Reviewed: September 21, 2005
Released: September 21, 2005
It seems like with every new review lately, we address the blurring of lines in gaming – genres, characters, storylines, etc. – as developers try to find that perfect hybrid of game that will appeal to the broadest audience possible. And one of the best ways to secure an audience is to use a popular license or theme from some other form of media – preferably one that already has an established and dedicated fan base.
So, what would be the most popular subjects? Why naturally, Star Wars, anime and comics. And believe me, over the past twenty years, developers have worked nearly every possible angle to incorporate one or more of those into their games. From Star Wars racers and shooters, to anime platformers and fighters, to comic book swingers and sandboxes – no genre or license has been left untouched.
It’s inevitable that in the garden of gaming, with all of the cross-pollination going on, there is bound to be a lot of, er…fertilizer left behind. And in fact, probably 60% of the games that exploit these popular subject matters are just that – crap. License-exploitive titles are notorious for being hollow shells of gaming mediocrity, thinly veiled in the floofy fabric of big-money Hollywood. Sadly, since these licensed games usually do rake in millions – despite the negative reviews – these games just keep on coming.
But every now an then, every once in a while, we are presented with one of these hybrid titles where everything all of the pieces just seem to come together right – and we find ourselves standing dumbfounded, wondering how a game can do justice to the license, the genre, the gamers and the fans all at the same time. Activision and Raven Software’s X-Men Legends series is like that.
Successfully combining the isometric dungeon crawling exploits of the Baldur’s Gate series with the four-player party play of the classic Gauntlet games of yore – and then wrapping it all in the Marvel universe, the 2004 release of X-Men Legends was a smashing success with critics and gamers alike.
Just over a year later, we see a second installment in the X-Men Legends series, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, and while the gameplay might not be all that much different from the first game, the game get a whole new facelift by means of a unique twist of fate, which finds the X-Men teaming up with Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil to defend the earth from its ultimate nemesis; Apocalypse.
OK, just to get the details out of the way – by now we have all seen the “an evil so evil, that even evil fears it” commercials, right? This “evil so evil” refers to a fella named Apocalypse. Apocalypse happens to be the most powerful individual mutant in the Marvel universe, and he has recently gone on a rampage, destroying the Mutant sanctuary of Genosha. To make matters worse, he snatched up four innocent mutants with plans to mine them of their powers and absorb these powers for his own – which would him even bigger and badder than he already is.
One of these abductees happens to be Quicksilver – who ironically enough is Magneto’s own son. Magneto, knowing that he and his crew are no match for Apocalypse alone, enlists the aid of Professor Xavier and his X-Men to help thwart the nemesis and to save the captured mutants. The X-Men reluctantly agree to put aside differences and lend a hand, and the game is on.
The game contains over 70 levels of play broken up into the five individual chapters, with each chapter taking place in its own distinctive locale. The entire game is played through an isometric camera angle featuring all four players on the same screen, and can be played either as single player with 3 AI controlled teammates, or cooperatively with any combination of 1-4 players; either Multitapped locally, or the new online option (to be discussed later).
The controls are about as basic as it gets – movement on the left stick, camera with the right, X for attack, Circle for strong attack, Triangle for jump (double tap for hover) and square for grab. Gamers can quickly take control of AI teammates with a quick tap of the d-pad. Holding down R2 and pressing a face button access superpowers, and the health and energy packs are consumed with a R1 and R2. All controls are performed on the fly, and there is little-or-no break in the action.
Despite its futuristic theme and mutant storyline, at its heart, Rise of Apocalypse is basically a three-button hack and slash in the vein of the D&D dungeon crawlers like Baldur’s Gate – only instead of swords and arrows you have adamantium claws and laser beams, and instead of magic spells you have mutant powers.
Each mutant has his or her own unique area of specialty; whether it be the head-on melee slashes of Wolverine, the ranged environmental attacks of Storm, or the Jedi-like force powers of Magneto, there is a plethora of options for a party of four to approach any given situation – especially considering the cast of 16 playable characters, with each having 10 unique superpowers.
From this amazing bevy of options emerges the RPG element of the Rise of Apocalypse. Raven Software has really provided enough micromanaging to make even the geekiest of comic book über-geeks geek-out.
Not only are their thousands of items to collect – belts, bracelets, gloves, armor – but some items have different effects on different mutants, so obsessive-compulsive gamers will find themselves swapping items between characters incessantly, or storing them in the Hero Stash chest for later use. Most items are picked up in battle, but some can be purchased from Forge at the home base. Purchases are made using Techbits, which are collected in battle or by smashing items in the environment.
Other items of particular interest are the health and energy packs which are collected as you traverse through levels smashing objects and defeating minions. These packs are extremely valuable as you face up against level boss mini-bosses and bosses. With the severity of the bosses, it is not uncommon for even the most frugal of gamer to run out of health packs right at the most inopportune time in a boss fight – like just when he is getting all fired up because he just felled two of your party members. Yeah, it’s tough like that.
