There Is No I in Team
Despite debate concerning what is a “real” role-playing game, role-playing is probably one of the most clearly defined game genres. While action and adventure remain rather broad concepts in which a game can be categorized, despite their varied manifestations—from the long-winded, CGI-packed Final Fantasy games to the more open-ended worlds of the massively multiplayer online role-playing games or even to the hack-and-slash mayhem of Baldur’s Gate and Diablo—the fundamental core of role-playing is developing a character. The object of the game is to play a role, right?
Character development and role-playing, of course, can vary enormously in terms of the narrativity expressed within a game as the previous examples show. While the specifically defined stories that underlie the cast of a typical FF crew are developed through an intense and often very linear narrative progression, the character of a sorcerer in Diablo is loosely defined and probably only archetypically related to the overall thin plot that surrounds that game. In both cases, though, character development is expressed in a similar fashion in terms of game mechanics through the building of statistics and attributes that define those characters. Both Cloud and the sorcerer develop as characters through the leveling process, growing more powerful and gaining new skills and abilities. Again, this largely seems to be what defines the role-playing game as a whole, whether you play it on paper with dice or on a screen—character is measured numerically.
While X-Men Legends II: Rise of the Apocalypse fits into this basic understanding of the definition of role-playing and the opportunity it provides—the chance to play the roles of fairly well developed characters from the X-Men mythos, both good and evil—it is curiously a role-playing game very much devoid of character.
This lack of character is a pity as it seems to be largely what the game wants to offer in the way of new material for this sequel to the first X-Men Legends—the chance to see and experience even more characters from the X-Men universe than before by allowing you to take on the roles of not only more X-Men but also the evil mutants of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants.
The game initially set in Genosha, Magneto’s own mutant fiefdom, allows you to play out the story of a barely hospitable alliance between Professor Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood against Apocalypse, a greater evil, who has taken control of something of value to both groups—for Magneto, Genosha itself, while for the X-Men, fellow teammate Polaris.
Building and trying out various teams is initially pretty fun, especially if you’re a fan of the comics and familiar with the characters. Choosing your favorite X-Men and Brotherhood members with which to forge a tenuous alliance is great especially given the sheer number of mutants available. While this variety initially seems pleasing, it is in part the sheer number of characters that become the problem of this role-playing game. With so many to choose from and so many to control at once—you switch on the fly between four characters when playing the game solo—you quickly lose any sense of who’s who, why you’re playing them, and why they’re important to the team and plot.
While various characters play differently, Iceman is clearly intended to be a different kind of fighter than Rogue, the basic role-playing templates are all here. Rogue, Colossus, Juggernaut, etc. are the tanks; you have support characters to provide buffs and healing like the Scarlet Witch; and characters to handle crowd control and lockdown like Iceman, etc. The basic individuality of the team members is largely victim to role-playing archetypes. I was not playing Rogue, the Scarlet Witch, and Iceman, instead I was simply playing the fighter, cleric, and wizard.
At the same time, while these archetypes seem fundamentally unique—in terms of the button-mashing gameplay required—no real distinction between the characters becomes apparent as swapping between them largely becomes a matter of attacking with one until they are out of mana. And then you swap in another. The strategic use of characters like tanks, controllers, etc. largely becomes unnecessary given the essential stupidity of the adversarial AI.
Which brings me to my chief frustration with the game: the only real character development is represented through the leveling process which allows you to assign points to various attributes and choose skills through a rather unwieldy set of skill trees. The sheer volume of powers that you are able to assign to each character and the lack of clarity about what makes each power unique turns a crucial RPG staple into a frustrating mess.
This problem was one of my dominant concerns with Diablo II. Given the relative simplicity of strategy in these games, why is it necessary to generate such a host of useless abilities for characters to maintain and build up if they have no real obvious effect on gameplay? Character development in this sense contains about as much depth as a Playboy centerfold’s bio sheet.
The overall narrative arc of the game matches this developmental superficiality with cut scenes of mission briefings that are apparently intended to give players a sense of who the various characters are. Again, the sheer volume of characters (coupled with some of the hammiest voice acting yet in a video game) that need to appear in these scenes allows for no character development at all.
Unsurprisingly, the game fares much better in multiplayer mode, since you can spend more time focusing on an individual mutant and developing their role in the team. While Blizzard’s Diablo franchise has likewise always been stronger as a multiplayer experience, its single player experience was far superior simply due to the fact that you played an individual character—thus allowing you to focus your attention on the role-playing aspects of the games. This of course allowed you to develop an interesting character of your own.
The addition of “legends” to the title seems exceedingly ironic given the goulash that the team based mechanics devolve into. Legends are uniquely defined heroes like Hercules or Theseus or even—dare I say it—superheroes like Wolverine. The uniqueness and special qualities of such heroes should be the focus of a game genre so demanding in its attentions on characters, but X-Men Legends II‘s focus gets lost in favor of a relatively undeveloped collective of barely recognizable legends.