Saturday, October 17, 2009

NonEssential #51: X-Men Legends I & II

You know how some movies can be so bad that they're good? The Uwe Boll Bloodrayne, for example, with its horrendous script, atrocious editing, and miserly production, should have made for a painful experience, yet the earnest amateurism made for a diverting sort of train wreck, and I could not help laughing even as I shook my head at Sir Ben Kingsley's slumming it. In fact, most video game-based movies probably fall under that "so-bad-it's-good" category.

I'm not sure if there is such a thing as a "so-bad-it's-good" video game, however. Bad games are usually so due to flawed design or mechanics, leading to a poor experience that is simply bad, never good. The greater investments of time and money involved in playing a game, versus watching a movie, furthermore make it difficult to recommend a bad game for any reason. And while bad movies can gain cult followings through home video and television, video games do not get such second chances. A good bad game experience would likely have to be very short and probably free, so that the player could still walk away laughing before their good mood dissipated.

Or perhaps otherwise perfectly playable games can have "so-bad-it's-good" moments. Such was the case with Activision's X-Men Legends series. These were some pretty good games--not great, mind you, but pretty good--that I nevertheless remember better for the things they did poorly than for those they did well.

X-Men Legends

The original X-Men Legends, developed by Raven Software and published by Activision in 2004 for all three consoles (GameCube, PS2, Xbox), was actually a very solid title. Essentially an X-Men-themed dungeon crawler, it attracted my attention with its four-player support.

Although it was marketed as a role-playing game, it certainly did not match my idea of an RPG, which was defined by Final Fantasy and other, predominantly Japanese-developed console RPGs. The overhead hack-and-slash action of X-Men Legends characterized a particular sub-genre of Western RPG that had its roots in PC gaming, although it also bore some resemblance to Atari's arcade classic Gauntlet. I wasn't very familiar with the design, which was nothing like Final Fantasy, and I approached X-Men Legends as more of a cooperative beat 'em up.

That worked pretty well in the early going, as I happily punched, kicked, and threw my enemies about the destructible environments. Occasionally I would mix in a superpower (although these puny attacks were not nearly as cool as they should have been). Then I realized that the boss fights were completely lame, and there was actually very little of either skill or strategy involved in the gameplay. Even Magneto, ostensibly the main villain for most of the story, was basically a regular dude in combat. The only difference between him and his underlings was that he had more health and did more damage. Fighting him still came down to just running up to him and punching him repeatedly until he plopped to the floor with no ceremony. When we faced him, he wasn't even the last enemy to fall in that fight, and, even as his lifeless body lay on the floor, the battle would not end until we took out one last stray subordinate.

The bigger problem with X-Men Legends was that it was not multiplayer at all times. Rather, the party size would occasionally be limited as dictated by the story. That was truly a shame, because the story was awful.

The Marvel superheroes were originally appreciated for the depth of character they offered over most of their antecedents. They were not just gods and lunatics but fleshed-out people, with dreams and anxieties, who would face realistic life problems both in and out of costume. In the case of the X-Men specifically, the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run of stories that remain the franchise's most enduring was full of melodrama to match the adventure.

None of that came through in X-Men Legends.

X-Men Legends implemented a very lousy conversation system that included an unconvincing false element of interactivity. When speaking with a character, the player would be presented with a list of questions to ask, each one resulting in a voice actor very slowly reciting an answer that sounded completely unnatural. This was not conversation at all; there was no branching or anything, so the "dialogue" consisted just of you selecting one question, listening passively as the character answered with their lengthy life story, then moving on to the next question in the list, which would yield the next chapter of that life story. There was nothing resembling a realistic interaction, so the story was nothing more than a series of dungeons and boss fights.

Worst of all may have been the player character's own dialogue. Because it was possible for the player to be controlling any of a number of different characters for most of the game, this dialogue would always be completely generic, yet it could also be oddly elaborate. Reflecting neither the specific character nor the player, it took you further out of the story when, after hearing a lengthy speech by Patrick Stewart's Xavier, you then had to read your own character's response in silence.

The closest thing the game had to a real main character was Magma, the young mutant recruited by the X-Men at the beginning of the game. Between missions, the player would have to control her while exploring Xavier's mansion, which was essentially the one town in the game, where you could shop, run errands, or just talk to the other X-Men. These bits of story worked a little better, partly because Magma didn't have to be saddled with generic lines, and partly because it made sense for her to ask the X-Men stupid questions since she was still new. What made these segments a real chore, however, was that they were strictly single-player and devoid of action. They were pretty much the last thing I wanted to see in a multiplayer brawler.

