Review by JIrish

"Not a legendary start, but not a bad one"

Doing a good comic book video game is a very tricky beast. Manufacturers and developers have been trying since the medium was in it's infancy, with Parker Bros bringing Superman to the early home platforms like the Atari 2600. Since then we've been subjected to turkeys like X-Men for the NES, to near perfection like Capcom's arcade fighters, and an awful lot of stuff right in the middle ground. So far, Activision has had a pretty good track record with Marvel's characters, especially Spider-Man, while their X-Men efforts have either been 3D fighters that borrowed from various other titles, and a couple action/adventure games, one on the GBA and a solo Wolverine effort tying in with the second movie. X-Men Legends is the first time they've broken new ground themselves with the property, this time giving us a hybrid of action and role playing elements. With a script by a group of comic writers dubbed "Man of Action" and developed by Raven Software, this is a promising start that doesn't reach as far as many, myself included, would have liked.

We open the story with the "Mutant Menace" driving humanity absolutely mad. Riots are everywhere, as those born with something extra in their genetic code are feared, hated and hunted by normal humans. The focus lands on New York City, where a young girl named Alison Crestmere is being apprehended by a riot squad. The Brotherhood of Mutants, a radical fringe group led by Magneto, comes calling for Alison, as do the X-Men in the form of the ever-popular guy with the funky Ginsu knives, Wolverine. Alison's powers go wild, the Brotherhood carries her off, and Wolverine is in hot pursuit. You take control of him, and Cyclops, the X-Men's leader, eventually joins up with you in your pursuit. The game eventually encompasses a radical general reviving the Sentinels (robotic mutant hunters), numerous adversaries including a couple surprises for fans of the comics, a trio of flashback missions reflecting famous eras of comic book history, and a lot of attention to detail.

The game does not adhere to any one version of the continuity, instead borrowing from places here and there. The line-up of X-Men is mostly current, with only one playable character no longer a part of the books at the moment. The design of the X-Mansion, your home base between missions, takes from the original comics, except for the sub-basement which is heavily influenced by the movie version. The overall look of the majority of characters is direct from "Ultimate X-Men," Marvel's retooling of the series with modern origins for it's characters. Some stuff is completely original; for example, the aforementioned Alison Crestmere adopts the codename Magma in the game, while in the comics her name was simply Amara.

Regardless of the changes, the game's story gels pretty well as a whole, though there are a couple of "what the" moments here and there. Without spoiling anything major, I'll just say that Wolverine, with his heightened senses, falls for something very early on that he shouldn't have. Those minor moments, though, are it, and the game really feels like an X-Men comic.

This isn't a comic book review, of course, so here's what you're doing in the game. Most of your time is spent in the field with a squad of four X-Men that you pick from a pool of available characters. You start with eight to chose from in your first full mission, and you gradually unlock more as the game goes on. The roster includes almost everyone you'd expect, from Iceman and Jean Grey, to Nightcrawler and Colossus, to Gambit and Rogue. The game boasts fifteen playable characters in all, though one of them can only be played in certain missions. Each character has their basic attacks, can pick up and throw most objects and even a few enemy characters, and jump. Saving the game, as well as changing your team and buying items with in-game currency called tech bits, is done at an "Xtraction Point," which is basically a large glowing X on the ground. You can also bring up a map, small or large, via the game's menu, though there is no in-game compass.

Since this is a super-hero game, it wouldn't be complete with powers. Each character has four abilities that they can use in combat. Iceman, for example, has a cold beam that slows enemies down and even freezes them at higher levels; one that allows him to throw ice spikes; a third that gives him a defensive boost from a suit of ice armor for a brief time; and a fourth, X-Treme power that damages and freezes an entire screen of enemies and does heavy damage. All of these powers take a certain amount of energy, measured by a blue bar underneath a character's health bar. This energy restores slowly over time on it's own, and you can speed it along with an energy booster. Characters also have passive powers and abilities. Using Iceman again as an example, he can add ice damage to his regular punches and kicks, and he can also increase the likelihood that his ranged attacks will deal critical damage, among other abilities.

But you don't get to play with all of those at first. You have to build them from the ground up, leveling up your characters and making them more powerful. You mostly accomplish this from defeating enemies and accomplishing your goals in missions, but even if a character isn't participating in a mission, he or she will get some experience. This allows you to basically mix and match your X-Men to suit the needs of a particular mission. You can also boost your characters attack and defense strength, their health and their energy, in addition to the automatic boosts to these stats at each level-up.

The customization doesn't end there, though. You can also equip armor and other various items to further even the playing field. Some items will strike familiar chords with fans of the comic books, such as the cane of long-time villain Black Tom, or the mask of former X-Men member Sunfire. You don't actually get to see these items equipped on the characters while doing battle, but these nods to other characters is nice.

