I have played some really, really bad X-Men games in my life. There really have only been a couple of good mutie games throughout the entire existence of home consoles, and not a single good one this generation. It's been nothing but disappointment for X-fans for the past few years. Playing Activision's latest, X-Men Legends, is a lot like day 41 for Noah -- seeing the first ray of sunshine after a whole lot of darkness and downpour is thrilling. While not perfect, Legends does justice to the X-Men franchise and will almost certainly please fans. It's about damn time.
A Tale of X
A four-player dungeon-crawling RPG in the same mold as Baldur's Gate and Champions of Norrath, X-Men Legends begins with Wolverine's arrival in New York city to rescue a young mutant, Allison Crestmere (better known as Magma), who's being hunted by the Brotherhood of Mutants. Saving her sets in motion a series of events that lead to a cataclysmic battle worthy of the X-Men moniker.
Man of Action penned this 20-hour epic, which is a group composed of various comic creators who know the X-Universe like the back of their hand. That knowledge pays off in a very authentic story. Though the character design is clearly taken from the Ultimate X-Men comics, the back-story of each character is rooted in the classic Uncanny series. Things have been shifted around somewhat and the story itself doesn't take place within any one specific continuity (comic or movie), allowing for both an instant familiarity with the characters and their pasts, but also freeing up the writers to create a dramatic X-Men story that isn't beholden to any previous X-events (including the death of Colossus a few years back).
A sizable game worthy of the $50 price tag, X-Men Legends allows gamers to play as fifteen classic X-Men. You'll also run into other mutants who will fight alongside you and there are a few surprise cameos that will put a smile on just about any X-fan's face. Toad, Avalanche, Blob, and Mystique -- characters who rarely make it into X-Men games -- are among the highlighted enemies, though you will also battle other X-staples like Juggernaut, Magneto, and a few other surprise villains I won't spoil for you as well.
If you're not big on the Xers, don't worry, as Legends does a superb job of introducing every little element of the X-Men and their history to the uninitiated through guided tours of Xavier's mansion and optional conversations with NPCs. If you want, you can learn details on more than 20 X-characters, the function of Xavier's Institute, Muir Island, and just about everything else X. If you know this stuff, it's easy to skip or can serve as a nice reminder of what's kept the X-Men in our conscious thoughts for nearly 40 years.
X-Men history has definitely been given a lot of attention in Legends, as there's a sense of a real world here -- one that shows signs of life outside of the events of the game. These characters have lived some interesting lives in the comics and that history is evident throughout the Legends experience. A lot of other X-Men games -- and comic book games in general -- ignore the angst each character feels over relationships or how their powers interfere with a normal life. It's these things -- the personal relationships -- that propelled Marvel beyond DC in the '60s and Legends pays homage to this with allusions to lost loves and deep regrets for various characters. Suffice to say, Legends is a large game packed with X-Men history, factoids, and characters. As a fan of the X-Men since I was a wee lad, Legends is a very satisfying endeavor. Developer Raven Software has done the X-Men justice.
Though you begin the game in control of a single marvelous mutant, by the end of this lengthy adventure, you'll have fifteen other mutants to choose from. Each level allows for a four-character team, though you can switch them up at any X-Traction Point. A few of these checkpoints can be found throughout the very large levels, so you're never stuck with your choice of characters -- and you can keep it pretty lively, interchanging to fit your own tastes or situational needs.
The majority of X-Men favorites are included -- Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Beast, Nightcrawler, Gambit, Rogue, Colossus. And though a few fan faves like Angel didn't make the cut, the roster is robust enough that it's easy to forgive these few omissions. Each character has a set of attributes that can be upgraded as you gain experience too, along with numerous character-specific powers and skills. Cyclops and Storm can build up their leadership skill (which earns bonuses for team combos), Iceman has a frost blast that can freeze enemies (the most useful power in Legends), and Jean Grey can boost her TK powers to toss enemies and furniture around like they were dolls.
