Comic books would seem to be the perfect breeding ground for video games. After all, they have extremely detailed storylines with plenty of fleshed out characters and tons of action. Regrettably, history has not proven this to be the case, as plenty of horrendous titles have been produced with comic book tie-ins. Perhaps no one understands this better than X-Men fans, who’ve suffered through plenty of abysmal side scrolling and 3D action titles. In fact, it’s arguable that the only decent titles featuring these popular heroes have been the numerous arcade fighters that they’ve been appeared in. That is, until now, because Activision has delivered a title that faithfully represents the X-Men Universe. Gather your team together, because it’s time to take on X-Men Legends.
Perhaps one of the strongest facets that sets Legends apart from previous titles is its extremely solid storyline. Composed by Man of Action, a four man team of former and current X-Men staff writers, the plot of Legends could’ve been ripped directly from Marvel’s pages. Set in the Ultimate X-Men Universe, Legends also draws heavily from other iterations of the series, primarily that of the Uncanny X-Men. While the focus of the game centers around Allison Crestmere, better known to X-Men and New Mutants fans as Magma, Legends quickly expands into an ambitious tale of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal set against an ever darkening backdrop of potential mutant warfare against humanity spurred on by Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants.
Players start the game off shortly after Allison’s powers have been triggered in an act of self-defense, leading to her capture by Blob and Mystique. Professor X, sensing a threat to the young mutant, dispatches Wolverine to rescue Allison. This initial level serves as an intro to the basic controls for each character in the game. Although you’ll start off with just one character, after prolonged play you’ll start fielding teams of four mutants from the 15 total X-Men in all, ranging from original characters like Beast and Iceman to newer favorites such as Gambit and Jubilee. Each hero has a light and heavy attack, both of which can be strung together to create a number of combos, including stunning attacks, trips and juggles up into the air. Characters will also be able grab enemies to throw into objects or trigger their powers. Initially each mutant has one ability, although you’ll be able to unlock three other offensive or stat boosting talents. For instance, players can fire off one of Cyclops’ optic beams or one of Storm’s lightning bolts at any target. Powers wind up using a certain amount of mutant energy, which can be completely exhausted with continual use. While your energy will regenerate over time (or restored faster with energy potions), players won’t be able to unfairly blow through the game by constantly using their abilities.
In the field, you’ll be able to control just about every facet of your team, setting the aggressiveness of their personalities, the powers that they’ll use in battle and when they’ll heal themselves. What’s more impressive is that you’ll be able to switch between any hero on your team at will by tapping a direction on the directional pad. This has a multitude of uses in the midst of battle, such as taking over characters that need medical attention immediately. It can also be used to trigger power combos, attacks where two X-Men use their powers in concert to inflict extra damage upon a target. For instance, Iceman can freeze a guard before Colossus charges him, which usually dishes out lots of pain on your opponent and provides both participants with an experience bonus.
After you accumulate enough experience points, you’ll level up, which gives you points that you can allocate to your core statistics. Each character’s stats govern their total attack and defensive strength, as well as their health and mutant energy stores. Players will also receive a number of points to acquire or upgrade their mutant abilities, strengthening each hero and their contributions to the team. Once you’ve hit level 15, you’ll have the option to “buy” access to each character’s X-Treme power, a super powerful attack that usually creates a large circular swath of destruction around them. Due to the strength of these attacks, you actually have to acquire tokens before you can trigger these abilities. Fortunately, other X-Men not in use also acquire experience as well, albeit at a reduced rate, so you’ll never really run into a situation where your mutants won’t be able to handle the odds thrown at them. This way you can specifically tailor your strike forces based on your personal style of play.
Along the massive campaign, which covers a large amount of X-Men territory as far as villains, scenarios and locations goes, you’ll also wind up dealing with flashback missions to classic X-Men episodes. As you go along attempting to accomplish the multiple objectives set in each mission, you’ll acquire health and energy potions, as well as “tech bits,” metallic pieces of currency that can be traded to revive fallen teammates or for equipment. While it may not seem important to powerful mutants, this gear provides additional status boosting effects, and comic book fans will be able to keep an eye out for “unique” items, such as the Hammer of Nimrod or Black Tom’s Cane. If you pay extra attention (or you spend time trying to destroy everything in the fully interactive environment), you may stumble upon secret items like Danger Room discs and Sketch book pages that unlock galleries or individual battles that players can take on to further boost your heroes’ experience levels.
Considering that the content of the game is taken out of the pages of comic books, it’s rather appropriate that the look of the game is cel-shaded. Vibrant and well drawn, the impression that the graphics convey are very similar to a comic come to life. Levels themselves are pretty detailed, and considering that most, if not almost all of the items within these maps can be destroyed, the game does a great job depicting the potential widespread damage heroes and villains can dish out to an area. Mutant powers are beautifully animated, and the animated effects from explosions or triggered abilities are impressive. There are a few hiccups that can be found within the game, however, that keeps the quality of the graphics from being outstanding. While the camera can be controlled and rotated at will, the camera can get stuck in a number of bad places that don’t fully depict the action that’s happening onscreen. Secondly, some objects won’t fade out as they’re supposed to so players can potentially get attacked by enemies they can’t see. Players may experience a certain amount of slowdown, primarily when a lot of characters are onscreen and many are trying to trigger their abilities at the same time.
