Professor Xavier's team of misunderstood mutants battles on in this sequel RPG from Raven and Activision, creators of the original. Once again, players control small squads of X-Men in a series of action-oriented, combat-intensive missions that lead them through the game's comics-inspired storyline. Between missions, heroes can rest, recover, and re-supply, at Professor's X academy headquarters, or one of four other game world hubs. Each of the game's 16 playable characters has ten personalized powers, which can be customized and upgraded with experience and power-ups.
In addition to Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, and other characters playable in the first Legends, the sequel also lets fans of the series choose lesser-known X-Men, such as the energy-absorbing Bishop, or even the team's nemesis, Magento, and members of his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants such as Toad and Juggernaut. It seems that past rivalries may be forgotten -- at least temporarily -- in the face of a universal threat posed by the ancient, megalomaniacal, Egyptian super-mutant known as Apocalypse.
The PC version of X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse features online co-op play, and competitive Danger Room and Skirmish missions are available to Internet-connected gamers. The home computer version also offers exclusive additional characters and missions.
The first X-Men Legends game proved that, despite so many lackluster licensed titles, a popular franchise can actually be put to good use. When done right, that license can be an integral part of the whole experience, bringing all its character, energy, depth, and mythos into a new medium. Like its predecessor, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse does just that, and produces a great action-RPG that just wouldn't have been the same with any other cast.
This time around, the X-Men have teamed up with their one-time enemies -- the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- bringing new characters like Magneto, Juggernaut, and Toad under the control of your keyboard or control pad. This unlikely alliance was brought about by following the old dictum of "the enemy of my enemy is the guy who's going to grind us ALL into mutant-flavored paste if we don't team up to stop him." In short, the world's oldest and perhaps most powerful mutant, Apocalypse, wants to do bad things to both good and bad people, so Magneto and Professor X decide to set aside old grudges in order to survive.
New story aside, the game plays pretty much like last year's X-Men Legends: you assemble a team of up to four characters, and take control of one of them at a time while the computer (or other players) controls the other three. Flitting your control from one character to another is as simple as tapping a key. After clobbering enough bad guys and completing an objective or two, you level your characters up and customize them by allocating points to attributes and super powers. Repeat this process until you want to revisit the current chapter's "town" where you can get new mission briefings, buy or sell equipment, and generally poke around to see who will add some context to the overarching storyline through conversation.
It's worth noting here that there's no more aimless wandering through the sprawling X-Mansion grounds this time around. The town hubs change between each of the game's chapters and each one has everything you need just a few steps away. Raven further increased the overall pace of the game by giving you a "town portal" ability that lets you zip back to the hub whenever you want to take advantage of its many amenities, such as the equipment shop or the save game point. A new portable version of the Danger Room also makes an appearance, and (as in the first game) you can collect Danger Room programs that allow you to take a break from the main game to hone your skills and complete various challenges for fun and profit.
Despite the return of these previous elements, the overall difference between this sequel and the original game can be pretty much summed up by "More! More! More!" There are more characters (17 available from the start and three more that can be unlocked), more hidden objects like comic-book covers and concept art sketches, more varied equipment options, more cameos by various Marvel Universe characters, and more mini-bosses. While some of the first game's characters like Magma or Psylocke are missing and others like Beast or Emma Frost only appear as non-player characters, there are plenty of new options to keep you busy. I particularly liked the ability to play as some of the villains, which satisfies some dark desire we all seem to have.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the "More! More! More!" philosophy is the huge number of super powers you can now acquire. The powers spread out across a range of uses, such as long-range attacks, buffs to strengthen allies, de-buffs to weaken enemies, damage over time attacks, area-of-effect damage, melee attacks, traps, and a few unique effects like flight or teleportation. These abilities are largely unique to each character, though I'd be hard pressed to explain meaningful differences between some of them, like Bishop's Bio Beam and Cyclops's Optic Beam. Still, I constantly found myself switching characters in and out of my party just to try them out and to break up the constant slugfest. The extremely well-balanced Nightcrawler, however, remained my number one go-to guy for pretty much the entire game and was just brutally powerful towards the end.
Even with all the RPG elements, combat is definitely where the main focus of X-Men Legends II lies. There are some simple puzzles to provide additional challenges, but when you're not picking new powers or futzing with your inventory you're usually going to be beating the snot out of countless foes. Fortunately, given the wide range of mutant powers and the ease with which you can try out new characters, the combat stays fun for most of the game, though there are stretches where it gets tedious.
Raven also breaks up the minor minion mangling with a series of mini-boss and boss fights. So you often have to pummel medium-sized threats like Omega Red or Lady Deathstrike before tackling the real ringleaders like Mikhail, Sugar Man, or he-with-the-dumbest-villain-name-ever, Mr. Sinister. The appearance of so many rogues from the X-Men's very deep gallery is just another example of how Raven obliges long-time fans of the comics. It's just plain old fun to take control of these characters and have them fight the same foes as they did in the comics I used to read. I kept wondering who would turn up next and I was usually pleased when I found out.
One of the biggest shortcomings in the game, though, is its linearity. While you sometimes have the option to do one mission or one mission objective before or after another and there's some room in each level to go looking for hidden goodies, you pretty much go through the essential parts of each level on big fat rails. There are also no wide-open areas, and it's pretty evident how deeply X-Men Legends II's dungeon-crawl roots go. Some may like this as it usually avoids the "what do I do next?" problem, but with such a wide variety of super powers at my disposal I'd have appreciated creative uses beyond just building an ice bridge to reach one more piece of concept art.
On rails or not, you don't always have to do any of this alone. The biggest addition to the series is the online multiplayer component, which allows you to host or connect to games through the Internet. Fighting alongside computer-controlled teammates is fun, but it's even more entertaining to play co-op with other people. You can even play through the entire single-player campaign this way, saving and loading your game as you go so that you don't have to endure one epic session. Unfortunately, the game relies on a peer-to-peer structure where one player uses his machine to host the game while others connect to it. This means that lag and the quality of your experience will vary according to the host's hardware and Internet connection. I rarely was able to find any games that weren't at least moderately laggy, but it's better than nothing, and on a LAN it should work quite well.
On the technical end, the very console-ish X-Men Legends II translates to the PC pretty well. The game isn't that much of a resource hog, so the graphics and higher resolutions are going to look pretty good on many machines relative to the console versions. The fact that most gamers' PCs are already connected to the Internet is also an advantage here, especially over the GameCube version, which doesn't even offer online multiplayer.
Where the PC version lacks a bit, though, is in the controls. I forced myself to play the first few hours of the game using the keyboard and mouse, and while it was certainly playable, it was a clumsy experience compared to the PlayStation 2 setup I used to play the first game. With the mouse and keyboard setup, it's difficult to rotate the camera or make quick, fluid movements with your characters. What I eventually did was pick up a cheap USB adapter for my PlayStation 2 controller and used that for the remainder of the game, which worked extremely well; either that or a well-endowed PC gamepad should serve you well.
X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is a treat for X-Man fans, though you don't need to be fan of the comics to enjoy it. There's tons of content in the form of characters, powers, stats, and unlockable treats, and the action -- especially during the boss fights -- is usually satisfying. It can be a bit too linear and the clumsy keyboard/mouse setup detracts from the PC version a bit, but otherwise, it's uncannily good.
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