Every character earns experience, whether you are using them or not. However, the characters on screen earn more XP than those in reserve. This is a great inclusion, so that you aren't forced to constantly swap characters and you can decide ten hours into the game to finally use Magma or Rogue and not have them completely overpowered by the enemies. There's also a very nice progression of power and stat distribution. Even when you hit the end of the game, you likely won't have fully maxed out every power -- in fact you may not have even placed points into some powers. So you can build your X-Men to fit your style of play and to match the needs of the team, which adds a bit of flexibility to an otherwise standard dungeon-crawler.
Every character also comes equipped with an X-treme power. This power, once unlocked, can be used when you collect four X-treme tokens. These tokens are dropped by enemies and hidden in the numerous destructible objects in the environment. The X-treme powers are really impressive super-moves that, once again, fit each character as if it were tailor-made by a fan. Jean's is the Phoenix Force, which is really an awesome sight. And Cyclops has a massive Optic Blast that has him flipping up his goggles and letting loose with his max power.
X Gonna Give it to Ya
As with other four-player RPG dungeon-crawlers, X-Men Legends places a heavy focus on combat. The one major difference is that you will almost always have four characters doing battle, be they real players or AI-controlled characters. Using the D-Pad, you can hop to any open character and take control, but when not in control, AI characters will attack enemies and can even be called upon to directly attack your current target.
Teamwork is important, more important than I've seen in any other RPG of the same ilk. There are dozens upon dozens of different power combos that can only be achieved by simultaneously attacking an enemy with multiple characters. Freeze and then fry an enemy with Iceman and Magma or have Wolverine go all berserker barrage on an enemy being held in Jean Grey's TK grasp. There are so many combos and it's a real challenge to find them all. While they don't lead to any special visual effects, you will earn extra XP and gain the satisfaction of knowing that you've performed a certain combo (each with an original name). It's like finding gaps in Tony Hawk, though no one thought to come up with a gap list here that can be checked off.
The combat is consistently good. Sometimes it can be challenging, sometimes it's a bit easy, but it's always enjoyable. It gets better, actually, as the game progresses. The more powers you earn, the more energy your characters have to spend (as energy is used to perform your mutant moves), the more insane combat becomes. In the later levels it's a chaotic fury of flashing effects and enemies flying about the screen -- it is awesome.
However, as fun as combat is -- as with other games in the genre -- it is the bulk of gameplay. Sure, Raven has done a nice job of changing up quests throughout each level to keep things interesting, but the basics remain the same throughout -- you go from one room to the next and beat the crap out of different enemies. That isn't going to flip the switch of every player out there, but for a dungeon-crawler, I found Legends to be more enjoyable over a longer period of time than the likes of Norrath or even Hunter the Reckoning (one of my personal faves).
The real shame is that there are very few puzzles or elements that require you to use your powers in any way other than combat. Yes, most levels have one or two "puzzle" spots, denoted by a blue X insignia, that require you to use a power to create a bridge to cross a gap, but it's nothing very creative. In fact, there are really only one or two instances where you need to use a combination of powers to solve a problem. Considering all the time spent on individualizing characters and powers, the characters tend to be a little too interchangeable. Sometimes you should just need Nightcrawler or Iceman or Cyclops -- not as an option, but because the mission just won't work without them.
Death Becomes You
The only crucially bad aspect of combat and of gameplay in general is some of the really annoying deaths that will befall you and your AI teammates. Death, I should mention, is not the end for an X-Man as you can always pay techbits (Legends' form of cash) at a checkpoint to revive a fallen mate. And you will need to do this sometimes as enemies can be tough and, sadly, you will die a few idiotic deaths.
There are some spots where you will fall to your death if you simply get too close to an edge. It may be a deep ice chasm or a small pool of water, but fall and that character dies instantly. It's easy to accidentally knock some of your teammates off bridges just by walking past them (as you brush them to your side). It's sometimes unclear what is a safe environment and what isn't. One pool of toxic sludge will drown you and another is shallow enough to walk through -- but there's little indication, as to which is which. That gets frustrating and while you won't die from these stupid suicides often, it certainly does happen a few times throughout. Your teammates can sometimes kill themselves by accident as well, by falling or jumping off a ledge. Again, it's not often, but through the course of your adventure, I can guarantee this will happen to you at least once.