The Magma interludes provided breaks for freely roaming the mansion between missions, but the game was otherwise a strictly linear affair, and there was no way to back out of a mission once begun. If you saved in the middle of a stage that was beyond your team's abilities to survive, then you were completely screwed.

That was the game-killing prospect that I nearly faced when the Sentinels descended upon New York. After a few early ambushes, the Uncanny X-Men were down to just Wolverine--literally every other member of the team, including all reserves, had been KO'd by these Sentinels, and I didn't have the money to buy them back their lives.

After a narrow escape to catch my breath, I began to actually strategize for the first time in the game. Rushing in hadn't worked with four men, so a lone X-Man stood no chance. Instead, I would approach the Sentinels cautiously, luring them out one at a time. Although even a single Sentinel could kill Wolverine in two hits, I was much smarter than them, and, so long as I played defensively and carefully picked my chances, I would have the advantage in the one-on-one. If I did take a bad hit, I would simply flee to some distant corner and wait for Wolverine's healing factor to slowly restore him, after which it was back into the fray.

The last man standing, I had to take out a half-dozen of these steel Goliaths in that manner while my fallen teammates watched, depending on me to get them back into the game, and each time gasping when some punk robot landed a lucky blow. It was a slow and methodical process for me, and many times I found myself straddling the razor's edge, but finally, a graveyard of dead metal beneath my feet, I had earned enough money to resurrect a few teammates, though, after taking down a team of Sentinels by myself, I wasn't sure I even needed anyone else. With everything on the line, I had proven beyond all shadow of a doubt why Wolverine was the most hardcore of all X-Men.

Was that a great moment in gaming? Maybe, but it was also kind of awful, as, more than just Sentinels, what I was really fighting to overcome was progression-halting design that would be considered broken in any RPG.

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse

Raven and Activision's sequel, released in 2005 for all major platforms, was where things really got crazy.

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse improved upon its predecessor in many ways, but it was also a lesser experience in others, and overall it was just more of the same.

Rightly recognizing that the multiplayer was the first game's biggest draw, Raven included support for four players throughout X-Men Legends II. Along with this, they also removed the boring Magma segments, although I would gradually come to recognize this as a double-edged sword, as the loss of the rookie's perspective to relate to exposed just how exceedingly poor the narrative and characterization really were. Worse yet, as its title suggested, Rise of Apocalypse was based on the really bleak and ugly period of mid-80s and 90s comics, which, among other terrible characters, gave us the four-armed and head-bodied Sugar Man, who appeared in the game as a minor boss.

The major boss fights, meanwhile, were probably the area of most marked improvement, as they were all basically modeled after the one good fight in the first game--the very difficult final battle that required players to move together as a unit to operate several switches spread about a room, all while taking heavy fire from a giant foe.

But what I mainly remember are the bugs.

The first X-Men Legends was already not the most polished game, but the sequel must have been rushed to market after the original's success convinced Activision of its viability as an annual series. As a result, X-Men Legends II was riddled with glitches that ranged in severity from minor to completely heinous.

Like the original, the game was of course rife with text errors and other minor bugs, such as a character's name accompanied by a different character's face in the dialogue box.

At the end of the first mission, we came across the first more serious bug. As Juggernaut, I tried to initiate a conversation with Professor X, and what I got back was a completely blank dialogue box. Or, rather, it brought up the usual list of questions, but all the text was invisible. As I scrolled up and down the list of invisible options, I never even knew what question Professor X would be answering in response to each of my button presses. Panic nearly set in, however, when I lost my place in the list of questions. Unable to tell which was the bottom option, I found myself repeating questions and unable to find the one response that would just make Patrick Stewart shut up and end the conversation. A bit of patience got me what I wanted, so it was not too serious an issue, but it was such a bizarrely stupid bug that my brother and I even joked that maybe Xavier was giving Juggernaut a hard time because of their history of hostility in the comics.

That bug was just the beginning. At one point, my brother and I were flying around the city as Iron Man and Storm. During the course of the first game, it had become clear that flying was the preferred way to get around, to the point that we rarely played as non-flying characters. But I noticed that, while my Storm hit an invisible ceiling very quickly, my brother's Iron Man was able to soar much higher. This was especially odd because I knew that Storm had had more points invested in her flight ability. But Iron Man was a hidden character, after all, so maybe he was just special.

