combos with different effects, including mutant power usage and air combos, making for a fairly involved melee combat system. Things get dicey in the control department, with various nitpickings whittling away from the initially solid setup. In the air, while you can guide where you?re going just fine, using the X and Y buttons to control one?s altitude is a bit awkward. Flying off a steep drop-off into an instant-death bottomless pit suddenly causes your character to drop like a stone, which results in death unless you push the altitude-raising button right away. Aerial dive attacks (by pressing B) almost never go where you want them to go, and around the above mentioned pits it?s easy to kill yourself. Feedback to the player isn?t the clearest in the world, with the life bar of only the enemy you?re currently attacking being displayed, and only vague voiceovers telling you when your character is low on health and energy. Some powers, such as levitation with Magneto and Jean Grey, are hard to perform in the middle of combat, with so much going on that it?s hard to tell where you?re guiding the object (or hapless enemy). Lastly, assigning mutant powers to the right trigger-face button combinations isn?t as flexible as hoped.

Talk of powers brings us to the underlying mechanics of the game. Like any RPG, in X-Men Legends II all of the combat is dependent upon the stats assigned to each character. There are four basic stats: Strike, Speed, Body, and Focus, and from here the capabilities of the X-Men and their Brotherhood counterparts are determined ? those specializing in melee combat (the ?tanks?) would have high Body and Strike, while the ranged power specialists that hang back and attack from afar would have high Focus. Although this makes for a nice system at the start, it can lead to what I call ?analysis paralysis,? which is my term for what happens when you agonize over how to better your characters. Sure, the ranged characters need their energy points, but eventually every character is going to be involved in melee combat, when enemies literally surround your party. Running out of energy points for a tank-type character isn?t good either, as it would kill one?s ability to do character combo attacks (which we?ll get to in a bit). Analysis paralysis also applies to mutant powers ? each of the descriptions for the powers in the game makes them all sound good in theory, but as you will learn the hard way later in the game, some of them turn out to be not useful at all

Auto-distribution, which allows the game to automatically distribute your equipment and skill points, is pretty much a necessity for the one area where a player would get the most out of this game ? online. Although definitely playable in single-player, the experience is marred by AI that is mostly competent but screws up in critical areas. Setting the AI mode for your three teammates to Aggressive does its job a bit too well ? rather than staying with the group, when there?s an enemy in the next room the poor saps set to Aggressive mode will charge in ahead of you, leaving you behind even when the enemy is far away. Normal is pretty well balanced, while Defensive pretty much makes the character a pacifist unless either attacked, or told to attack a target. Telling an AI to attack a target can be a chancy affair, since the left trigger that you use to tell an AI to attack a target is the same trigger you use to call for a regroup when AIs stray too far. The game tries to gauge what you mean out of context, by usually choosing that you mean the enemy you just attacked, but more than once for me the AI attacked another target, or took it as a regroup order. When characters are under AI, the aforementioned character combo attacks usually happen by accident or when you actually do get an AI to attack the target you want, so, with all of the above in mind, the only way to truly enjoy the game?s main campaign is multiplayer, with four people, either sharing the same console or playing online together, each playing one character. In multiplayer, X-Men Legends II suddenly becomes much more enjoyable, with in-depth strategies becoming much more possible to plan and execute, combo attacks a reality, and swarms of enemies much easier to negotiate, with the ability to directly position where the tanks and ranged characters would go. It is in this area where the game truly shines, as some (though not all) of the previous flaws are lessened.

Being the X-Fan I am, I really, really wanted to rate X-Men Legends II higher, especially considering how the X-Men are used in an original way here. Even though the core experience is enjoyable, there are too many little annoyances and omissions that pile up together to bring it down. Since X-Men Legends II is the second game in the series, such small flaws are all that much more noticeable. While the game is terrific, the X-Men really deserve better than a sequel that only makes small, checklist jumps in quality.

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