The other small issues of playing a four-player game on a single box (as opposed to online) remains. When playing with friends, there will be more than a few times that you'll hear, "Hey, I am stuck, come back down," as your buddy gets caught in another room with no way to get to the exit. Even playing alone with the AI (which can be left off-screen to catch up with you on its own), there will be a few times when you or they will get stuck behind something, requiring a few awkward jumps to free yourself. Again, it's nothing that hasn't been seen in other games like this, but it just doesn't seem that raven did much to solve these problems.
It's not all about combat (just mostly). In-between many missions, you'll have the chance to wander the X-Men mansion as Magma. The mansion is recreated just about picture-perfect to the comics, with elevators in the proper spots, rooms for the major characters, and the subbasement, which has a sleek metallic look clearly inspired by the X-movies. You'll find various Xers to speak with if you want to learn about certain story elements or get backstory on the X-Men. You can also look at concept art in Piotr's room (through his sketch book) or practice your skills in the Danger Room.
Most of your mansion time will likely be spent practicing your powers in the Danger Room as there's a significant number of danger room programs, ranked from Freshman on up to Legendary difficulty. These earn your extra experience points and help extend Legends by a few hours (yes, there are that many Danger Room scenarios). You can even relive three classic X-Men adventures here.
There's a lot of X-history in the smallest places. Take equipment for example. Characters can equip different items to increase attributes and regenerate energy and health. But there are also dozens of items from classic X-Men characters. You may find Deathbird's Javelin, Sunfire's Mask, Eric the Red's Armor, or any number of other X-items that the fans will be familiar with. While these items won't actually appear on your character when equipped, they do improve your stats in ways that make sense for the item. It's these little touches that tend to outshine some of the repetitive gameplay elements or random character suicides. Yes, Legends has its problems, but it also has a huge number of pluses.
Don't Play Alone
Legends features a very simple plug-and-play interface that allows a buddy to come in, hit start, and immediately take control of one of the characters on screen. If, during play, they suddenly have to water the garden, just set them inactive and the AI takes control once again. It's that simple. In this way you can easily play alone or with up to three friends at any time. Good for the college life when friends float in and out of the room in half hour stretches.
Along with the hefty single-player game, you can access the Danger Room from the main menu for some extra action. There's Sparring, which allows you to play in different arenas with and against any unlocked X-Man or enemy. Make a team of Mystique, a Sentinel, Juggernaut, and Wolverine and take on Toad, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and an Acolyte Soldier if you like. It's pretty cool, as you have access to all the enemy's different powers. Sure, it's a minor distraction, but a nice one nonetheless.
You can also take on up to three friends in a Skirmish mode. There are four traditional multiplayer game types and you can use any of your unlocked X-Men to battle one another. While playing this on one box isn't nearly as satisfying as it would have been online or through LAN, I'm not one to turn down a nice bonus feature. Sure, the story mode is where it's really at, but these extra modes can offer a little extended life once that story ends.
Comic in Motion
To capture the "comic book feel," Raven Soft chose to go for a cel-shaded look with Legends. It's not that the characters look two-dimensional, but they have very basic textures and a cutout look. In motion, with the camera pulled back, this actually looks very good. The animations, though limited for each character, are fitting and it does feel like a cartoon or comic come to life. But stop the action, such as with the in-game cutscenes, and the heavy black outlines set the characters too much apart from the environment. Everyone has oven mitts for hands and scantly detailed faces.
Legends is by no means an ugly game -- it just isn't near the level of beauty seen in other titles that sought a comic book look. Compared to Viewtiful Joe or Jet Set Radio Future, Legends is miles behind in visual pop or creativity.
The audio is much like the visuals: good but nowhere near great. The dialogue is pretty much straight from a comic book, which is perfect, but the voice acting is spotty. It's about 50/50 good and bad for the voices. Wolverine, Forge, Nightcrawler, and Magneto are terrific, while Beast, Cyclops, and Emma Frost are pretty bad. Of them all, Cyclops is deplorable as he not only sounds wrong, but his dialogue doesn't fit the character at all. How could everything be done with such care only to have Cyclops cracking jokes and sounding like an over-excited kid? There are some strikingly bad lines from the ol' stick-in-the-butt.
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