I knew something was not right, however, when he just kept ascending. As Iron Man soared ever higher, the details below him grew smaller, until eventually, like a scene out of Dark City, it was revealed that there was no outside world beyond the walls of that city, which became just a speck floating in a field of infinite blackness. Whatever designs he may have had on escaping were dashed, however, when he ran out of gas and plummeted to the ground, dying instantly on impact. As we progressed further into the game, the bug would recur many times. And it had nothing to do with Iron Man or that stage--it could happen anywhere and with any flying character.

A more freak incident occurred when our X-Men/Brotherhood coalition, led by none other than Magneto, went in half-cocked to lay siege to an enemy factory. Midway into the level, a gang of robots suddenly burst into the room and decimated almost our entire party within seconds. Once again, my Wolverine was the lone survivor, but even he could not win this fight by himself. Against the Sentinels, I had managed to reduce it to a series of simple one-on-one engagements, but here I was facing a large mix of fast and aggressive machine men. My only option was to flee.

Because of the overhead camera, I could not see very far behind me as I fled, but I could hear the metallic clangor of the stomping feet behind me, and, to my horror, the sound would not subside no matter how far I got. In this chase sequence more horrifying than anything in Resident Evil, all I could do was keep running and never look back. Their noisy footsteps did not stop following me until I got all the way back to the X-Jet and flew back to base to regroup.

But the machines' pursuit had not been the only sound echoing in Wolverine's ears.

The entire time I was running, I also had to hear Magneto's repeated cry of "I am in need of assistance!" But Magneto was dead! Right before I was forced to turn and run, I had seen it all clearly with my own eyes--a two-ton steel giant shattering Magneto's every bone with a massive backhand to send him flying into the wall, then the former Master of Magnetism's body sprawled motionless across the floor. I would never have left a man behind unless I knew for certain that he was already gone. More importantly, the game would not have allowed me to scroll a living team member off the screen. So how could he still be screaming?!

Then I looked up at Magneto's vitals on the heads-up display and noticed something odd. Although his health was completely empty, his portrait was not grayed out like the other dead team members. Some bizarre glitch had left him in a state that was neither living nor entirely dead, where the only thing he could still do was yell for help. It was all in vain of course. There were no resurrection potions in this game, so there was nothing Wolverine could have done for him.

I should clarify that even dying characters would not call out for help on their own. The dead Magneto was screaming incessantly because my brother, who had been controlling Magneto, was still deliberately spamming the "call for assist" button. The way the game operated, players would always have a party of four characters, with the AI filling in any spots not taken by human players. The AI would stick to conventional punches and kicks unless the player pressed the assist button, which would instruct the AI to use a superpower. Usually, this would be preceded by the player's character yelling out some stupid line calling for help. Magneto's clips were by far the funniest, as he would spout such improbable dialogue as "Help me conquer my enemy!" Alternatively, characters would also yell things out as they defeated enemies or used their own superpowers. Sadly, the most common sound was that of your character informing you that you could no longer perform a move because you had exhausted the special meter. This would result in the even more unlikely Magneto line, "I cannot do that because I lack the power."

But there was one major game-breaking glitch that was not so funny. A little over halfway into the campaign, our game locked up in the middle of a fight. After a little digging online, I found out that this most egregious of bugs was actually a very common issue among players of the game. The cause was all the item and health drops that scattered about the floor whenever we defeated enemies. In X-Men Legends II, these drops never blinked out. If you didn't collect them, they would just remain where they were until you did. And unlike in the first game, it was possible to return to earlier stages in X-Men Legends II, and, sure enough, the items you left behind would still be there. Add in the fact that enemies respawned and you could have potentially an infinite number of prizes littered across the game's maps. But the game console hasn't got infinite RAM; eventually the number of dropped items stored in memory has got to hit an upper limit, and then something's gotta give. It's common sense.

In X-Men Legends II, that breaking point was practically unavoidable because we simply could not pack everything we came across, especially since most dropped pieces of equipment were useless to us. Always we would be taunted by these "Nanobelts" or "X-Armors" that required us to be ten levels higher before we could equip them, at which point there would surely be some new "Nanofiber" that was twenty levels stronger than that. Eventually we just stopped collecting them. Big mistake. After the game-freezing bug hit us, we had no choice but to stroll backwards through the game to find and proactively destroy all stray items lying on the ground. The most disgusting thing about this bug was that it was so commonly encountered, and the cause so elementary, that Raven and Activision must have known about it, yet they shipped the game out in that state anyway.

