The second outing for Activision’s X-Men action RPG Legends has landed on store shelves with a bang as loud as one of Sabertooth’s unwelcome entrances. The blitz is in full swing and for the last few weeks it has been impossible to get through any thirty minute program without seeing a commercial with Patrick Steweart’s voiceover touting the game and its unorthodox alliances… but is it worth it? Last year’s title, X-Men Legends, failed to deliver a few essential goods (such as making players actually feel like they are controlling the X-Men) yet managed to deliver a relatively decent and entertaining experience. Does X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse fall to the same fate, or does it rise from the ashes like a Phoenix and deliver a totally immersive X-Men gaming experience that even owners of Mylar-bagged and cardboard-backed, pristine-mint-condition issues #129-137 will rejoice in playing? The answer, dear “Muties,” just might be blowing in the Storm-created wind.
From the story’s outset, players will realize that there’s something not-quite-right going on when three of the X-Men are joined by three of the Brotherhood in a combined effort to rescue Charles Xavier. It is soon revealed that both the X-Men and the evil Brotherhood have formed a temporary pact. They will put aside their differences for the time being in order to handle a much greater threat: a 5000 year old mutant named Apocalypse, the most powerful mutant in existence. Apocalypse has taken over the haven called Genosha and plans to assimilate the powers of all the mutant inhabitants. The story is already much more interesting than the one contained in the original game, and its themes are easy to relate to in reality.
Graphically, the game is only a slight improvement from its predecessor. The characters themselves still look “candy-like” and cel-shaded when up against the contrast of the backgrounds and environments, which appear angled slightly more towards realism. The frame rate, for the most part, remains fluid even when there is a serious melee happening on screen with loads of characters and actions going off. The title does seem to suffer under its own weight in this regard (very similar to the way the RPG Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube suffers), for when there is a ton of things happening on screen it can be difficult to keep track of what your controlled character is doing and where they are doing it (you manually control one character in the party at a time). The map provided on screen will become a good friend when this happens. When all is said and done, the graphic design is only a “point release” improvement over the last, but it is still quite pleasing to the eye.
As for the actual gameplay and control, it is exactly the same as the last game. Your chosen character is manipulated with the left analog (and chosen with the D-Pad), the various moves are done with the usual button combinations. There are a few annoying design decisions with the camera and how it is controlled; the main one that will really annoy you is the fact that the camera will automatically zoom out to fit all the characters on screen at once. This basically turns the game into an interactive ant farm, with the player controlling only one of the visible ants…very confusing and annoying. The game once again is comparable to Tales of Symphonia in the fact that the AI controls all characters other than the one you are currently commanding, and you can tailor the attitudes of the computer controlled characters to a certain extent. Very rarely will you have to, as the game’s AI is thankfully robust. The characters tend to act intelligently for the most part and get the job done with little worry. The whole design does seem to be slanted in favor of the melee combat characters (and melee you will, as the entire title is a straight-up beat-‘em-up with very little along the lines of tactical thought required), as playing with the rangers seems more difficult than it should be, especially in the projectile aiming department.
Managing the character’s traits is also a lot more daunting than it should be. Navigating the game’s menu system is almost a small mini-game in itself. There is a confusing amount of clutter and minutia going on that it would be easy to understand how one could get frustrated with the whole thing. Players are likely to be very far into the game and still frustrated with how clunky the menu system is when you simply want to handle some small character trait. There are five acts in all, with each act culminating in a battle with one of the four horsemen, and then, finally, with Apocalypse. The game is designed for multiplayer co-op, allowing players both on the couch next to you and over Xbox Live to join in the fun. Considering that with a little work you can have sixteen characters at your disposal, playing through the game with friends as different characters each time significantly adds to the game’s replay value. There are also many side challenges to complete and surprises to unlock, including the alter ego of a certain cool exec with a heart of steel!
The really weak point of this title is in its sound design. There are several sets of sound effects that repeat themselves all the time, like the developer ran out of time to create any more. The music is the well-orchestrated mood enhancing variety you would expect, but there isn’t any particular piece that will stick in your head and have you humming for days, much like, say, “One Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII. The voice acting ranges from accurate to fascinating, with an occasional left turn into “why?!” (IE “Why did they have to make Rogue sound like Britney Spears?”).
X-Men Legends II is definitely a title worth players’ time, even with the minor annoyances. There is a great deal of fun to be had controlling the X-Men in such detail with your best bud, and configuring your parties with different characters really adds to the “longer lasting” flavor of the game as a whole. If Raven and Activision decide to continue the franchise, they should be able to iron out some of the game’s minor problems and really deliver a repulser-ray power blast of a game on the next-gen hardware. In the meantime, however, X-Men Legends II more than pays for its fifty-dollar price tag by delivering hours of mutant melee mania.