Back in 2004, Raven Software made X-Men Legends and succeeded where so many have failed: they released a good licensed superhero game. Licensed games tend to be duds and superhero games tend to be at least as bad. The game wasn’t perfect, but both the reviews and the sales were good enough that they made a sequel, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (XML2), in which they kept what was already working and improved on quite a few of the things that people didn’t like the first time around. It was released on the standard home consoles and the PSP, and it shocked many reviewers by managing to be at least as good on the PSP as it was on home consoles.
As what happens in the X-Men comics from time to time, the story of XML2 features a menace so big that the X-Men can’t fight it alone. In this case, they team up with Magneto’s team of villains (the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) to stop Apocalypse from taking over the world. If you don’t know who these folks are, you’ll probably still be able to follow the story-line, but it’ll be easier for X-fans than for those who are new to the characters. The story is long and well-written, and even though there are a few characters (like Gambit) whose lines might make you flinch, they do seem to act fairly true to their characters from the comics. The interactions between Magneto’s team and the X-Men can be particularly enjoyable.
X-Men Legends II is an action-RPG, and under most circumstances, you’ll be guiding four characters at a time through that action. There are 15 characters available to you at the beginning, along with 7 more that you can unlock. Four of the unlockable characters are exclusive to the PSP. The PC and N-Gage versions also had exclusive unlockables, but there is no question that the PSP got the best ones. The PC version gave players Pyro and Sabertooth, both of whom are essentially clones of two characters you start the game with, and the N-Gage gave them Beast. For the most part, you can take any team of four you like and have success with them, although one of the unlockables is so overpowered that it presents a balancing issue. Since you have to beat the game to unlock that character, though, it should not be considered a major defect. It is worth noting that specific sets of characters grant team bonuses. Using Magneto, Toad, Scarlet Witch, and Juggernaut, for example, nets the “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” bonus of +5% experience points. The team bonuses are nice, but few of them are attractive enough to make players feel that they need to limit themselves to using teams that grant bonuses.
XML2 is fairly linear, but there are quite a few optional sidequests that players can complete. There are also a few groups of items (“beacons,” “tech stations”) that you can collect to unlock characters, extra missions, some art, and training classes. Of course, by the time you find the classes, you don’t really need to take them, which makes this particular search rather confusing. Finding the items often involves going off of the beaten path, solving simple puzzles, and breaking through walls, which works nicely to reward those players who don’t want to simply plow through the game as quickly as possible.
As players progress through the game, all of the characters they have unlocked will earn experience, regardless of whether they are used in battle or not. However, those used on the active team will earn more experience than those who sit on the bench, and the character the player is actually using will earn the most experience. Some of the puzzles require specific skills to solve, so the fact that no one is left too far behind is very helpful, because it means that players aren’t stuck trying to level up a character just so they’ll be tough enough to make it to a puzzle before they can solve it.
When a character levels up, they get both stat points and skill points. Stat points make the character faster, stronger, etc. Skill points improve the character’s powers or unlock new ones, although as in many RPGs, there are prerequisites for unlocking certain skills. The large number of skills that each character possesses allows players to customize characters to a great degree, and though there are some skills that every player will probably choose to max out, these are the exception rather than the rule. One unfortunate choice the developers made is for flight to be a skill that must be learned and that costs energy (XML2’s version of mana) to use. The fact that flight is often used to pass over bottomless pits makes this even more of a poor choice, because it leads to flying characters who run out of energy during flight and die. A character who dies for any reason can be brought back to life at a save point using the game’s currency at a cost that goes up with the character’s level, but never gets to the point where bringing someone back is too expensive to be possible. Cash can also be used to buy equipment (although this will probably not be necessary) or to clear out a character’s skill point distribution to eliminate wasted points when a skill just didn’t work out as planned.
Of course, all of this would be pointless if the game weren’t fun to play. Fortunately, that’s not a problem for XML2. It’s almost constantly fun – fighting enemies never gets boring, especially considering the number of characters available to play as. For those who don’t want to bother with assigning stat points, skill points, or re-equipping characters, the game offers the option to have any of these tasks automated. Characters the player doesn’t directly control can have their AI set in a few different ways, and can be set to automatically take health potions when their HP drops below certain levels. This is helpful in maintaining the balance between using up all of the team’s potions and keeping characters from dying. One of the few real knocks against the game is the long loading times when moving between areas or switching the characters that are currently on the team. These are not bad enough to be a major impediment to the fun, but are definitely annoying.
The graphics in X-Men Legends II are very good. Clear distinctions are made between player characters and enemies, and all are detailed and well-animated. Characters have multiple costumes available, and though they don’t have any gameplay effect, they do allow players greater control over how their team looks. Skill effects like flames and even falling snow look nice and don’t cause any framerate issues. On that subject, it is worth noting that when returning the PSP from standby, there will be several seconds of framerate issues. This is only a problem if there are enemies around, so pausing the game before putting the PSP on standby can take care of this issue.
The HUD in XML2 is helpful and provides the info players need without being too cluttered. An icon in the corner shows the four characters who are currently on the team, and although the PSP’s screen eliminates the possibility of showing all four characters’ HP and energy, those stats are shown clearly for the character the player is actively controlling. An in-game map is available either as a mini-map on the side of the screen or as a transparent overlay on the whole screen. The map fills itself in as the player moves around, which is very helpful in directing players to areas they haven’t seen yet. When text is shown on the screen (such as when a character gets low on health), it is clearly legible but doesn’t get in the way of the action. This is mostly important for those who like turning on cutscene subtitles, but text occasionally shows on the screen during battle as well.
XML2’s sound is also well done. Characters are voiced by known actors like Patrick Stewart and John DiMaggio (best known as Bender from the show Futurama). Some of the characters tend to use their catchphrases more often than is strictly called for, but it’s not bad enough to make turning off the sound necessary. The sounds attached to skills are nice and sync up well with the visuals.
Music is nice, and changes when enemies are present. Enemies are very frequently present, so the developers were considerate enough to give players the option of eliminating the combat music. Standard options of changing the volume on both music and sound effects are also present.
Many action games follow the format “See enemy, pound X until dead, lather, rinse, repeat.” X-Men Legends II offers a more complex control scheme than that with a quick attack and a strong attack that can be strung together in a few ways to provide different combo options that do things like stun or trip enemies. Strong characters can also throw enemies.
Holding the L adds a second set of actions to the buttons: switching between the currently active character on the team, and using skills. Holding R allows camera control, and holding both together blocks. The sheer number of options can sound a bit overwhelming at first, but the camera control is rarely needed, leaving players with just two sets of easy to use controls that they’ll use all the time.
It is worth noting that players can hit a button to request that their team members help them out, and this can be used to get around one of the few annoying features of the gameplay. The problem is that although all characters have at least one boost skill, the AI refuses to ever use those skills on its own. However, players can configure the skill that each character uses when help is requested, so they can set their characters to use their boost when asked for help. It is frustrating to have this kind of silly hole the AI, but it is good that there is a workaround.
X-Men Legends 2 is an excellent game, whether you’re a fan of the X-Men comics or just of action RPGs in general. It does a great job of keeping the good from the first X-Men Legends game and improving on the bad, and manages to provide a portable gaming experience that’s at least as good as the home console version is. Although some loading time issues and a couple of poor design choices keep it from being perfect, it’s still an easy game to recommend.