Both X-Men Legends titles were seriously rough games, but they were also some of the best cooperative four-player experiences of the last generation, and though there may not have been a lot of competition in that category, that they were even generically mediocre still made them worthwhile. I had a lot of fun with them, but, crazy as it may sound, I remember them best and most fondly for the terrible (yet amazing) moments.

* * * * *

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

After the two X-Men Legends titles, Raven and Activision decided to expand the scope of the series to encompass the entire catalog of Marvel superheroes. The result was Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, released in 2006 for all major platforms.

I'm actually still in the middle of this game. I've been playing it on and off because the game is kind of a chore. The idea of X-Men Legends with a greater mix of Marvel characters sounded pretty cool, but I think, with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the series may have finally become just a bad game.

There are some improvements. The most significant is the inclusion of an "arcade" mode. Not only does it feature a fun arcade-style scoring system, but it makes for a less frustrating experience by allowing dead characters to automatically resurrect mid-fight after a short time, so long as at least one other player stays alive during that time. It basically prevents any encore of my "Wolverine vs. Sentinels" episode, although, taken another way, it actually puts a new spin on the "last man standing" strategy, only replacing Wolverine's healing factor with the universal resurrection element.

The tradeoff with arcade mode is that you can't have any AI-controlled characters in your party. While the AI may not be especially helpful, the downside of losing them is that you cannot spam the assist button to hear the ridiculous dialogue that has always been one of the best/worst parts of the experience.

Where the game suffers is in the lack of character variety. A more all-encompassing Marvel game should have taken the series in the opposite direction, but, in practice, the characters all feel largely the same because they do not have distinct functions as before. In the X-Men Legends games, you needed Iceman to create ice bridges, Jean Grey to telekinetically operate switches, and Colossus to move heavy objects. There is almost none of that in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. It's just a lot of fighting, and every character handles that about the same. I suppose, as part of the streamlining process, the idea is to spare players having to constantly swap out characters just to progress, but, while the intention may have been to allow players to use only whichever characters they like, the result is that I don't really care who I use, because nobody feels unique. For a game based around superheroes, that's nearly a deathblow to the experience.

The story is still crap, the dialogue terrible, and the game still extremely unpolished, but there has been nothing so interesting as the bugs in X-Men Legends II. The funniest one I've come across involves the background NPCs that will walk around in circles whenever you're in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes their paths will intersect with a static character's position, so, for example, while my Captain America is standing engaged in conversation, some dude might walk into him, and, instead of turning and going around, the guy will repeatedly bump his body and shake, as though he's humping Captain America, who seems so absorbed in the boring talk that he doesn't even notice what is extremely distracting to the player. This has happened more than a few times, and there's nothing random about it.

So far, the best part of the game was when the villain Arcade transported the party into a spot-on recreation of Activision's Atari 2600 classic Pitfall!, complete with blocky Marvel sprites and archaic platforming mechanics. It's a cool and unexpected moment, but, honestly, when the best part of a game is its inclusion of a much older game that I never liked to begin with, that's not a good sign.

As with the X-Men Legends games, I bought this mainly because there is a terrible dearth of even just competent local co-op games for more than two players. But this game is so lackluster that my teammates have completely abandoned me.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 just came out, but I think it's safe to say that I'm done with this series.


Czardoz said...

"Some bizarre glitch had left him in a state that was neither living nor entirely dead."

Oddly evocative of, yet certainly more horrifying than Resident Evil, all right. If only Magneto's fate had been left to a braver man than you and your Wolverine, but alas.

"this game is so lackluster that my teammates have completely abandoned me"

Damn straight! Though the series finally lost all credibility with the carbon copy characters and abilities of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, things were already pretty tenuous in the first two games, when we saw how frail most of the X-Men and their powers were. Decimated by a "gang of robots," indeed.

Are you sure these are three different games? Because the screen shots look pretty much identical.

Hmm, your Wolverine vs. the Sentinels thing is all right, but does it really compare to the time when all my teammates had perished, and I alone, using Iron Man, had to take out some civie in a dime-store suit, while Sentinels made strafing runs overhead? Here's the Invincible Iron Man, the one-man army, cowering behind cover, sticking his head out every few seconds to fire off an anemic pulse round at this nearly anonymous pistolero, and having to retreat after every few shots to refill his special meter. And this was only after I had figured out how to get clear of the Sentinels. And still it took eons to take out one dude! With Iron Man!

Henry said...

"If only Magneto's fate had been left to a braver man than you and your Wolverine, but alas."

What good would bravery have been against a gang of evil robots? Had Wolverine stayed to fight, it would have been four dead mutants instead of just three. At least he could live to tell the tale!