Developer: Raven Software
Release Date: September 20, 2005
Raven is quickly becoming one of those developers that has their hand in ... well, just about everything, or at least, given their current path, they soon will. Historically, the developers have been id Software's wingmen by using that company's engines to create a slew of classics like Heretic and Hexen, along with working on some of id's IPs, notably the fantastic Return to Castle Wolfenstein and, most recently, the just released Quake IV. Clearly, these guys are heavy hitters in the PC world.
Understandably, such releases should not matter much to the console crowd. Most home ports of PC shooters end up in sorry shape anyway, especially the Quake series, which, due to its extremely fast pace, does not make a smooth transition from keyboard and mouse control to a traditional console analog stick setup. Thus, Raven can be easily written off as "just another PC shooter team," with little excitement to be had from the console side of things.
X-Men Legends changed that.
Legends was a very strange release in many regards. It was an attempt to put comic book characters into an RPG format, a place normally dwelled only by mages and valkyries. Many wondered how such a game could fare in the first place. Secondly, the task was being handled by Raven, known more for the previously mentioned games than anything else. Was this really the developer that should be bringing super heroes into the RPG realm, and through the filter of a console-style adventure, no less? Apparently they were, because X-Men Legends is the top-selling X-Men game of all time and one of the better selling non-Japanese RPGs ever released on a home console. While the game was slightly flawed in terms of skill building, control, and slowdown, it was an endlessly entertaining experience, especially once a few friends were brought into the fray.
Clearly, X-Men Legends II has a lot to live up to and even more to improve upon. On paper, it does. With a slew of new playable characters, all-new areas, a myriad of missions, massive amounts of skills to master for each character, it all sounds like the makings of an incredible sequel. In practice, however, with a few bits of technical interference, Legends II proves to be an unfocused, largely unimproved sequel, though still one that will hold the attention of fans just as much as the original did.
The game begins by setting up the premise very clearly: There is a new evil that has arrived by the name of Apocalypse, who is so obsessed by the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest that he will assemble all of the strongest mutants in the world and crush all the rest. Essentially, he's not a very fun guy. He's so menacing, in fact, that the greatest enemies of the X-Men (previously the greatest, I should say), the Brotherhood, led by ultra-villain Magneto, are willing to fight alongside our heroes for the sake of the greater good of mutant- and mankind. A single, to-the-point FMV explains the basics of all this, and immediately throws the player(s) into the fray. After the first short, easy stage is completed, the rest of the game begins, along with the few, but not crippling, flaws that bring down the experience a bit.
First, there are too many characters available from the beginning, instead of the slower unlocking process employed in the first Legends. Normally, I would be interested in having as much customization as possible for my characters, but Legends is built for quite a bit of character swapping, thanks to the various party bonuses, not to mention the special abilities of the characters themselves, being very important during the adventure. Too many of the available characters feel too similar to each other until much later in the game, and a few – infamously Toad – will sit, never to be touched. A more focused bunch of perfected characters would have been much more appropriate than a handful of great, useful characters in a sea of boring derivatives.
Once the hacking and slashing starts, the above fact probably won't matter much in most players' minds anyway. Like its predecessor, Legends II is a blast to play with a few friends, and the action rarely lets up during the missions. This is the ultimate cooperative RPG for casual and hardcore gamers alike, although it leans much more towards the former demographic because, despite the incredibly interesting and addictive stat-management, this game is extremely easy, almost to the point where the game becomes monotonous for the majority of the experience.
Unlike recent console RPG releases like Champions: Return to Arms and even Untold Legends, Legends II rarely requires any leveling, and while the stat management allows for loads of skill tweaking and an unparalleled level of base stat customization, none of it really matters much in the face of the relentless hordes of enemies Legends II throws at you. I've heard many stories of players running through the entire game without dying once; I, personally, met my first death by underestimating the length of a jump over a small gorge, left to watch Wolverine fall to his untimely doom. Barring that, I did not die again until I had forgotten to load up on health potions and had half my life bar left when encountering an early boss. Without such simple mistakes, I would have spun through a large chunk of the game with absolutely no problems at all.
Of course, not every player wants intense difficulty. I am aware of this, even though I expect it from most RPGs, especially those derivative of American-style PC games. For some players, the simpleton-level challenge is a big plus, as it makes Legends II one of the few RPGs that genuinely plays well in a party setting. Nobody needs to pay extremely close attention to the game to keep alive, for the most part, but for a 20-hour experience, the game really does begin to grate on the nerves. The brain should be used once in a while in a game like this. This is not Final Fight: Streetwise, after all.
All of that said, the game is still an extremely fun and well-designed romp; nothing is so unbalanced that players should drop their controllers and walk away. For a company that primarily develops PC games, Raven has a good sense of what works and what doesn't in a console game. The amount of customization present in such an otherwise simple game is a smart attempt at bringing PC-level experiences to the console setting; they just need to condescend console gamers just a little bit less.
Additionally, the game runs into a few graphical hiccups. Some areas are riddled with slowdown, and by some reports, certain areas are especially prone to glitches, a few resulting in freezing. The majority of the experience runs at or below 30 FPS, with quite a bit of fluctuation, and often affects the gameplay, but never to the point where the interference ruins the experience completely.
The graphical style is one of the best aspects of X-Men Legends II. Characters are lightly cel-shaded and done in a style that is very representative of their comic book counterparts. Alternate costumes are available for each (I usually stick with the classic costumes that I grew up with, rather than the newer, although well-designed, versions). The environments aren't extremely detailed, but for a multi-console game, they look just fine. For the most part, the art direction is solid enough that, aside from my gripe with the annoying look of the characters in the CG sequences, I feel little change should have taken place here.
The soundtrack is unobtrusive but complementary, just as it should be in a game that is conducive to having players sit with it for hours on end. Sampling is a bit muffled, not exactly arcade-ish but not RPG-like either; still, nothing is grating on the ears, it only lacks the satisfying punch that these games usually have when players are pummeling hordes of enemies to death. The only truly bad moments that this game unleashes upon the ears are the voice samples that play during quests. The lines are embarrassing to listen to, although impeccably acted out. This, of course, is more the fault of the source material than anything, but something a little more appropriate could have been done.
I have listed quite a few complains about X-Men Legends II in the course of this review, but I still find myself shoving those ideas aside and seeing the truth of the matter: This game is still fun. While I wouldn't dare touch the single player mode ever again, I will still enjoy multiplayer sessions with friends, and, no matter how easy the game is, we will still have fun. I do hope for an improved, focused sequel to this game, one that is more of an evolution from the original than the tweaked add-on that this version feels like. I will have fun with this nonetheless, and I will hold my tongue every time the game slows down or even freezes, because I would love to get back in to the fray and dig my adamantium claws into another few scores of the ranks of evil.