In 2001, Capcom was in quite a bind. The next-generation of systems started to make its presence, and the venerable Mega Man X series was without a sequel for the past three years.
The PlayStation 2 promised better technology and thus greener pastures for developers, but the PlayStation still held the marketplace in a stranglehold. So similar to their commitment to Nintendo?fs NES ten years before with the classic Mega Man games, Capcom decided to stick with the PS1 and made Mega Man X5. While not the best X game, it was a decent effort despite the introduction of several nuisances designed to add artificial challenge.
X6 should have been the leap forward the series needed, but barely a few months after the release of X5, it was on display at E3 for the PS1. I could just imagine the thinking behind the rush job (translated from Japanese): ?gHey, X has Zero?fs saber! We?fve got a game! Let?fs print some money!?h Six months later, out it came to unleash terror on unsuspecting gamers. Unfortunately, X6 was the worst X game to come along (what?fs with the ?g6?h curse in Mega Man games?) and forced Capcom to- finally- go back to the drawing board.
With the release of notable series?f such as Onimusha and Devil May Cry, Capcom finally began to get a handle on 3D action games. The groundbreaking decision to take the X series to 3D manifested itself almost two years later in Mega Man X7 for the PlayStation 2. Several questions immediately arose: Would this game bring credibility back to a series long overdue? Would it make the transition to 3D as well as recent games like Metroid Prime? And would X finally quit bitching about having to fight? Let?fs find out.
Unlike the regular Mega Man games, the X series has a continuous and somewhat convoluted storyline. In X7, a rogue group of ?gMaverick hunters?h called Red Alert Syndicate deviates from their vigilante idealism. Axl, a young member of Red Alert, has issues with their changes and breaks from the group. Meanwhile, Zero is investigating an incident along a recognizable highway, and runs into the young upstart. Wanting to do only good, Axl joins up with the ?gMaverick hunters?h. However, Axl seems to be hiding more than a few secrets regarding his past and his abilities.
Graphically, X7 takes a bold leap with its new 3D direction. With the switch to polygons X7 benefits in a few ways, but loses out in several others. The character models look close to their sprite-based predecessors, with ?gcel-shaded outlining?h to give each one an anime-like quality (and not blend into the background). However, the character models are bland in quality with slightly blurry textures- especially in close-ups- and capture little of the emotion that the 2D characters had. Some of the bosses have more detail in their appearance- with Soldier Stonekong (yes, that?fs his name) being a standout. The characters don?ft even have their human-like nuances like blinking or breathing; that?fs blasphemy in a Mega Man game! The animation makes up for the plain characters and each one- right down to the most insignificant enemy- move with the fluidity of their 2D precursors. The cinemas are a highlight, with an amine-inspired look that leaps out of the screen.
The graphics of the stages are competent, if not all that exciting. The lighting effects are nice, with good fire and plasma-shot effects. However, some of the effects are glitchy or downright terrible. Lava looks like polygon patchwork from earlier PS1 games, enemies sometimes appear out of proportion to their environment (a glitch that makes small enemies look to be larger than platforms, etc.) and some of the 3D stages are simple-looking. The worst part is the rampant slowdown that plagues the game for sometimes no apparent reason. The graphics do not appear to tax the hardware, and yet things will slow to a crawl when there are only a couple of characters onscreen. Sometimes, the game looks like a first-generation PS2 game trapped in a three-year development cycle.
Sound is an important aspect of the Mega Man games, and X7 is no different. The soundtrack of the X games is always a highlight, and X7 stays true with its use of guitars and bouncy beats. It may not inspire confidence like X1 or pump you up like X2, but there are several great tracks. In particular, the boss battle theme is reminiscent of the remixed versions of classic MM themes from the arcade games in terms of instrumentation. The actual use of sound effects is solid. Each character footstep resounds with a robotic ?gthump?h, sword thrusts have a laser-type ?gswish?h that cuts through the air, and plasma shots sound nice. Some of the background sounds do jumble up with each other at times, resulting in a loud echoing if the same sound effects.
An important thing to mention is the voice acting. X7 marks the return of English voice acting not seen since X4. Perhaps it was best left in the past. Axl sounds like a sitcom-like brat and Zero sounds like a gravelly, war-ravaged veteran. X and Alia seem closest to character, but hearing X cry out ?gStop it!?h nearly every other time he takes a shot is painful. Whatever past trauma he?fs reacting to, I hope he someday gets the therapy he needs. There is the available option of Japanese voices, and it is highly recommended.
The X games are known for being the more complex in terms of manipulating the controller, but X7 will take a good few efforts to effectively learn to play the game. In addition to the dash, jump and weapon buttons, there are now: two buttons that handle 3D camera movement (which I?fll pick on later), a button to swap characters and another button to lock-on enemies. Playing as Axl for example, you may have to hover while locking onto an enemy and firing. This may seem daunting at first, but you do get the hang of things in time. One slight negative is the timing of jumps. Because of the switch to polygons, the characters now have a slightly floaty feel when leaping. In time, jumping becomes second nature.
Gameplay is where X7 drops the ball a bit. The change from two-dimensions to 3D brings several new adjustments to the X series, but many aren?ft expected or appreciated. The biggest change is the ability to now control your character in a ?gtrue?h 3D environment. You can move around in 360-degrees of freedom, but the game limits you to certain boundaries. More often than not you will not have control of the camera buttons to create a good viewpoint, which often creates awkward situations to navigate. And when you do have control of the camera, their use is sometimes a hazard in close combat- especially in the heat of battle with a boss. Remember the lock-on button? Well it?fs almost useless. When approaching an enemy, the game automatically locks-on for you. Moving your character changes the target as much as jamming on the button, which is frustrating. The 2D sections- rendered in polygons- are more maneuverable and benefit from unique camera angles as an effect of the aesthetics switch.
