Raven Software, responsible for titles such as Hexen and Jedi Academy, have returned with another instalment in the X-Men Legends series. Their approach is a simple and effective one based on the mantra of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." According to their marketing people - who I have no reason to doubt - last year's X-Men Legends became the most successful X-Men game of all time. Raven, not content with just continuing the story, has upped the ante in all respects. There are now more mutant abilities, more characters to play with, and a whole host of new items with which to kit out your super freak. All this helps to create a game that is sure to please fans of the original as well as newcomers to this promising franchise.
The story takes place after the events of the first game. Apocalypse, the rascal that he is, has come into the possession of a secret prophecy. Being the all powerful mutant, Apocalypse cannot be stopped without the combined efforts of the X-Men and their sworn enemies, The Brotherhood of Mutants. This means that, this time around, players will be able to select characters from the good and evil sides of the X-Men coin. Something that's sure to please fans of the comic series.
To newcomers, X-Men Legends 2 is an action RPG. If you're familiar with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, you should feel right at home here. The main idea behind the game is to trek through dungeons killing monsters and taking loot. In the middle of all this you'll usually have some kind of objective to complete. These range from rescue 'x' from giant ants, to find all the missing parts of a broken machine.
As you fight your way through the game's various dungeons, you gain experience, which eventually results in your character levelling up. Once your hero has levelled up, you can choose new abilities for them, as well as increase one or two of their vital statistics: Body, Focus, Strike and Speed.
Instead of fighting through the game alone, you must pick a team of up to four other superheroes to travel with you throughout your adventure; the idea being that you can create one team for each type of environment you encounter. There are, of course, other possible ways to play the game - you could pick one team and stick with them through the entire game. In the end, how you choose to arrange your team is totally up to you and adds an interesting level of depth to the game that other titles lack.
The gameplay itself is fairly simple, but addictive and rewarding. Hordes of enemies swarm in on your team, but in true superhero style you beat them to a pulp. From the outset you might think that it could get pretty repetitive, but the variety of enemies and the fact that you constantly gain new abilities means that it never really becomes tiresome. One slight problem with this formula is that the screen can sometimes get a little overcrowded, which can become a little disorientating. I struggled to see where I was during some of the more notable encounters due to the amount of action on the screen. However, these moments don't last long and can easily be overlooked.
To help keep things fresh players are constantly being shifted to new and exciting locations. These include exotic jungle islands, military complexes and sun-scorched deserts. You needn't get friends over to play cooperatively either, as it's now possible for you to team up and play through the game online (Unless you're playing the GameCube version). This is great fun, and opens the cooperative play up to a wider range of people.
Despite offering some nice improvements over the original, a few areas let the game down. The first problem, which gets easier to deal with as you get further into the game, is the loading times. There are lengthy loads everywhere. If you level up and want to fiddle with your stats it takes between five and ten seconds to load the screen; if you want to change around the members in your team you have to wait for the game to load the appropriate area and then wait for yet another load once you're finished. All these loads can really break up the flow of the game.
Ability points also cause a few problems. At the beginning of the game I tried to manually set all my team members' stats so I would have a totally customised group of super dudes. After a few hours this became pretty tedious as it was simply taking too long to stop and fiddle with each individual's stats when they levelled up. Admittedly, Raven has included an automatic level system which allows the computer to deal with CPU characters when they level up, taking that menu work away if you don't want it, but a more streamlined system would have been ideal. The menus themselves are a considerable improvement over the first game. Bright, sunset-orange colours and an easy to navigate stats screen help to lessen the negative edge created by the dense collection of loading times.
X-Men Legends 2 uses the same cel-shaded style that featured in the first expedition. This makes the whole thing feel like it's a moving, interactive comic. Characters are well sculpted and environments are nicely detailed. You can even change your characters' uniforms - something that wasn't possible the original game. As well as adding a little more customisability to your characters, certain combinations also provide stat bonuses for your heroes. Audio is also solid, but isn't without its problems. While the musical score is very good, featuring a collection of great tracks, the sound effects are of a fairly low quality and often sound a little tinny.
X-Men Legends 2 is a solid sequel to an already impressive game. Despite the few mentioned niggles it feels exactly like a sequel should: more developed and more adventurous. The gameplay is addictive and very rewarding, and in the time honoured RPG fashion, the more you play, the stronger you get, and the more you rule.