Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: X-Men: Destiny

One looks back at the lineage of X-Men games over the years, and sees that it’s a flimsy one. There have been great games, there have been less than great games. One can make the argument that the future for all mutantkind progressed as a species once LJN got their mitts off the franchise. But the one consistent fact about all of those titles is that they only have a skin-deep understanding of X-Men’s themes. You are with the good mutants, Magneto is with the bad mutants, you let the optic blasts sort out the rest. That Konami arcade game might fit into this group, I dunno, I remember Magneto welcoming me to die and maybe falling in a trap or two but that’s about it. There’s never any kind of attempt to explore the themes of racism that the (good) bits of X-Men fiction are so known for addressing.

So kudos to X-Men: Destiny for at least trying to take a gander at the ideas of segregation within the franchise. The game opens with a rally of some kind to unite all the people of different skin colours under one person that will obviously turn out to be the villain. Bad things happen, Race A blames the problems on Race B, and tensions fly. The player controls one of three plebian mutants that gets involved in the conflict, and can (in theory) choose to side with the X-Men’s Martin Luther King Jr. approach to racial conflict or Malcolm X-it-up with the brotherhood, serving the Honorable Elijah Magneto...

…or that’s how things appear at the onset. There’s a meter at the pause menu that fills up in favour of the X-Men or Brotherhood based on whose missions you choose to do. However, the mission structure never changes much. Good or evil, you are still beating up legions of the same bad guys. I guess they affect which muties fights alongside you. They probably affect which bosses you fight, but I went with the pro-X-Men path and I still spent more time fighting fellow X-Men than I did the Brotherhood threat.

See, the game does that Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 trick of teasing a moral choice based on thought-provoking themes, but then pairing both sides of the conflict against a common generic force of evil trying to destroy the world. So the “pick a side on this touchy issue” business means nothing in the end and serves to make me feel stupid for writing those first two paragraphs in this review. The loot drops and rewards for quests seem to be randomly generated too and have no basis in your moral choices. Maybe the Brotherhood ending is different from the X-Men ending, I have no way of finding out since I can’t seem to find that ending on Youtube. I sure as shit ain’t beating this game twice. So really, the difference between choosing between one side over the other is a matter of whether you find polygonal Emma Frost sexier than polygonal Mystique.

So you either choose to play as a hokey football jock, a hokey Asian stereotype or a guy that looks like a hokey football jock. You then choose whether you want your drone to have energy blast powers, shadow blade powers or rock hand powers. The three choices lead to different ability unlocks later in the game, but all amount to the exact same type of God of War-derivative style of action combat that dominates the entire game.

The combat itself is competent, if a tad imprecise and clunky. Rare is the confrontation that your mutant can’t keep his or her archtypical ass up and thrive. There’s one boss fight that comes in three stages, with no checkpoints or health power-ups, that stood out as one obscenely difficult challenge in a series of otherwise breezy and repetitive fights. I’m at least willing to karmatically forgive that specific part of the game thanks to a more interesting boss battle with a very giant, very nimble, very fly Sentinel. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that you will indeed fight a giant Sentinel. That one boss fight is really the game’s one other strong point, besides how the game’s script and voice acting can sometimes be so hilariously, unintentionally bad.

See, the game uses that God of War-derivative combat as the answer to every question. Did you just walk into a new room? Stop and beat up these 50 enemies within 3 minutes. Did you decide you’d rather accept a bonus mission from your broski Colossus instead that poser Quicksilver? Here’s a combat arena with two or three of that flamethrower mini-bosses. Did you try to explore the environment looking for hidden secrets? Here’s a combat arena as a reward. Just finished the game? Be treated to the largest combat arena of them all as the end credits roll. Over and over and over again, you will be locked in a room and asked to defeat X number of the same human goons the X-Men are sworn to protect. The only time you aren’t beating up human beings and reinforcing negative mutant stereotypes is spent climbing and speed-shimmying along ledges that are so brief and easy to navigate that they don’t exist for any reason other than to give your knuckles a break from jaw-cracking.

There’s a loot system that seems to randomly generate “X-genes” as rewards for exploring or doing way more combat arenas than the game forces you into. These power-ups are named and based after various characters, so you can give your character Colossus-like steel skin or Iceman-like…err…ice skin, or what have you. It’s nice that the game has SOME kind of character progression, but it feels immoral that your dullard protagonist can casually steal the unique identity traits of iconic characters that are infinitely more interesting than they are. And that leads to the greatest lesson that needs to be learned from this experience.

Call it the DC Universe Online quandary. It’s obvious that Silicon Knights spent a lot of time designing character models for all of the X-Men, as well as moves and effects so they can fight alongside your character. So why are we not controlling the X-Men themselves instead of these three new generic imitators? Once upon a time, Electronic Arts made a spectacular failure called Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. That was a very middling game where Marvel characters battle Electronic Arts-created heroes. All of the EA heroes came across as cheap knockoffs that will never be seen in another video game, comic, movie or Playboy spread again. No superhero I could ever create will ever come across as more intriguing than Nightcrawler, nuanced as Magneto or Canadian as Wolverine, so please give me the real deal.

If I want to make my own dream superhero, City of Heroes just went free to play. Champions Online is free to play. DC Universe Online is free to play. Putting a pencil to a piece of paper and writing my own comic books is free to play.

This is neither an especially noteworthy action adventure, nor the ideal use of the X-Men license you are looking for. It’s also sadly not the comeback I was hoping Silicon Knights would make, though I guess the Silicon Knights that made Blood Omen and Eternal Darkness are too busy raising families and enjoying life to make anymore dark fantasy action titles. Go play X-Men Legends. Go play X-Men Legends 2. Go play the X-Men Origins: Wolverine video game. Go even play that wackyass Konami beat-em-up on XBLA. I promise they’re all much better than this.