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When somebody says the word “superhero,” you usually don’t picture Wolverine combing through his inventory and agonizing over how high his defense stat could be.
Yet that’s the picture painted by X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. You would think the over-the-top antics of comic book superheroes and stat-driven RPG gameplay would be an awkward mash-up, yet X-Men Legends and its successors, the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, managed to make that series work for the better part of a decade.
One of the main reasons for this is simply because there are not a lot of games like the Legends and Ultimate Alliance titles on consoles. While Legends’ brand of stat-sorting, grab the loot gameplay thrives on the PC, console gamers did not, and still do not, have a lot of options when it comes to this genre. Coming back to the series now, it really feels like developer Raven badly wanted to make a game for consoles that simulated the Diablo experience of dungeon crawling alongside your buddies. The best way they could think to do that was to graft on the X-Men license, which was enjoying a very successful film series at the time. At least, that’s the best explanation I can think of as to why Storm needs to chug mana potion…err, “energy packs” to throw lightning around.
Legends II plays very similarly to its predecessor in that you form a team of four mutants, ranging from Wolverine to Jean Grey to Magneto to some “What If…?” version of Toad who is much stronger than he has any right to be. The story is a mish-mash of various pieces of X-lore that has you flying to locales such as the Savage Land, New York City and Egypt in order to stop super-baddie Apocalypse from unlocking the ridiculous power of “harmonic DNA.”
The story wasn’t great seven years ago, and certainly hasn’t aged well. Really, though, it’s just meant to thread you along from point A to point B, visiting the hot spots of the X-men world, killing whoever you find there and taking their stuff. Basic combat is very straightforward – you have a weak melee attack and a strong melee attack which you can string together to stun foes or launch them into the air, but you probably never will. Though enemies like to swarm the screen a dozen at a time, most of them are just XP fodder that will fall hopelessly before your army of homo-superior.
The real winner of X-Men Legends II’s gameplay is the wide variety of special abilities available to each mutant, ranging from projectiles, to melee attacks to buffs. Your special attacks are generally flashy and fun to use, so mowing down the legions of Apocalypse never really becomes a chore. The game is also good about staggering the abilities you unlock so most of the game’s 15 characters, though not all, continue to get interesting powers as the game continues. The skill trees are also thorough enough that there are usually multiple ways to play each character. Do you want to play as Nightcrawler the swordsman or Nightcrawler the teleporter? How about training Gambit to focus on his energy cards as opposed to his staff? And is it even possible to choose between Toad’s tongue mastery and mucous spit mastery trees? The wide variety of powers also help mitigate the fact that all of the game’s levels are pretty much the same. Some may take place in an ancient temple and others may take place in a city, but they all play as just a couple of boxes strung together and filled with minions to beat on.
Loot drops are frequent as well, though it’s hard to see them as a reward. The few Diablo-style console games that were released in the early aughts, such as Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, had a habit of making loot a chore by dropping too much of it and not making most of it worth the trouble of shoving into your inventory. A lot of this has to do with the game never being clear on what certain bonuses give you. For example, when you equip a bracer that gives you “+10 energy damage” is that a bonus simply to attacks that deal energy damage or does it add +10 energy damage to all attacks? The game certainly is not interested in telling you. It also doesn’t help that the stats on most gear tends to be marginally worse than whatever your characters are currently wearing. While playing, I kept maybe one in twenty drops and sold the rest to buy extra skill points in the game’s hub areas.
Does it Hold Up?
As long as you’ve got friends to play it with, yes. I don’t believe I once played the game as a single-player experience and there’s even less reason to try that now when there are so many better single-player RPGs available. The game is meant to be played when you’ve got a lot of friends in the same room blasting baddies together. Yeah, it can be pretty chaotic when the screen is filled with all the mutant-fueled pyrotechnics going on but that exemplifies the game. It’s brash, loud, maybe a bit rough around the edges, but still a lot of fun in the right crowd.