Video game review: X-Men Destiny

There’s this odd thing about comic-based video games.  There is rarely any kind of solid expectation to how one might turn out, especially based on previous history.  Even when historically your franchise’s games have been crap, like Spider-Man for instance, suddenly a game can come out like the first one on the original PlayStation that just knocks it out of the park.  And then you can tweak and update your formula and get it perfect, like the movie-based Spider-Man 2, and then manage to screw it up come Spider-Man 3 to where now you’re trying to rediscover the magic in alternate dimensions.

The same goes for the X-Men.  Activision stumbled upon a winning formula when it came out with X-Men Legends and the follow-up was even bettr, but the system was pushed over to the Marvel U proper and the X-Men got stuck sitting around with nothing to do (not counting the movie tie-in).  Finally, Activision decided to go back to the X-Men franchise with developer Silicon Knights this go-round, and shift up the format from the popular Legends series to something new.

Much earlier in the year, I was pretty damn excited about X-Men Destiny.  Sure, they were dropping the format used in the two X-Men Legends games and going more with an “action RPG” approach, but still it seemed pretty neat to me.  Even the thought that you wouldn’t be playing as any of the actual X-Men, but rather a new mutant recruit that would be fighting alongside the X-Men as you learned to use your mutant powers.

My initial thought was Dragon Age: Origins in which you start off as a basic character with a selectable origin and fighting class and eventually expand with other side characters that can fight along side you (with commands available) as you go through the massively large story complete with twists, turns, and tons of options that have a huge effect on the overall story of the game.

Seriously, go play Dragon Age: Origins if you haven’t.

Under advisement of Comicdom Wrecks! co-conspirator Casey, I decided against dropping $60 on the title (as if I had that kind of money to toss around) and instead hopped over to one of the Redbox terminals and dropped $2 to play it for a day.  And it’s a good thing too, since it only took me six hours to beat the damn thing.

After the jump I’ll go into detail about the game, including my likes, dislikes, and the overall sense of blah to the deal.

To try to put a little organization into this review, I’m going to split my review up into the categories of one of them big, expert, PROFESSIONAL review sites and see where that gets me.  For this game, let’s use IGN.

Presentation
The everyday X-Men fan might have grown crazy excited at the news that Mike Carey would be scripting the story for the game.  Since taking over X-Men (Legacy), Carey has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to the franchise.  With that said, I have to assume that Carey wasn’t given much to work with, as the story seems like a rather watered down mish-mosh of the aftermath of Messiah CompleX, the plot of the cartoon Wolverine and the X-Men, and a hint of Second Coming added for flavor.

The story opens with the X-Men having apparently disbanded and moved to San Francisco in the aftermath of the destruction of the X-Mansion and the death of Professor X.  This huge event isn’t shown to set the stage, but rather explained in passing conversation with Iceman in the first conversation of the game.  Also lazily mentioned in passing is the existence of Bastion, who even casual fans might not immediately recognize.  Not actually establishing him as a threat by, say, showing him kill Professor X and blow up the X-Mansion, greatly lessens the impact when he returns midway through the game.  It also doesn’t help that the one that gets the reveal is the rookie recruit who has no ties whatsoever to the X-Men.

The story has the usual pieces that all X-Men franchises outside the comics does.  The two mutant groups are the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants and all the regular faces fill out the ranks.  Also tossed in are the Purifiers (sans their religious-based zealotry) and the U-Men from the comics and the MRD from the latest cartoon to make sure you have lots of thugs to beat up.  The game also has a few new faces thrown in, notably Pixie, Surge and Caliban, which is nice.

But the overall plot of the game is pretty shaky.  A mutant/human unity presentation is interrupted by an apparent attack by Magneto which leads to a huge attack by the Purifiers and wouldn’t you just know it, your character’s mutant powers choose that exact moment to manifest.  Both the Brotherhood and the X-Men are running around all over the place but for whatever reason, your rookie mutant seems to be the only competent head in the lot and you take care of basically everything that needs doing.  In fact, the teams realize this midway through and start simply giving all the hard jobs to you.  Because really, if a mutant-hating bigot blowing stuff up is about to be taken over by a sinister AI in an unstoppable battlesuit, I most certainly would send in the kid that’s had his powers for about 3 hours to go take care of things by himself.

