It’s hard to make a game adaptation that really feels like that really feels like the source material. Licensed games have often carried the stigma of being subpar and something that exists so Grandma has something safe to get little Johnny, so it is utterly surprising to find a game that just nails everything you would want out of the property. In 2004 Raven Software released X-Men Legends a fun but problematic dungeon crawler featuring Marvel’s merry mutants. It was well received but left you with the feeling that it could be more. A year later fans got more in the form of X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse and let me tell you, there has never been a game that gave fans of a franchise exactly what they wanted more.
The Legends games, and their successors Marvel Ultimate Alliance, were action role-playing games where you created a team of four X-Men and beat the tar out of everything in your path. Up to four players could run around classic X-Men locations like Genosha and the Savage Land, combine powers, collect loot, and level-up to create a custom super powered strike force. Rise of Apocalypse featured a huge roster of eighteen playable characters including Cyclops, Sunfire, Scarlet Witch, and for some reason Iron Man (pre-movie, no one knew him Iron Man at that), and tapped into X-Men deep cuts like Sugar Man and Holocaust for boss fights. It featured full voice acting by Patrick Stewart, Tara Strong, John DiMaggio, and Steve Blum among others and cinematics that were impressive for the time. Check out the opening movie to see just how well they got the spirit of the books.
The game starts in media res as an alliance of the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood team up to rescue Charles Xavier from a prison in Greenland where he had been captured by En Sabah Nur, the mutant warlord known as Apocalypse. In between the events of the first X-Men Legends and the start of this game Polaris had been captured by Apocalypse and he had made his way to Genosha and began to raze the island. The player is dropped right in the middle of this and given the option of fifteen characters in their Ultimate Universe costumes to choose from as you go into Genosha to rescue Blink, free captured mutants, and liberate the island from the first of the Horsemen of Apocalypse, Abyss.
From there the X-Men and Brotherhood go globetrotting to halt Apocalypse’s progress and defeat his Horsemen. The X-Mansion is destroyed (what else is new), and New York City is overrun by Apocalypse’s forces as he works to destroy everything humanity has built. Fans of the comic will realize that the world Apocalypse is creating looks more and more like the hellscape of the classic Age of Apocalypse storyline. As you progress more and more of your allies go missing, and it is up to the player to figure out why. Quicksilver, Sabertooth, and Emma Frost join the captured Polaris in Apocalypse’s control while Beast and Angel are horribly transformed into shadows of their former selves. It is revealed that Apocalypse desires to use the “harmonic DNA” of the four mutant into a Nexus to give him the “Power of the Four” and make him invincible (because the designers had just finished reading The Twelve but didn’t want to make that many models, I assume). The machine Apocalypse was using to empower him began to malfunction as the combined might of X-Men and the Brotherhood rained down upon him and En Sabah Nur was defeated. Beast though was confused, in his Dark Beast persona he had created that machine, it should have worked perfectly unless someone had tampered with it. As the X-Men and the Brotherhood parted ways Apocalypse’s chief lieutenant, Mr. Sinister, stood atop a pyramid cackling to himself.
The story wasn’t great but it was a ton of fun to play through and it worked well for the structure of the game. Each act set you in a new base where you could upgrade your team, review Easter eggs you collected throughout the missions, and even play a pretty in depth X-Men trivia game to get bonus experience points. The characters interacted well with each other and it felt like more than just a cash in, it was a game crafted by people who loved the X-Men. As you progressed you could even unlock a ton of different costumes, from the Blue and Yellows to the 90’s-ass Age of Apocalypse outfits, and I will admit to spending way more time than I should playing dress up with my mutants. You also got stat bonuses for creating thematic teams, like the Heavy Metal bonus for a team of Colossus, Juggernaut, Iron Man, and Magneto, the Family Affair bonus for Juggernaut, Professor X, Magneto and Scarlet Witch, or the Double Date bonus for Jean Grey, Cyclops, Gambit, and Rogue. There more than enough love put into the details of the game to make every X-Fan smile.
The gameplay was fun, fast, and action packed. Taking control of one of four mutants you would explore expansive, interconnected levels, beating up a horde of enemies, stashing loot, completing objectives, and defeating a big boss. It wasn’t novel, it wasn’t all that deep, and frankly a little repetitive, but it was loads of fun. The RPG elements allowed you to build your X-Men the way you wanted, you could turn Colossus into a nimble fighter or make him your brutish tank. Storm could have access to all the elements of nature or spam tornadoes and only tornados. Each character you weren’t actively using still gained experience, though at a slower rate, which let you experiment with the full roster or stick with four overpowered mutants. The flexibility of the role-playing system helped with the replay value and encouraged players to try new strategies.
When I first played the game I didn’t try to optimize the team. I chose character I liked, no matter how uneven the group would be, and chose to give everyone a wide range of underdeveloped abilities instead of making them experts in one or two. I rarely used the party buffs and was more interested in the big flashy “X-Treme” abilities than dealing the most damage with something simple. Cyclops, NIghtcrawler, Iceman, and X-Man (no I don’t know what I was thinking with him), all decked out in Age of Apocalypse duds, were my go to squad and they worked the crush the waves of opponents. I played on the PSP so I never got to experience the co-op play in this game, but if it was anything like its predecessor, it elevated the play experience to new heights.
Raven Software ended up expanding its scope for the future games. The Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series was well received and added to the formula that worked so well for Legends. Still something was missing. Expanding to include the entire Marvel Universe meant that the deep cuts got left out, even Cyclops was relegated to DLC for the game. A big selling point for comics, and X-Men fans in particular, is the deep continuity, untangling the web of story arcs, deaths, rebirths, and alternate reality clones. You lose all of that when you have to serve not just one franchise, but all of them, each with a unique personality and history. That’s why X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse feels like the highpoint of the world of X-Men games. Nothing has come close to celebrating the rich history, the intricate characters, and the tone of the universe. It succeeded in the same way that games like Star Wars: Battlefront II, and Batman: Arkham Asylum had, it respected the property and didn’t feel like a cheap knock off. This game felt essential and even though I barley play video games anymore, I would be first in line to pick up Legends III.
Just as an FYI we started a Patreon this week. If you want to cut to the front of the line we just started a Patreon if you want to support it and get a line cutting reward. Our first goal is only $15 and it gets rid of those ads and makes the hosting for Xavier Files entirely reader supported.
This week is a big celebration for us here at Xavier Files since, you know, a movie is coming out. We will have daily content that you can see below:
Monday: Debut of the new Xavier Files webcomic
Tuesday: Character Entry on Apocalypse
Wednesday: The 2nd installment of the webcomic
Thursday: X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse article
Friday: Review of X-Men: Apocalypse
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