X-Men: Destiny Video Game Review
When Activision announced X-Men Destiny at New York Comic Con 2010, the assertion was made that there would be a “deep element of choice”. One year later the game has arrived, and as advertised you can certainly play out a “destiny” and choose between sides and encounter many characters from Marvel’s X-Men comics. Unfortunately the choice to be found here is anything but deep, and an artificial token element at that. Its status as an action RPG is also merely technical; in practice we’ve been served a pedestrian, short-lived brawler that should have been far better than it is.
The concept of X-Men Destiny is easily the best thing about the game; it takes place in a time of crisis that all mutants are struggling to cope with. Anti-mutant sentiment is at the boiling point, to such a degree that a faction of so-called “Purifiers” has risen up to take the fight to mutants. That’d be bad enough, but in the game’s opening we also learn that Professor X lost his life in the process of he and Magneto taking down the villainous Bastion, who we’re later told is some nasty big bad from the future (he’s news to me, though surely not to serious fans of the comics). Without the world’s foremost peacemaker tensions get even worse, the X-Men end up abandoning the Xavier institute because it’s too dangerous to stay there, and Magneto’s Mutant Brotherhood is on edge.
Things explode at a rally in San Francisco hosted by Luis Reyes. He’s the chief of the Mutant Response Division, but also an apparent voice of reason that rejects the purifiers’ extremism. Alongside Cyclops he preaches tolerance, but the rally suffers a savage attack and the protesting purifiers run rampant. In the midst of this chaos you take control of a newly-awakened mutant, who must survive and eventually unravel a mystery concerning the kidnapping of mutants. In the process your chosen character encounters members of the X-Men and the Brotherhood, who are each responding to the situation in their own way.
In the course of X-Men Destiny you play one of three characters, each with a distinct origin and personality. Aimi Yoshida is a Japanese immigrant separated from her mutant parents, Grant Alexander is an aspiring college athlete indifferent to politics and the human/mutant conflict until fate intervenes, and Adrian Luca was raised to despise mutants only to discover that he is what he hates. Any character can learn one of three distinct mutant powers: density control, energy projection and shadow matter, all of which come with their own unique talents. Density control is focused on making your character a hard-hitting tank, energy projection specializes in attacking from a distance and taking out crowds of foes, and shadow matter can render your character a nimble damage dealer. New abilities are arbitrarily added as you progress in the game, which can be improved with experience earned from defeated enemies. Experience is plentiful enough that it’s easy to level most skills by the end; most choice and customization comes from the fact that you must choose between two separate talents every time you learn a new ability.
Your attacks and talents can be further customized by “X-Genes” which you can collect and also earn by defeating bosses and clearing special challenge areas that you discover. in short, X-Genes are a gimmick that lets you assume traits associated with named characters in the X-Men universe. The game gives you space for “utility”, “offensive” and “defensive” X-Genes, which vary depending on the character. For instance Wolverine’s offensive X-Gene improves attack speed and lets you recover health better, while Pyro’s will cause your attacks to deal extra fire damage. A fourth slot exists for character costumes, some of which inexplicably offer an extra talent. In general though, they amount to another customization option. If you collect the costume and all three X-Genes for a specific character this unlocks a special “X-Mode”, giving your character an impressive special power. It’s a nifty concept, though some players may prefer to mix and match X-Genes to suit their style. Unfortunately the player doesn’t necessarily get the choice; the X-Genes and costumes you earn are seemingly random, and I was unable to get a complete set for any character on my first playthrough.
Although you’ll be navigating the city and smashing open passages and scaling your fair share of walls, X-Men Destiny is a linear game with clearly defined stages. There is one and only one way to advance, with the only differences being the very few situations where you’re asked to choose between taking on a mission for the X-Men or the Brotherhood. Either way, your activity in this game amounts to defeating a wave or two of enemies. The difficulty is not challenging; most of your foes are mere foot solider mooks that go down easily. You’ll encounter a handful of tougher opponents, but they all rely on simple attack patterns and the AI is noticeably stupid. NPC’s can end up running against an obstacle and standing dormant for too long, and these shortcomings are particularly stark when there’s a named character fighting alongside you.
