Superhero games are one of those strange phenomena where things could be amazing, or they could be terrible. In the former category, for example, we have the wonderful Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the latter category, we have the infamous Superman 64, arguably the worst comic-to-video-game adaptation in existence. Superman 64 was so bad, in fact, that MTV Gamer’s 2.0 rated it the No. 1 worst game of 1999. I am fairly certain that the only game worse than Superman 64 is 1982’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial for the Atari 200 console, a game that was so bad that Atari actually buried the cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico (Wikipedia), and might actually have been responsible for the great Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia). Imagine how ridiculously unplayable a game must be to actually crash an entire market sector. Thankfully, X-Men Destiny is not as bad as Superman 64, and certainly not as terrible as E.T., as much as certain other reviewers would have you think that is the case. Is it any good at all, though? One brave reviewer, armed with nothing more than a video game controller and an iron constitution, ventured into the world of X-Men to find out.
I’m not going to delve into a much more of a history lesson than what you already got in the opening paragraph; I think you’ve suffered enough for one review. Let’s dig in, shall we? X-men Destiny ostensibly focuses on the concept of your chosen mutant character being in charge of their own destiny (I suspect that this might explain the “Destiny” part of the title, but it’s never a good idea to jump to conclusions). The game starts with a memorial rally for Professor X, who is allegedly dead, and a fellow by the name of Luis Reyes is trying to broker peace between humans and mutants. It becomes apparent (but not from the intro video) that human and mutant relations are at an all-time low, and things are incredibly volatile. The fun thing about volatile objects and situations is that they barely require much more than a son of a spark to all blow up go kaboom.
For the sake of plot, the rally is disrupted by statues falling over, buildings crashing, mayhem springing out of manholes, and disaster waving his big hairy fist at everyone. Remember when I mentioned “volatile” and “son of spark”? This rally disruption is pretty much the equivalent of dropping a frozen turkey into pot of boiling oil (the video is sideways, but the effect is no less spectacular for it). Since this is an X-Men story, it’s up to a mutant to save the day. You get to select one of three young people (two in the DS version) who have just suddenly developed mutant powers, out of the spandex-blue and with no provocation, beyond imminent destruction at a rally for, let’s face it, a Patrick Stewart look-alike. For the sake of choice, you not only have three possible heroes, but three (DS: two) possible powers to choose from, too. Such a thing cannot be mere coincidence. Three (two) heroes? Three (two) powers? They can’t seriously think we’d play the game through three (two) separate times, do they?
Apparently, they can seriously think so, for reasons I’ll go into later.
After you select a power, you’re led into an induction of how to use your new-found powers. At various points in the game, you are introduced to various members of the X-Men (now led by Cyclops) and the Brotherhood of Mutants (still led by Magneto. Seriously, he’s worse than the now-deceased Saparmurat Niyazov, dictator for life of Turkmenistan).
Since the Brotherhood faction, the X-Men faction, and the Purifier faction (those are the humans who are actively going out and hunting down mutants) are all out and about, having their own merry little three-way pitched battle in the streets of San Francisco, it’s up to your selected protagonist and their new button-mashing powers to get to the bottom of all this. What the story is, really, is an incredibly over-elaborate, shallow coming-of-age story wrapped up in the trappings of 70s technicolor lycra and given super-powers. At certain points in the story, you’re offered both choices of power and a choice of whether you’d like to join the X-Men on a mission or join the Brotherhood of Mutants in THEIR missions. This choice makes so little difference to the story, however, because all that you get is…an extra mission to play. Even if you decide to go full Brotherhood, you’ll still battle Magneto, and you’ll still get offered a choice in the end of which faction you want to join at the end. All your prior choices have no bearing on the story whatsoever.
So much for the plot. Let me get the worst of it over with, since there’s a lot of criticism to be levelled at this game. Aside from the shallow plot (confusing plot in the DS version–see, there ARE differences!), there’s also shallow gameplay. You can count the number of destructible elements in the game on far, far less than a single hand. The environment also suffers from invisible-wall syndrome; there are sections of the game that are impassible for no good discernible reason. For example, there’s a section near the end where you’re on top of a building ledge. In other places, you’ve been able to drop off the edges of ledges, but for whatever quarter-baked, demented reason, you’re unable to drop off the edge here. Yes, I know it’s not something a sane gamer would WANT to do, but this isn’t the only place that seems to be an open space surrounded by invisible impassible walls. Level design from the 80s, here we come! Speaking of 80s level design, the levels themselves are intensely linear. Not quite as linear as, say, Super Mario Bros., but still not much in the way of exploration to do.
The game also suffers from what I like to call Epic Mickey syndrome; the camera is one of the hidden antagonists. It’s not fun to have to fight with the camera as well as with the endless waves of goons that you have to go up against. This becomes more pronounced when fighting in close quarters, and you find yourself up against a wall. As well as that, the enemy targeting system is a little on the flaky side, and you can find yourself firing off attacks into space, leaving a swathe of untouched enemies behind you. This is good for the enemies. For you? Not quite as much.