But that is only the beginning of the madness. With each character having distinct strengths and weaknesses, some are better at situations than others – thankfully, the game has Xtraction point scattered throughout the levels where you can either swap out active characters for those back at the home base, or revive fallen members. You can also use the Xtraction points to save your game or even warp the team back to base. If you can’t reach an extraction point, you can enlist the help of a mutant named Blink, who can open teleportation portals back to base – but you can only do this if it has been at least 5 minutes since the last port, so you cannot abuse it.
Obviously, when setting up your teams at home base, or the midlevel Xtraction points, you will want to weigh your options carefully. It’s always a save option to even things up a bit by including both ranged and melee attackers; but while the game does a great job of feeding you a nice variety of challenges, there are times that warrant a lopsided axis of one or the other strengths. The game also throws puzzles at you which will require the use of certain characters’ abilities – fire, force power, bridge building, hovering, etc. – so you always have to keep those in mind as well.
This may all sound a bit complicated, but thankfully Raven thought enough to include the everyday gamer – the gamer who doesn’t freak out over leveling up, or over collecting every doodad and comic book cel – by allowing the gamer to set automatic control of leveling up, item distribution, and skills functions. For gamers like me, this is a godsend and really allows Rise of Apocalypse to be enjoyable for all. You can also tweak some pretty neat aspects – like when individual characters will automatically decide to use a health pack, or how aggressive they will act. Heck, you can even set a super power hierarchy of sorts which will let them preferentially pick some super attacks over others.
How about that online? Four-player cooperative multiplayer, need I say more? Hearkening back to the good old days of Gauntlet, but not requiring you to have four friends in one place – you can take Rise of Apocalypse to the ‘net and join up with 3 others to rid the world of Apocalypse. This is definitely the coolest addition to this years game, and it adds to the overall value immensely.
There is also an online Skirmish Mode, which allows up to four gamers of level 16 or over (to keep the field even) to stand against each other in head-to-head matches. It’s definitely not as fun as conquering the story with a pal, but it is a nice diversion.
Where Rise of Apocalypse is lacking most would have to be in the graphic, which suffer from what I like to call the Final Fantasy syndrome. What I mean is those cases where the game’s cutscenes are some of the most amazing works of art yet seen on a console, but the actual gameplay is rather static and sprite-ish. It can be a bummer, especially after seeing commercial after commercial, but it comes with the territory with games of this nature.
For what it is, it does quite well. I was initially shocked by the heavy-lined, cel-shaded look of the characters, but their animations and coloring look top notch. And since you can easily shift between new and classic costumes, the game really takes on an old school look at times.
The backgrounds are richly colored and detailed, and although some of the foliage and objects are obviously cookie cutter textures and objects spattered about, they do the job intended.
The missions feature unique locations like the Weapon X facility, the Infinite Factory, plus other detailed indoor and outdoor environments ranging from Canada and Egypt to New York City. The levels are massive and intricately designed with multiple paths, character specific challenges, and plenty of hidden areas.
The high point of the graphics is by far the CG movies courtesy of Blur Studios. These are definitely on par with what you would expect to find in a Final Fantasy game – except here the men are a bit more, er…manly. Sorry, I just had to say that.
I did notice a bit of squirrelly looking slowdown in certain areas of the game (especially in underground levels or when a lot of characters are onscreen), but it never seemed to detract from the action.
Patrick Stewart is in the house, voicing the character he made famous on the big screen – Dr. Xavier. The rest of the actors – which includes such names as John DiMaggio, and Lou Diamond Phillips – do a nice job as well. Sadly, voiceovers are saved only for pivotal encounters, cutscenes and mission instructions, so plan to do a bit of reading.
The music is matched to the situation and will rise and fall with the level of tension in the air. The sound is mostly natural sounding arrangements that seem to match up with the eclectic array of environments.
With more than 70 missions spread across five large chapters most gamers can expect a good solid 30-40 hours of gaming. There are some seriously challenging levels and boss fights in the game that will have you saving and trying out various combinations of mutants for the best results. I would have preferred a "save anywhere" system, as some of the Xtraction points are stretched a bit too far apart, but that is where Blink comes in handy.
The cooperative online and local multiplayer modes are long overdue and a huge asset to making this game last well beyond the solo campaign. The cooperative campaign mode is so much fun that you might never even play it by yourself.
Rise of Apocalypse is a very solid, entertaining and rewarding RPG for all gamers. The game features all of the depth that the hardcore RPGers cry for, but with none of that turn-based boredom that the action gamers detest. The storyline is excellent, and the inclusion of online cooperative play makes it all one sweet deal.
I would have preferred a bit less reading, and maybe a titch more excitement to the in-game visuals, but really there isn’t much I can complain about with Rise of Apocalypse. This is a great game and it is well worth the price of admission. Raven Software deserves accolades for their work, and strike another one for Activision.