Graphics
I guess I could complain about the twitchy graphics that popped in and out here and there or the textures on surface walls that seemed to re-render themselves every four seconds, but this is a comic blog and you want to hear about the comic aspect, right?  Right.  I’m really not sure what they were going with for character designs.  Wolverine, Cyclops, Pixie, Surge, Colossus and Emma Frost are all spot on (thought Wolverine and Cyclops are lacking the chest Xs they started wearing after Messiah CompleX) but the other characters seem to have odd redesigns.  Magneto is wearing some kind of body armor thing while Juggernaut has the same harness-ish thing for his helmet that he had in Ultimate Alliance 2.  Toad is back from the Ultimate look he had in the previous games, but rather trying to make him look like he does in the comics, the creators mixed the Ultimate look with his appearance in the first movie…with mixed results.  Nightcrawler is not wearing a costume, but rather that hat/coat combo he had from the second movie, complete with braided hair and hippie trinkets on his tail.  I don’t know what the designers were thinking on that one.  And wouldn’t you know it, Gambit is decked out in the very costume I was taunting last entry, though with the pink darkened into more of a purple.

Sound
I can’t really remember any kind of music that played during the game itself so I’m betting it wasn’t very noteworthy.  All of the sound effects were standard swishes, blasts, metallic schwings and whatnot.  But there was a lot of spoken dialogue to judge upon, and it’s one thing that the game did pretty well.  Some of the voices should be familiar – as always Steven Blum is back as the official voice of Wolverine – but others came across as recast for the better.  Cyclops seems to have gotten a more mature voice and it works much better for the character who is leading the mutant society on the West Coast.  Emma Frost keeps her British-ish accent, which works well for the character and some of the others like Toad and Pyro have their usual deals going.  Gambit, in particular, is voiced very well giving him the heavy Cajun accent that you can assume is over emphasized for the charm – it’s something the character would do.  Or maybe they just played him over the top.  Either way, it works.

But some of the unfamiliar characters did not get such good treatment.  It seems that when casting the voice actors, those in charge were not familiar with Northstar, Pixie or Surge and completely ignored their origins.  For those not in the know, Northstar is French Canadian, Pixie is Welsh and Surge is Japanese.  All of these characters were born in and lived in their countries of origins and thus should have the accents to match.  Why should only the popular X-Men get them?  Oh, but on that I have to say that after all these times I’ve heard Colossus voiced, I wish they would at least attempt to get away from the big, burly over-the-top Russian voice.  Colossus is a quiet, gentler person and should be voiced with somewhat of a less-gruff voice.  The original X-Men cartoon (not Pryde of the X-Men) had it better.  He should not be sounding like Zangief from Street Fighter.

Gameplay
The game is a pretty straight-forward beat-em-up game in which you are placed in a location with a destination marker that you need to go to, beating up all the baddies between you and it.  The three types of powers you initially choose from give you a semblance of control and variety, but realistically you’ll just be jamming the square button (I have a PS3 – shut up) continuously as waves and waves of baddies run your way, occasionally stopped by a press of the triangle button depending on how much you’ve leveled up your mutant abilities.  And speaking of those, the game pauses at four points during the storyline to let you choose between two new abilities.  For my playthrough they usually shifted upon offense-ish and defense-ish, but even when I got them I didn’t really use them that often…save for the final one which was completely overpowered to the point of ridiculousness.  And I loved it.

The game also rewards exploring by tossing in some random challenges that you can stumble upon which usually end up being “KO X number of baddies in Y minutes”.  These reward with “X-Gene” upgrades which can be assigned to one of four categories – offense, defense, utility (basically a bonus power), and costume.  These make up sets of four based on the various characters that show up in the game.  When you assign a whole set you can unleash a special ability, but realistically when I did it with Juggernaut, I couldn’t tell what the hell that ability did beyond giving me a trophy achievement.  This, in theory, gives tons of room for bonus customization for your character, but all of the abilities pretty much give the exact same bonuses.  Chances are anything you get with a Surge add-on you can also get with Cyclops or Gambit.

And that’s really the main theme of this entire game.  There should be a lot there – there’s certainly room for a lot there, but the complete product seems unfinished.  It’s like the designers came up with the add-on system, came up with a few bonuses, then just filled in all the spots with them rather than coming up with any more.  Giving yourself a Wolverine-based system will pretty much be the same as giving yourself a Colossus-based system, just with a healing factor making up for the increased defense.

