The exploitation of superheroes is something the X-Men would probably rail against, but in certain situations exploitation can be a necessary thing. Superhero action games have been pretty much polished off for now, with Spider-Man swinging at the peak of that achieved so far but with the likes of the Hulk, X-Men, Constantine, the Punisher et al all looking acceptable for the future, or raising eyebrows with smatterings of quality in the past. Catwoman made a fairly good job of being one of the worst games in memory, but then even superheroes can't have everything. But when it comes to spreading to other genres, they can try.
Activision's hold on the X-Men licence has seen a swathe of fighting games up to this point, generally centred on Wolverine sneaking, slicing and fornicating with enemies' mothers in games released to coincide with the movies of recent years. The spotlight is now off Professor Xavier and friends in the rest of the media, and Activision is obviously looking to spread interest in the licence in order to grab what remaining super-cash exists on Planet Game. And here we are with X-Men Legends, a four-way action RPG. EA is about to pull the same trick with Lord of the Rings, with The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age for all consoles and The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle Earth for PC, both RTS titles designed to soak up additional funds from fans and other markets after the demise of the films that drove the original third-person action games. Yes, it's cynical, but cynicism can sometimes have its merits.
"I'm the best at what I do! Sort of."
It's obvious why X-Men Legends was made, but as a game there's every reason to be hopeful of success. While the X-Men titles released previously by Activision have failed to set the world on fire, they haven't been especially bad, just... misguided. A step in a different direction, in this case, is a good thing. The game is set, as are all the others, in a world where mutants are victimised by the general public. Making matters worse is the evil Brotherhood, who kick the story off by kidnapping Alison, a mutie bird given to turning roads into lava. Why can't they just accept them for who they are, man? You're straight into the thick of things as Wolverine, following Blob's trail to find the girl.
You can instantly see that Legends is borne directly from the same school of thought as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, with it's 3D camera focused on a small character in a detailed environment (which could have been far more detailed, if we're being honest, although you can break pretty much anything by kicking it enough times). The detachment of the viewpoint lends itself neatly to the bigger battles later in the game, but in the beginning you simply get used to taking on Brotherhood troops as you work your way across levels.
Combat is fluid, and there's a lot of it. Punch and kick combos are found on the A and B buttons. Right trigger brings up special moves by showing alternatives for each button on the pad on the screen - a standard special move is set to A by default - with black and white buttons restoring health and energy (used when performing special attacks). There's a jump and a basic double jump which ends in an overhead smash, X throws opponents and A and B in sequences perform increasing hit-number combos. The combat system is no slouch. Information points keep you well informed as to how to control the character and it feels natural to walk around ruined cities introducing men in black to Wolverine boot, if a little disengaged.
There are some immediate camera issues, and a few weird design choices early on. In Brotherhood of Steel, when you were to move between areas, you would go to a door in a wall. In Legends, the first move into a new area simply sees you walking aimlessly in space on a street while a blue button politely informs you that you're about to enter West Manhattan. There's some obvious slowdown, too. But then it's nice the way obstacles obscure from camera to reveal the character, such as walking down pipes, behind buildings and so on. Legends giveth and Legends taketh away. This becomes a general theme.
All for one, and one for... four
But there's more. You soon pick up Cyclops as a playable character, what with his zapping eye moves, and Legends shows its trump card over competition in the genre. Both superheroes join to become a team, with the player flicking between the two with the D-pad. The system works brilliantly. Also, pulling the left trigger will rally team mates to the opponent the character you're playing is currently tackling, or if left alone he'll just fight away. Multiple characters add instant depth.
Obviously, the addition of new characters gives you more powers and far more scope in the character upgrade screen. Each mutant gains development points as he or she levels up, which can be spent on attributes (Expertise, Critical Strike, Mutant Mastery, Toughness, Sharpness and so on) as well as special attacks such as Brutal Slash (Wolverine's default special attack) and Claw Flurry. Items can also be assigned in the upgrade system. Should you wish, there are hours of fiddling to be had in here.
And, obviously, there's the coup de grace: there's four-player multiplayer, with each player taking control of a separate superhero. You can play through the entire story like this, and the combat's deep enough to make Legends an X-Men must-have for this aspect alone. Fans will love it.
Take a slash?
But Legends is for the fans. It really is. If you're not especially thrilled by X-Men in general, it's likely you'll see Legends as "OK", as mediocre, as middle of the road. It's a good superhero console RPG, a well-made game with some terrible dialogue, genuinely good combat and multiplayer, but some obvious camera issues. The story is long, unique and involved, but your liking for Legends will stand or fall on its premise: you're controlling superheroes in an action RPG. Legends has features coming out of its ears - in keeping with the general mutant theme - but you'll need to be a RPG/mutant/comic fan to truly care. That's no bad thing, but this is pretty niche, if sometimes highly enjoyable and surprisingly complex stuff, with some niggling glitches. Wolverine looks dead good when he does his special moves, though.