In classic sequel tradition, Raven Software has made the action RPG, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, the game that X-Men Legends should
have been. It's got four-player online co-op, it's got tons of playable characters including a healthy range of X-men and the Brotherhood of Evil, and it's bigger, more interactive, and it's re-organized for more efficient team-based leveling up.
What else is there? Following the well-tread Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance formula with tweaks, additions, and the uncanny X-Men themselves, Activision's new Marvel-ized dungeon-crawler delivers everything you think it does, but the basic premise -- the core game design -- hasn't changed at all. But for what it is, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is a solid, first-class action-RPG that delivers on its promise.
Dungeon Crawling, Mutant Style
What was that promise? Unadulterated X-men fiending to the first degree. Mutant hacking and slashing. Powering up to ridiculous levels and smashing the crap out of every wall, cave, jungle, enemy, or anything in your path. Playing with your friends online without a split-screen. Yes, indeed. For all those gamers, comic book fans, X-Men movie lovers, RPG fans, and action fans, and all the cross-over folks in between, which means a lot of you, Rise of the Apocalypse provides an abundant surplus of X-Men and Brotherhood characters to play as -- offline or online. You'll probably need about 15 hours to finish it, and to beat it completely and collect everything, add in another couple.
In the grand scheme of things, nothing major has changed here. Rise of Apocalypse is pure, familiar, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance-style dungeon crawling. The cool thing, however, is it's X-Men dungeon crawling. Which makes it different and refreshing in a very real sense; there are no orcs, elves, gnomes, or anything remotely D&D about the characters (though I admit, there still are quite a few caves). Instead it's all crazy X-Men madness. You and three AI team members (or, now, three other online buddies) huddle, enter environments, and proceed to bash the living daylights out of everything that moves. Sure, you collect stuff, find gear (belts, armor and gloves), upgrade and customize your characters. But it's all in the game of improving your hacking and slashing skills -- X-Men-style.
Who can you play? The list is long, though not full of too many surprises. A lot of the characters you'd think are playable are indeed playable. The 11 playable X-Men include Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Bishop, Colossus, Gambit, Rogue, Jean Grey, Iceman, Nightcrawler, and Sunfire. The four playable Brotherhood characters include Scarlet Witch (yes, she's been on both sides), Magneto, Juggernaut, and Toad. There are two other playable characters that we've been asked not to reveal, so we'll leave those to surprise you. Oh yeah, no Magma? Gone. There are a slew of other characters who make cameo appearances as either NPCs or bosses, including Xavier, Archangel, Sabretooth, Blink, Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister, Omega Red, Bastion, Lady Deathstrike, Zealot, Sauron, Deadpool, Sugerman, Mikhail, Grizzly, Abyss, and many more.
Being a long-time Marvel fan, what I noticed is that playing as the X-Men in this capacity, in a non-fighting game, is ridiculously fun. Most people enjoyed that same role-playing feeling in the first game. Rise of Apocalypse, however, forces the Brotherhood and the X-Men together, so not only are your choices extended to new players, but you get to play as the evil bastards, the Brotherhood.
This sounds like a simple stat on a feature list, but it's more than that. If you're a fan, teaming up with the bad guys is remarkably cool. The cutscenes are pretty basic, providing a mild thrill. They're not really all that good, to be honest (let's just say they're workmanlike). The in-game quips are far more fun, as Toad, Magneto, the Scarlet Witch, and Colossus trade barbs with the X-Men regularly.
But beyond that it's playing and taking on the role as these evil characters that's so intriguing. Powering up Colossus and unleashing some of his more destructive moves (like the Crimson Devastation) is a real thrill. Getting Magneto to level 20 and unlocking some of his more powerful moves is wildly exciting (like Magnetic Grasp or even the weird Metal Minion). Even playing as Toad was strangely fun. He's a nasty little creep, but given the right stats, he can be wickedly devastating.
About half way through the game, chapter three of five to be exact, you'll notice all sorts of powerful moves unlocked, in addition to the game itself changing from a being relatively easy romp, to a focused action-RPG. You'll have to work a little harder, as enemies arrive faster in larger groups with projectiles, and they'll bring healers. You'll have to count health and energy potions, learn where the save spots are, and balance your magic users (such as Magneto, Storm and Jean Grey) with your tanks (thugs such as Wolverine, Colossus, and Juggernaut).
But it's about half way through the game (right around the time characters reach level 20) that the real chemistry of the formula starts really kicking in. It's in this way that the variety and breadth of characters really means something. You no longer have to rely on just Wolverine to slash the guts out of everybody all the time. Juggernaut is just as handy. You can switch between Storm, Jean Grey, Iceman, or Magneto as your magic users. And once magic users are upgraded enough, to say level 20 or so, there is little need for the thugs and tanks. I played a whole chapter with just Magneto, Jean Grey, Storm, and Cyclops, and it was a kick butt experience.