But while most of the game is smacking around hordes of baddies, there are a couple of platform-based action parts in which you have to grab flat, flashing ledges until you get to the next area.  The system is ripped straight out of the Uncharted series, though your character jumps far too fast and high, taking out the balance that its source excelled in.  The sequences seem forced.

Lasting Appeal
I played through the game in six hours.  That’s one of the three characters, one of the three power sets, going the goody two-shoes X-Men path.  Six hours, made it through the entire thing.  I immediately started over with a different character, different power set and started taking the Brotherhood path before I realized I was essentially playing the exact same thing over, with just some small differences.  The power choice decides which opening animation you see of your powers manifesting (though it seems to be the exact same no matter which character you choose) and the character choice will change some of the dialogue, though the core of each message remains alike.  As for the path choice, I would assume your path will decide who runs along side you in the parts of the game in which you get backup, but being that the game features the usual uninspired Brotherhood lineup (Magneto, Mystique, Juggernaut, Toad, Pyro) I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to do so.

The basics for this puppy were down.  There was so much more that could have been done with this system if just expanded upon.  But instead it’s one rather short story in which the villains launch their plans, the heroes stop said plans, and then an unforeseen huge threat launches and is stopped.  We even get the tired X-Men/Brotherhood truce for the good of the mutant race that has been done to death.

If there were still any places to rent games, I’d say rent it.  I suppose the Redbox counts, though it’s just not the same.  Certainly not worth the $60 new game price tag.

Comicdom Wrecks nerd thoughts
Now that the details are out of the way, what do I, the X-Men loving comic nerd think?  I liked it – I mean, at no point during the initial playthrough did I want to put the controller down out of spite – but I have to say I was disappointed with it.  The story was just generic stock.  It had all the pieces of what someone loosely familiar with the franchise might think an X-Men game needs.  It had the same old characters, the same themes, and even many of the same visuals that we’ve seen before so many times.  Yes, Magneto, we know you can pull up the Golden Gate bridge.  Awesome.

I have to say that I am sick to death of the “Brotherhood of Mutants” faction that I could scream.  There hasn’t been a Brotherhood in the comics since 1993, not counting the ridiculous Exodus-led one from the final Chuck Austen storyline.  Magneto himself hasn’t led a Brotherhood since the early 70’s.  Toad and Pyro are mainstays because of their movie roles and Mystique is completely wasted in her “Magneto is everything” henchman role.  But game after game we get this Brotherhood lineup that seems to do nothing more than wait for Magneto’s grand scheme that never comes since teaming up with the X-Men to fight the great menace is always the better story, right?  Right?

And then there’s the rookie protagonist.  Tossing in a new character into such a franchise is always a risky move as the fans may find themselves unable to attach to them.  They tried in the X-Men Legends with Magma, and it probably says something that the character (and her whiny voice) didn’t make it into the sequel.  Here you get a character with no costume, no codename and no experience with their powers not only suddenly fall into the midst of the battlefield, but completely and totally saves the day.  Seriously, in the few hours after discovering their mutant abilities, your character nearly single-handedly destroys a mutant holding facility, saves the X-Men from mind-control, kills Cameron Hodge, defeats Magneto and Juggernaut at the same time and destroys Bastion and his big-honking Sentinels.  I wonder what you do for an encore.

Establishing such a new character usually depends on the reactions and relationships from the supporting cast.  But none of the X-Men bother to get to know your character, beyond Emma Frost fishing out your name and your background.  The X-Men stand around and hand out weak compliments and new missions.  There’s little interaction from the characters and little reason why Cyclops would send you and you alone to go save the world for them.  It’s basically one six hour Mary Sue story.

But I have to say that I suspect this is not the fault of Mike Carey.  After all, I’ve been reading his X-Men work for years now.  I have a feeling he got a sheet with a plot and a list of characters who he could and could not use and was told to make it happen.  After all, a Mike Carey story that doesn’t have Rogue in it?  Yeah, right.

So X-Men Destiny is a fun little romp to play if you have a couple of bucks and a few hours to spend on a rental.  No doubt its price will substantially drop in the coming months on the used rack, so if you’re not dying to play it you should probably wait.

It had the pieces thought out, it just didn’t have enough of them produced to complete the whole puzzle.  Though I doubt Silicon Knights will get another shot at it for whatever the next X-Men game will be.

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