If you've ever read a comic book, you've become accustomed to the numerous action words that punctuate each panel during a fight. Legends does a pretty accurate job of transferring these sounds into the game, with tons of sound effects for powers being unleashed and the destruction caused. There's a rising and falling soundtrack that accompanies battle sequences, but a large amount of this will be drowned out by the sounds of combat. There's quite a bit of voiceover work throughout Legends, but only a few characters are exceptional. Wolverine, Magneto (voiced by veteran voice over actor Tony Jay) and Patrick Stewart's Professor X probably have the best deliveries of the whole game. Other characters, like Rogue or Cyclops, are completely horrible. Rogue, in particular, was extremely bad because her Southern accent, which wasn't great to begin with, kept disappearing as she spoke. This made her character less believable or interesting.
There are a couple of other features within Legends that extends the longevity of the game somewhat, providing a little more depth for gamers. For instance, there's a trivia mini-game included that tests your X-Men knowledge. Successfully answering questions nets your characters experience which you can use to level your heroes up. However, if you're not a fan, you might not have as easy a time with these as you'd think. The downside to this is that X-Men geeks will fly through these without a problem, and since there's only about forty or so questions, the feature gets stale. There's also a Danger Room skirmish feature outside of the main story which allows you to pit any four game characters you've encountered, good or bad, up against a team of four other characters. This means that you can literally build a team of Juggernaut, Iceman, Blob and Wolverine against anyone else you wish within the holographic confines of the training facility. This can be fun, especially because you can experiment with the powers of other characters outside of the X-Men team, but it might've been a bit better if players could completely customize their Danger Room experience instead of it turning into a free for all fight.
Multiplayer has also been included, allowing up to four players the option to jump in at any time and join in the fight. All a gamer has to do is plug in an extra controller, hit start and they'll take over one of the onscreen heroes. What's also extremely cool is that these players can enter and exit the game at any time, so your progress is never hampered if your friend has to leave for any extended period of time. However, there are three pitfalls to the multiplayer experience. First of all, you'll inevitably get stuck with the constant "hey, wait..I'm stuck" running commentary because the game of the action could potentially leave a co-op player behind. The second is that there are a number of sequences, particularly Magma's mansion exploration levels, where extra players have to sit on the sidelines as the first player runs her through the X-Mansion. This can be extremely boring for these gamers, considering that some of these sequences can last for a number of minutes. Finally, the difficulty level can be a little significant with each additional player, especially on later levels. Gamers have to share from the communal pool of health and energy potions, which can quickly be sapped if you run into some of the stronger enemies in the game with ill prepared friends.
On top of this, the game suffers from three significant design issues. One is the startling lack of sense your AI will demonstrate at times. It's all too easy to see a computer controlled X-Man commit suicide by walking off a cliff into a pit or into an electrified pool of water when they should automatically avoid this. This can be rather frequent, so players may want to get used to reloading or have plenty of tech bits to resurrect characters with. Your teammates also won't go out of their way to trigger power combos on their own. Instead, you basically have to constantly call for them to use their powers, which is slightly counterintuitive.
The second issue is that while the game essentially gives you a number of heroes with a lot of diverse powers, the overwhelming advantages of Wolverine and Iceman practically ensure that you'll keep them in two of your party slots at all times. Wolverine is continually useful because he can regenerate energy and health quickly, and in the midst of a complete slaughter of your team, most players can drag his beaten carcass back to a save point to restore or add new team members. Iceman, on the other hand, is always useful because he can slow down opponent's attack speed and movements, allowing other characters to have a couple of free shots at them. By combining these two strengths, most gamers can whip through a lot of opponents, meaning the other two slots are simply filler.
Finally, there's a huge issue with collision detection within the game. It's possible to lose items, opponents or even teammates as they get stuck within the level architecture of a certain map. While this often happens in the midst of battle, this can also occur during normal navigation, which can destroy any progress that you can make in a game. For instance, on the Arbiter level, one of the sailors that I tried to rescue became stuck inside of a wall, which made it impossible to move onto the next part of the ship. Off to the reload screen. Ditto during some fights. One Sentinel managed to knock Cyclops into a building, where he promptly fell through the game world and immediately died. It doesn't happen all of the time, but when it does occur, it's extremely annoying.
However, even with the technical snafus that sometimes plague Legends, this is still the best X-Men title ever produced. The Action/RPG elements are nicely integrated within an epic storyline with plenty of intrigue and a huge amount of gameplay that can take 20 hours or more to fully complete. Comic book fans will rejoice at having a title in their collection that finally does a renowned franchise justice.