Another aspect I found intensely annoying was the lack of ability to skip past cut scenes. If you are going to be forced to play a game through three times, the LEAST you could do would be to let me skip past bits of cinematic visual that I’d seen at LEAST once before; more if you happened to die a lot just after a scene but before the next automatic saving point. It’s minor, but can so quickly become a major point if you are playing this a lot. And if you want to get full value for money, you will be playing it a lot.
All of that, however, pales in comparison to the final point: the Wii version of the game looks better than the PS3/Xbox360 version! The Wii version goes for a cel-shaded look and feel, so the level of detail is forgiveable. The PS3 and Xbox360 versions, on the other hand, look more like an HD remake of a PS2 game, and that’s saying something for a next-gen game. the Nintendo DS version looks pretty much as you’d expect, but the control system is unsurprisingly unfriendly. Would this game have been more controllable on the 3DS? Possibly, but I doubt it.
On the other hand, the game isn’t so terrible that it’s completely unplayable. The camera problems are far better than Epic Mickey‘s, or even the one in Alice Madness Returns, so it’s also less likely to kill you if you manage to correct it quickly enough. The game has also been criticized for shallow, single-button battle, but mostly this isn’t quite the case. The game manages to mix a decent variety of buttons in battle, unless you’re playing the DS version. At this point, it should become clear that the DS version is definitely the worst of the four versions. One of the more fun aspects of the game is the X-genes that you can collect, of which there are four types, and over 70 in total. The four X-gene types are utility genes (passive abilities that are always working), attack genes that trigger on attack, defence genes that trigger on performing dodge moves, and suits. The genes are named for the mutant that has the power, so for example the Wolverine utility gene grants you health regeneration, while the Psylocke defence gene grants you the ability to phase through your enemies when you dodge. For the most part, the suits are cosmetic, but if you manage to somehow gain a full set of three X-genes for a single mutant, and equip them all, the related suit’s powers unlock as well. For example, get Wolverine’s suit, utility gene, attack gene, and defence gene, and suddenly the suit grants you all sorts of remarkable abilities that make the game much easier. Pity one of the powers you get isn’t “skip cut scene”. What this all means, though, is that you can quite easily customize your character to a surprising amount of depth, allowing you to play the way you feel most comfortable with. You prefer fire attacks? Okay! Equip Pyro’s X-gene and watch your enemies burn. You prefer to run rings around your foes? No problem, equip Quicksilver’s X-gene and off you go. How often does it happen that you collect a full set, however? Let’s just say that during the course of the first playthrough, I tallied about 30 X-genes in total (I wasn’t too intent on looking for them the first time around), and still didn’t have a matching set by the end of the game.
Another redeeming aspect of the game is the voices, and some of the most recognizable voices are in this game, including the voice of Nolan I-have-to-voice-every-game North, Steven Blum (who played Killer Croc in Arkham Asylum, Tank Dempsey in Call of Duty, and Garcia Hotsur in Shadows of the Damned), and Princess Kari Wahlgren (whose voice you might recognize as Princess Ashe from Final Fantasy XII, Princess Cisna from White Knight Chronicles, or Princess Elika from Prince of Persia).
A single playthrough of the game is, depending on how you see things, short; you can conceivably finish the game in just over five hours. Add another two or three if you play it at the highest difficulty. If you seriously intend on going through the game three times (or two if you’re playing it on the DS), you COULD stretch it to 15 or 20 hours, but that’s a heck of a lot of repetitive gameplay—and remember, you can’t skip the cut scenes! Three (or two) protagonists, two sets of choices, two possible endings. Bear in mind that this is what you face should you decide to play the game thoroughly. On the other hand, it’s great for people who who don’t have the time to devote to a game like, say for example, Oblivion, that can easily run you into well over 100 hours, and that’s without completing ALL the sidequests, or even touching the DLC campaigns. On the third hand (this IS a game about mutants, after all), it’s still a little too little for the price it’s going for.
To conclude this review, X-Men Destiny is not a terrible game, and certainly not something on the scale of E.T. terrible or even Superman 64 terrible. Having said that, it’s definitely no contender for Game of the Year. The sad thing is that this game had the potential to be as great as Batman: Arkham Asylum and it feels incomplete and rushed. It doesn’t even feel as if the QA guys did a thorough job, or else the invisible walls and skipless cut scenes wouldn’t have made it to the final product. The addition of a local multiplayer mode with a scoring mechanism attached would have made things interesting, though: at least the game would have had a redeeming social aspect. At worst, it’s simply a game that suffers from being a little too short, and a little too uninspiring. Which isn’t to say it’s not fun, because great pleasure can be had from beating the crap out of the enemies you face. But in the end, I doubt this game will be remembered for anything more than just an average take on what could have momentous.
Score: 5 prawns out of 10
Developer: Silicon Knights
Release Date: 3 October 2011
RRP: R499 (PS3 and Xbox 360), R399 (Wii), R299 (DS)
Age rating: 16