Controlling the X-Men isn't all that difficult. Switching between characters is accomplished with a quick push of the directional pad, pointing in the indicated direction on a diagram with the faces of your team's members on it. You only control one character at a time, though up to four players can jump in and play as a member each. Mutant powers are toggled on by holding the R trigger down, and pressing the appropriate button uses them. Flying with the three characters who can fly takes a bit of getting used to, especially since the full controls for flight are never really explained in the manual. And there's a couple of instances in the game where you either don't know how to do what you need to do, or you do know what you're supposed to do, like on the fourth mission, but doing it is a pain in the rear. Again, I'm not going to spoil anything, but you'll probably know them when you see them.

The game's difficulty seems a little uneven. Some parts are an absolute breeze, while others are like pulling teeth. One area early on in the game will drive you crazy if you don't know where you can and can't jump. You can tip the scales back in your favor, if need be, by doing some training in the Danger Room, a holographic simulation facility. Harder Danger Room "classes" can be found as compact discs scattered throughout missions. You can also find concept art from the game, and comic books that grant permanent stat boosts to the character featured on the cover. You can't read these comic books, or else there wouldn't be all that much room for the game! It's also worth noting that, except in the case of basic, non-character specific discs for the Danger Room, if you miss one of these special items on a mission, you do not get a second chance to get it.

The environments are pretty well done from an interactivity point of view. Lots of stuff you can break to find items, or create new paths. You can destroy entire rooms, walls and all, at a few points. Not every character can pick up every item, but characters with super strength such as Rogue and Colossus will have a wider range of things they can chuck at foes. There are also points where you have to use your mutant powers in order to advance, such as where Cyclops will have to weld something together or Iceman needs to create an ice bridge to get over a chasm. These are usually marked by small floating X's, though some points you need to find for yourself or figure out on your own.

The biggest problem, though, is that the ending seems entirely too fast. By the I was really getting into the game, all of the sudden it was over. I managed to get about 23 hours out of the game, myself. Not terrible for $50, but with a history as rich as the X-Men have, you can't help but hope for more. And there's not that much to do as far as a replay past going back through to find the comics, art and Danger Room discs that you missed the first time (if you did miss some like I did), and play with alternate costumes for most of the characters.

The characters look good from a distance, using cell shading to mimic the look of a comic with thick black lines and a non-blocky appearance. Up-close, though, they don't hold up as well. They're not terrible, but the black lines that looked good from a distance now make them look more like coloring books. Their large hands also detract something from their appearance. Backgrounds are recycled a lot through the game, since you tend to re-visit certain locations, but they look good enough. Of particular note is the Astral Plane, a world where mental power is king, which makes great use of transparency effects and other tricks. It's so different from the rest of the game, though, that it pretty much automatically stands out in the first place. Each characters powers look just like they should, including the puffs of smoke when Nightcrawler teleports and the glowing energy of Gambit's various kinetically charged attacks.

Sound is another matter. The music is largely forgettable, taking it's cues from the movies but losing the grand orchestration except in some of the cut scenes. Sound effects are better, with Wolverine's claws sounding like a long-time comic fan would expect, and few sounds, if any, repeated between the playable characters. The voice work is probably generating the most attention, and for good reason. There's a lot of big name talent here, led by Patrick Stewert, who portrayed X-Men mentor Professor X in the movies, providing his voice to the character here. Lou Diamond Phillips and Ed Asner also lend their pipes, not to mention John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender from "Futurama"as well as Wakka from Final Fantasy X. These pros do a good job with their characters, and the lesser-known actors portraying the majority of the cast, especially Nightcrawler, hit the mark more often than not. Still, a few voices fall flatter. Rogue's southern accent seems forced, for example, and Colossus tends to sound older than he looks.

Most surprising amongst the voices to me was Brotherhood member Avalanche, who sounded more like a surfer from California. It's not an especially bad voice, and it fits the dialogue given to the character, but it doesn't match the character's classic image as a more no-nonsense villain. The change wouldn't be as jarring if the rest of the cast wasn't as entrenched in more traditional representations. Those not as familiar with the source material probably won't mind.

For all of the nitpicking I've done in this review, it's not like this is the absolute worst game to feature Marvel's Merry Mutants. It's a very good first effort at the franchise by Raven and Activision, and sets a good framework to improve on for the almost inevitable sequel. There's still a few popular X-Men characters left to appear, and a litany of villains waiting in the wings. Raven certainly gets an "A" for effort on this game, even if their other grades aren't quite that high. If you're a fan of the material or have a large enough group of gamer friends looking for something different, grab it. Otherwise, rent this one first.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/05/04


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