The ability to switch costumes, from Ultimate, Astonishing, Classic and others also makes for good comic book geekiness. But it also rewards you for you trying. If you pick the right combination of characters and outfits, you can earn extra team bonuses of 10% to 15% in defense, attack power, and more. Raven Software is very cool about that, giving fans lots of reasons to fiddle with the characters.
Adding super powers is still a little tricky. Each node on your Dpad (for consoles) represents a super power. These are doubled up as new powers are unlocked. It's occasionally confusing which directions take which powers, and which don't, sometimes tacking them isn't as flexible as one would wish.
Team combos are back, and super combos, extreme points, and other cool features make the constant collection of various things worth your while. You can sell your wares at any hub in between levels, or you can store them in unified chests. So if you find the Towering Sheaths of Precision (level 25), and you're only on level 23, you can hold onto it, or store it for later.
By far, however, the biggest enhancement to Rise of Apocalypse is the support of four-player cooperative online gaming. This was the most solely missed element in last year's effort, but this year's game delivers it big time. It's hard to qualify the exact thrill one gets from teaming up with friends online, or even total strangers, but the thrill is indeed real, long-lasting, and great.
The online portion of the game features Story Mode and Skirmish. In Story mode, if you host a game and as long as they aren't three others already playing, other players can jump in and out at any time without hassle or disturbance. All you need to do is press the Start button to get going. The feature works well on all three systems (Xbox, PS2, PC), though it's generally a smoother experience on Xbox and PC than PS2 (which also adds in longer loading times).
Skirmish mode enables players with level 16 or over to play in pitched battles against one another, creating relatively similar powered characters to fight one another.
For the most part, however, the experience on all three systems is seamless and once you get playing, it's quick and instant. Aside from a few hiccups that are a part of any online experience, and a few framerate blurps when multiple enemies appear onscreen while you're pulling off super combos, the game holds steady.
Gamers jumping into a four-player split-screen offline game will also experience instant access and no technical problems. In both offline and online play, if a player leaves, they're replaced automatically. This holds true for every player except the host.
In Rise of Apocalypse, stat building was altered and improved for the sole purpose of playing online uninterrupted. Players can adjust their four major stat characteristics (body, focus, strike and speed) independently of their skills, which include the massive addition of twice as many super powers are before.
To keep games streamlined and focused on pure action, Activision also enables players to give the AI the ability to automatically upgrade both stats and skills and designate the best items to the most appropriate character. Very sweet indeed if you're in online and in a rush. Totally apocryphal if you're an RPG purist. But online or in a four-player offline game, it makes a lotof sense. You can easily change this option in the menu page, and it's a great option because no one will have to wait around for you to upgrade. It just happens and you go. For offline games, the option is still there so you can painstakingly adjust each area. The same goes for items, of which there is a huge amount.
Unfortunately, the biggest new addition, online play, is not supported in the GameCube version. Other than that exception, the GameCube version stands up to any of the others, but considering how significant an enhancement online is, the score for the Cube version was affected. On PC, GameSpy powers online connections, which run fine.
Graphics and Sound
Unlike the first X-Men Legends, Rise of Apocalypse takes place in many different areas. You won't actually even go to the X-Mansion at all. (Small spoiler
It's blown up quickly before you get there.) Instead, your base camp changes from place to place. You'll start off in the desert areas of Genosha in chapter 1, whisk away to Avalon in the Savage Lands in Antarctica in chapter 2, travel to Canada and camp at Weapon X Facility, go to Egypt, and more. The result is each new environment has its own color palette and theme, giving this sequel a variety of backgrounds and sights to see.
The graphic style is still exactly the same as in the first game. You'll see what look like cell shaded characters moving fluidly around the environment, but the art style isn't cell shaded at all, it's "comic book" shaded. Meaning that Raven wanted to create a comic book-like affect, basic shading outlined in heavy black lines, while also creating super easy to animate and design characters with a fast framerate. This art style lends itself smartly to all systems, and you'll notice very little difference between the look on each system. Of course, the biggest difference is the Xbox version, which supports 720p, giving it extra sharp qualities.
What you'll notice is how each character runs and moves, exactly like they should. Toad, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine stand out as they hop, crawl, and hunker down, respectively.
The addition of more interactive environments creates more explorative giddiness. And the easier to access environments makes for a better overall ease of use. For the most part, the game backgrounds look very detailed, while the character design remains simple, and the breakable objects and special lighting effects used in the super powers remain the big highlights.
Sound-wise, the game offers a wealth of super voice talent. Patrick Stewart does an exceptional job as Xavier, while Juggernaut is done by John DiMaggio, and Forge is handled by Lou Diamond Phillips. The other cast members all do a stand-up job envisioning the over-the-top characters from the wild X-Men universe.
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