For as long as I can recall, I've loved comic books. Some of the finest memories of my childhood are the days I spent sitting on the couch with a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man learning to read—yes, that's right…comics were a key item in teaching me to read. Unlike most parents, who seem to go out of their way to encourage their kids to read anything but comics, my mother saw them as an invaluable tool in inspiring in me a love for the written word. To this day, I still love the medium (although I rarely buy comics anymore, which is almost sad in a way).
As a kid, I was a Marvel fan—forget Batman and Superman, I was infinitely more interested in Spidey than anyone else in tights. If I'd already read the latest Spider-Man, then odds were I had a copy of The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, or The Uncanny X-Men lying around somewhere. I loved all the Marvel heroes, but I have to admit, the X-Men were undoubtedly my second favorite of all. This love of Spidey and Professor X's merry band of mutants made it that much more difficult to play through all the bad videogames inspired by the comics over the years. Like films, comics translated into games seem to be almost required by law to suck. It's because of this dubious history and my love for the medium that X-Men Legends was such a joy to play. Finally, the X-Men get a game worthy of their rich and storied history.
And while loving the comic and even the cinematic exploits of the X-Men will help one appreciate this dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash dressed up in superhero garb, an extensive knowledge of the X universe isn't essential to enjoying the game. Comic fans will geek out at numerous points (none of which will be spoiled here), but even newcomers to this alternate reality will find things to love thanks to a richly crafted story courtesy of a group of former X-Men writers. Because of this, the game genuinely feels like an X-Men story instead of just generic videogame plot #32654 with X-Men characters in the mix.
Players will start the game with a single mutant (ah, but what a mutant Wolverine is…), sent to New York to save Magma from the Brotherhood of Mutants. From this humble beginning, players will embark on a quest that spans nearly twenty hours and incorporates no less than fifteen playable X-Men—all from different eras. Having a roster that includes fifteen different mutants (including Gambit, Storm, Nightcrawler, and a ton of other fan favorites) is one of the game's greatest selling points. However, having access to specific mutants is just the beginning—players can make teams of up to four heroes for each of the game's missions. The beauty of X-Men Legends is that it's designed in such a way that players can use any of the mutants for any of the missions—meaning if a gamer really digs someone like Nightcrawler, he can always be in the party.
This great strength can ultimately be a double-edged sword, though. While players can have any of the X-Men with them at any time, this means that specific powers rarely figure into the puzzle solving elements of a level. Instead, the majority of the gameplay revolves around exploring environments, breaking things for items, and slaughtering hordes of mindless enemies. Like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, X-Men Legends is essentially a dungeon crawl with lots of hacking and slashing. Players start an area, run around killing things, meet a mini-boss, kill some more stuff, then fight the level boss before heading back to the mansion. In terms of structure, it's pretty predictable. The coolness almost invariably springs from the fact that it's the X-Men and not some generic Dungeons & Dragons archetype that the players are controlling.
Characters gain experience for each kill—kill enough bad guys and they level up. Leveling up is one of the cooler areas of the game in that it allows for a bit of customization on the player's part. At each level up, the players earn points that can be spent on unlocking certain skills and abilities for their mutants. Each X-Man starts off the game as a relatively weak "babe in the woods" type character, but after a few level ups and some careful planning, will be wreaking havoc on everything around them.
Combat is essentially a button-mashing affair, although in order to discourage this, the developers have included a combo system. Having certain characters perform a special attack followed by another character's attack can create special moves that dole out extra damage. This is a really cool idea, but there are two problems: first, the three characters the player isn't controlling are controlled by the artificial intelligence (A.I.) —meaning they tend to do whatever they feel like. Second, there's no list of combos or how to pull them off anywhere in the game. Pulling off a combo is always cool, but it usually feels more like luck than any skillful planning on the player's part.
Speaking of the A.I., it's surprisingly decent. It seems as though the game industry has finally reached the point where computer-controlled characters can be programmed to act at least somewhat like a real player. While no one will ever mistake the A.I. controlled characters in Legends for real flesh-and-blood people, the A.I. does generally manage to follow the instructions the player has given it.
Of course, if it isn't living up to expectations, players can switch to any of their four combatants with the press of a directional pad. X-Men Legends allows players to switch between characters on the fly and the system works flawlessly. Controls in the game are tight and responsive, which makes controlling the onscreen action (which can get very hectic) quite simple.
Better still, though, is getting three friends together and playing the game as a multiplayer dungeon crawl. I've yet to make three friends, though, so I can only dream about how cool this game would be with three other real people.
The game's graphics and voice work are good. The graphics get the shorter end of the stick, utilizing a cel-shaded style that seems to be all the rage these days. While the cel-shading here is nice, it's not as sharply defined as a game like Dark Cloud 2. The voicework, on the other hand, is spot-on, hitting a perfect balance between sounding just how the player would imagine and delivering the lines with the precise amount of cheesy comic book bravado.
X-Men Legends is not a game without flaws. Like all hack-and-slash titles, the heavy emphasis on fighting and breaking things can certainly get old as the game progresses. While developers Raven Software have worked diligently to keep things interesting, there's no denying the game mostly works because of the presence of the beloved X-Men. Because of this, the game will be more impressive to some people than to others. Despite that, this is still easily the best of the X-Men games to ever appear on a console and a shining example that not all games based on licensed properties like comics and movies have to suck.