I've noticed a weird trend regarding game sequels in the past few years—sequels seem to come into existence a lot faster than they used to in the days of my youth, and most of them are more like expansion packs to their predecessor than a full-fledged new installment. I suppose this practice is almost inevitable in a gaming market that wants a fresh sequel to a hit franchise released once a year, but it feels like a bit of rip-off to me. Each year, some company expects me to run out and drop 50 bones on a game that's really not much different than the one I spent money on less than twelve months prior. Sure, there are always a few tweaks and upgrades, but I often feel that those tweaks and upgrades are so obvious they should have been in the earlier title in the first place. And all of this pretty much describes how I feel about X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. It's a great game, but if one's played last year's iteration, it's hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu that colors every frame of this title.

The original Legends scored high marks for a number of reasons—it was a game based on a comic book license that managed to not suck, it was an action RPG with everyone's favorite mutants from the X-Men universe, and it was simplistic enough with its hack-and-slash gameplay that almost anyone could grab a controller and get in on the action. Rise of Apocalypse earns high marks for all the same reasons, plus the addition of online cooperative play—the one thing the first game was missing that really seemed as though it should have been included.

Aside from this addition of online play and a streamlining of certain parts of the character progression system (more on that in a bit), it's pretty hard to tell Rise of Apocalypse apart from last year's Legends. Sure, the sequel has an all-new storyline that sees Professor X's mutants teaming up with archrivals The Brotherhood (meaning fans can geek out over making teams with Wolverine and Magneto working toward a common goal) to stop their common enemy, Apocalypse, from taking over the world. And yeah, players will be able to select from a wide range of their favorite (and not so favorite—some of the included characters in this outing are just odd…) mutants to take into battle, but other than that, it's still the same game we all played last winter.

At its core, Rise of Apocalypse is a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. Players make a team of four mutants (one they control, the other three governed by the artificial intelligence system from the first game), head out to an area, kill everything in sight, break open chests and items for extra loot, fight a boss, and proceed to the next act. Along the way, Raven Software has scattered an amazing number of hidden goodies—danger room discs for new training regimens, sketch books with unlockable art, comic covers, and homing beacons which are used to find and recruit a hidden character. Because of these extras, exploration is just as important as hacking and maiming the bad guys—but the game is still pretty simplistic at its core.

One of the problems that returns from last year's game is that in order to balance the game so that players can use any mutants they choose, puzzles utilizing specific mutant powers are essentially nonexistent. Yes, there are spots where Rogue can use her energy drain power to advance or Iceman can make a frozen bridge, but in most instances players can just fly over the chasms with the non-flying characters magically teleported across in their wake. Because of this set-up, it's entirely possible to use four characters throughout the entire game without ever bothering to level up anyone else (which is exactly what I did—my team of Wolverine, Magneto, Iceman, and Cyclops was so well balanced I never had to change to other characters for more than a second or two). That the game is set up in this fashion is a bit disappointing, but probably a necessary evil in order to keep it so that any character can be used in almost any given situation.

One new change is the ability to let the AI level up the characters as they advance. The game has a ton of characters and a multitude of skill trees and so on, so allowing the game to decide what to increase and what to skip can certainly save the gamer time. Generally speaking, I'd never do something like this—I'm a hands-on sort of guy when it comes to my characters. However, for this review I let the game system auto-level everyone for me just to see how it worked out. Surprisingly enough, it worked out quite well—my characters were well balanced and had access to all the vital skills they needed. Players can also let the AI equip the characters with found loot. I tested this system as well and found it worked flawlessly. Yes, there are times when the player might want to manually change gear for a specific situation in the game, but for the most part the game will give each character the best all-around piece of equipment available.

Auto-leveling doesn't really matter in the single-player game (where stopping isn't much of an issue), but it makes a world of difference in the online mode. Here, having the game level-up the characters and dole out the equipment keeps the action moving since the group never has to stop while someone allocates skill points or tries on forty-five new pieces of armor. Instead, the stuff is handled instantly and everyone can focus on killing.

Graphically, the game looks a lot like last year's version. The characters are a little more detailed, but players are always kept at such a distance from the action it's hard to notice. Environments look nice—with everything a comic geek would expect in a comic-based game…e.g. jungles, sewers, futuristic laboratories, and so on. My only real complaint is that there wasn't a whole lot of variety in enemy types throughout the game. Players will spend a lot of time fighting the same sorts of humans and beasties over and over again.

Audio is top-notch featuring loads of voice acting from notable people like Patrick Stewart and Lou Diamond Phillips as well as a lot of lesser known actors. The game's voicework can be a bit over-the-top, but considering the source material, that's probably to be expected. One thing that really sticks out is how Sauron is voiced by John Kassir—and the voice he chooses for the character is a dead-on version of his work as The Crypt Keeper on Tales From the Crypt.

All that being said, Rise of Apocalypse is a good game that will give gamers roughly twenty hours of offline entertainment and countless more online with friends. My biggest beef remains the fact that the game feels more like an expansion of last year's title as opposed to a new experience—however, I can't fault the game for that since it's becoming something of an industry standard. I will say this, though— those who'veplayed last year's X-Men Legends have essentially played this year's game as well. The addition of online play is excellent, but everything else is just as it was last year—which makes it hard to justify spending $50 on it. If you missed last year's game though, or are just a hardcore comic fan with a hankering to kick butt with people online, then Rise of Apocalypse is definitely something to put on your holiday wishlist. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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