Another change is the introduction of Axl, the newest character in the X series. He plays like a hodgepodge of several characters, with the hover abilities of X (a la X5), a gun that fires plasma shots, and the now-standard mid-air dash. Zero also sports some changes to accommodate the switch to 3D. The main change involves his Z-Saber, which can now deflect enemy shots. He also has a dashing stab move, as well as a mid-air slash that wraps around his body. Immediately, you have access to his double-jump and mid-air dash, which are definitely needed in the beginning. X is also playable, but has to be ?gunlocked?h to be used. X plays most like his predecessors, with the added option of upgrading his abilities via the familiar Dr. Light capsules. And yes, he does complain about having to fight, but at least he knows he has to.
With the addition to the roster comes the new option of swapping characters during gameplay. Last seen in X3 and Mega Man Xtreme 2, you have the ability to switch between two chosen heroes anytime during a level- including bosses. This is a nice feature, as some parts of levels are tailor-made for double jumping or hovering. There are some negatives to this, though. Switching guys can leave you vulnerable to cheap hits and reduces your brief period of invincibility after hits. Also, one character running out of health leads to both characters dying and having to restart the section of the level, which I consider cheap.
X7 also brings back two additions seen in X5 and X6: the tedious saving of reploids, and the ?gchip?h system. In every stage, several reploids need to be rescued from impending danger (such as standing next to a fire-breathing dragon, or standing next to a time bomb). Rescuing these reploids gives you health and various power-up items at the end of the stage. Some even give you ?gchips?h to increase your power, speed and weapon abilities. With these added powers, your firepower and agility give you an edge over your opponents.
major complaint concerning gameplay is the amount of cheap hits that result from the new 3D environments. In past games you could blame deaths on your own incompetence, but not so with X7. Enemies can now surround and fire on you from all different angles, and you often don?ft have the ability to defend all directions at once. This can lead to some nasty- and unnecessary- hits. Another new aspect is the addition of ?gphysics?h to character hits. In the past games, a hit would push your character back a bit. In X7, this is taken to another level with the ability to be knocked backwards in mid-air, and then bounce off platforms as you fall. This leads to unwarranted deaths.
Of special note are the bosses. It is easy for most publications, Mega Man haters and some Mega Man fans to take shots at Capcom?fs lack of innovation or sense when it comes to the boss names (the American X5 had Mavericks named after Guns ?eN?f Roses members, for Christ sakes!). X7 sees such delights as Tornado Tonion, Ride Boarski (which gave me bad flashbacks of Turbo Man from MM7) and Vanishing Gungaroo. These aren?ft the worst in the series, but Capcom is obviously running out of ideas. Perhaps X8 will honor new Guns ?eN?f Roses members with Buckethead Rooster, or more animals like Galloping Zebraploid, Rabidus Squirrel and Dungfling Monkey.
The actual levels are a crapshoot in design and creativity. The 3D stages are little more than polygon versions of levels from past games. Some stages are extremely short- lasting only a minute with a few steps- and are unnecessary. The few opportunities that take advantage of the new perspective are hampered from the creators?f lack of ability to take chances with such occasions. One example involves a somewhat cool boss battle with Spine Anteater on a 3D glass tube. He can move completely around the tube to attack you, but you are restricted to moving around where the camera can see you. This is not only cheap, but shows another ?grisk?h that was not taken.
Like most of the X series, X7 is one challenging game. Much of that challenge comes from maneuvering the new 3D levels, but more often comes from swarms of enemies that need to be skillfully handled. Those new to the series might have a tough time getting acclimated to the controls and handling the various perspectives, but it won?ft be a cakewalk for X veterans, either. Having to rescue the reploids to gain abilities feels tacked-on to artificially add challenge to the game. The boss battles are as familiar as ever, as you need to spot their attack patterns and strike with the right weapons to stand a chance. Later levels up the difficulty a bit, but can be overcome with the right characters and powered-up abilities.
This would all be debatable if X7 wasn?ft fun to play. Despite the knocks, this game does show its pedigree with the tried-and-true gameplay and challenge egging you on to finish the game. The story, while a little weak, does keep you looking forward to the next level. And once you get the hang of the controls, there is fun to be had blasting through stages in that familiar Mega Man way. There?fs not much incentive to continue playing after the game is finished, save playing as all the characters from the get-go.
In general, much of Mega Man X7 seems like a half-baked game. I admire Capcom for taking chances with the X formula, but the overall experience leaves room for improvement. The storyline is decent, but suffers from slight predictability. The graphics look dated and simple with odd amounts of slowdown, despite some nice animation. The music is as solid as ever, but the other audio aspect range from average (sound effects) to bad (most character voices). The control is as complex, with the addition of new- and sometimes useless- buttons to take advantage of the 3D perspective. There was potential for new additions to the gameplay that could truly take the X series to the next level, but the end result is a slightly awkward 3D system with levels of varying challenge but few risks. Much of these complaints are fixable, and will result in an immensely-improved Mega Man X8 (you know it?fs coming!). Despite these niggles, Mega Man X7 is a good effort to freshen up an almost-dying series. It is eerily similar to how Mega Man 7 made most people forget the abysmal MM6. In that sense, Capcom?fs tinkering with the formula is appreciated and has fans looking forward to future installments in the series. It looks like that much-needed trip to the drawing board could be the start of a new, exciting era in the Mega Man X series.