Sunday, October 16, 2005

Game Fever

Or: "Have You Seen This Woman?"

To those wondering where I'd disappeared to... well, I don't celebrate Yom Kippur, but Israel basically shuts down for the duration of the holiday. This means I had Wednesday through Saturday off.

On Wednesday morning, I got the PC version of "X-Men Legends 2". On Wednesday evening, Ethan gently informed me that I'd been sitting at the computer for over six hours. This process repeated itself throughout the holiday.

In my defense, I very rarely get so caught up in a game. I think the last time something like that happened was "Legacy of Kain: Defiance". But "Legends 2" is an incredibly captivating and appealing game, for many reasons.

First of all, it's an X-Men game. I'm something of an X-Men fan - even though I'm not, at the moment, actually reading any X-books (that has more to do with the general quality of the line). So on that level, it certainly held some interest for me.

But it's not just an X-Men game; it's a good X-Men game. Hell, it's a great X-Men game. And I don't think I've ever played a great X-Men game in my life. There was the Super Nintendo "Arcade's Revenge", which was really limited in terms of gameplay and selection; the old DOS "Fall of the Mutants", the logistics of which was a nightmare to decipher; and even very energetic ones like the arcade game and the Mutant Academy series were really just smash-em-ups.

XML2 is different. It's akin to the Diablo games in that it blends action with aspects of the RPG genre - on the one hand, the crux of the game is beating up a whole bunch of bad guys, but on the other hand you also control how your characters develops their various powers. Which means that, essentially, the player determines how the slaughtering of enemies is to work out. And the best part is that, if you're not inclined to engage in RPG-ish mechanisms, you can set the game's AI to handle all leveling-up and equipment.

The second reason for its appeal is the sheer variety of possibilities. The PC version offers you twenty characters from both the X-Men and their rival group, the Brotherhood of Mutants. Seventeen of these players are immediately playable (Pyro and Sabretooth are exclusively available for PC; I understand the PSP version offers Cable, Nate Grey and Cannonball). Of these seventeen, you're to build a team of four which you then take into battle. The available selection ranges from the obvious (Cyclops, Wolverine, Magneto) to the not-so-obvious (Bishop? Scarlet Witch? TOAD?!). Each character also has a nice selection of costumes, dubbed "skins" - outfits from the Age of Apocalypse, Claremont era, Lee/Kirby era, Ultimate X-Men... it's a nice little bit that allows you to customize your team further.

The villains gallery is pretty impressive too: you've got Apocalypse, his Four Horsemen (Abyss, Mikhail Rasputin, Holocaust and Archangel), and an assortment of characters including the Stepford Cuckoos, Lady Deathstrike, Omega Red, Mister Sinister, Deadpool and more. The major boss fights are interesting because they're usually comprised of several segments, which makes for longer and more interesting battles.

The plot isn't particularly innovative: Apocalypse's latest evil scheme involves finding and kidnapping four mutants with specific DNA. The first two are Polaris and Quicksilver, and their capture coincides with an invasion of Genosha. Under the circumstances, and realizing Apocalypse is too powerful for either group to handle alone, the X-Men and the Brotherhood forge an uncomfortable alliance to deal with the greater threat. It's basic, but at least it's coherent and makes sense.

In terms of length, the game has five acts. Like the aforementioned Diablo games, each act is basically one map broken down into smaller areas. Additionally, the maps get bigger - Act 3 is considerably larger than Act 2, and both are dwarfed by the size of Act 4. Act 5 is smaller, if only because the endgame battle is very long and very complex. But replay is a major factor here: you have the ability to return to any area in the game, even in past acts you've beaten, through a system of save points/teleporters. These points also allow you to change your team lineup, which means there's very little limitation: you could conceivably play any given act with the entire cast, switching as you go along. The game is also full of secret items, some of which enhance your gameplay considerably (ie: the homing beacons which eventually allow you to unlock a very special and very powerful character). Even if you beat the game, you can continue from that exact point - after vanquishing Apocalypse - and go wherever you want, building your levels further. And then you have the option of starting a new game... with your characters maintaining the levels and powers you finished the game with. I haven't done that yet, but I'm expecting it to be just as enjoyable as the first run through.

So, do I recommend XML2? Hell yes. The RPG crowd will enjoy the various possibilities for developing their characters; the action gamers can let the computer handle that aspect of the game and just crush their enemies with Phoenix blasts, lightning bolts and adamantium blades. It's a game that can rarely be played twice the same way, and certainly allows for multiple repeats. And it's really, really fun. :)