Most regrettably, the game’s element of choice is simply unsatisfying. All this amounts to is that at a mere handful of predetermined points in the game, you’ll choose between helping a X-Man or a member of the Brotherhood in a mission or in taking an action that one side or the other favors. This adjusts your faction meter, which starts in the middle and shifts depending on which faction you’re closest to. But in practice this is meaningless; all it affects are the way certain characters will talk to you and who you fight alongside at certain parts of the game. Only at the game’s climax toward the end do you make an irrevocable choice, namely whether you want to join the X-Men or the Brotherhood, and you can pick either no matter what your affiliation is. Your decision impacts the ending you get for your character, but that is all. Events and boss battles do not change, and nothing you do will alter anyone’s fate. In the end the most interesting part of the story is the way the three main characters respond to things and interact with the superheroes, and experiencing that simply requires the patience to play through the game multiple times.
This game has been panned for having an uninteresting appearance, and I suppose I can see how one would think that if you’re comparing it against a top-tier game like Batman: Arkham Asylum. This game is not cutting edge. But compared to the likes of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 I find it passable even if not impressive. My issue with X-Men: Destiny on this count has nothing to do with realism or its aesthetics, but rather its performance. The game usually moves at a good pace but there are times when it will lag a bit if there’s too much going on, and I was amazed by how badly the framerate dropped when I used my character’s strongest shadow matter ability.
The voice acting here is up to par, and in fact there’s some fanservice in store for fans of Wolverine and the X-Men. Steve Blum is back as Wolverine, Phil LaMarr is Gambit, Kari Wahlgren reprises Emma Frost, Fred Tatasciore returns as Juggernaut, and Yuri Lowenthal (Iceman) is tasked with playing Nightcrawler and Northstar. All acting feels appropriate and in-character. The sound effects are simple and what you’d expect from an action brawler: grunts, cries, the sound of you hitting things. The music is simply adequate and not very diverse; though it does step up its game and offer appropriate tension when there is a boss fight. Unfortunately, there are significant bugs with the game’s dialogue. On several occasions in the first third of the game I would engage in conversation with a character and witness lines being delayed by seconds while character animation proceeds, resulting in overlap between what my character said and what a member of the X-Men or Brotherhood is saying. This is disorienting to say the least, and it means that there are comments that you will surely miss. This is a bizarre bug that should never be present in a finished video game.
Attacking is simple to do. One button unleashes a combo of basic attacks, another triggers a special ability, and you can combine the two to activate your acquired talents. You can also jump, dodge and block. The control the game gives you over your character is satisfactory, though it does have some puzzling limitations. You can climb walls, perform basic combos, dodge, and jump, and the game is quite responsive to commands. But you cannot jump and attack, save for a single move that allows your character to smash into the ground, and that’s there as a necessary tool to reach certain areas of the game. Is it so much to ask that action RPG combat be as versatile as it was in Kingdom Hearts nine years ago? On another front, while dodging is essential to survival, blocking is completely pointless. I won without ever doing it; there is no problem in this game that you can’t dodge or slash your way out of.
In the end, appreciating this game requires accepting the concept of playing out an original origin story that Marvel’s iconic mutants are simply involved in. Relatively little time is spent teaming up with them outside of cutscenes, and while X-Genes allow you to mimic certain heroes you generally won’t be copying their powers outright. Fans may find the cast of characters here a little small also. It has Quicksilver but not his sister Wanda, the Scarlet Witch; characters like Pixie, Forge and Northstar are present but you won’t see Jean Gray, Storm or Beast. The game is also too short on content; any player is going to spend between 5 and 10 hours on one playthrough even if everything is done, an apparent sign that we’re meant to play all three characters to get our money’s worth. The idea of the game is a good one, and writer Mark Carey deserves praise for a scenario that, as promised, does not make the decision to join the X-Men or the Brotherhood a stark choice between good and evil. But ultimately this is not a game that’s worth $60 for anybody, not even a hardcore fan of the X-Men. It’s a bit buggy, it’s generally uninspired, and it offers nothing you haven’t seen before. Savvy gamers should await the inevitable markdown and only grab this as a halfway decent diversion at a bargain price. If you’re the sort that just wants to take control of your favorite X-Men, your best bet is still X-Men Legends.
If you love beat-em-up games, great, but X-Men: Destiny is a dismaying disappointment considering what might have been. It’d be a great thing if a developer were to smash together superhero action with the customization and decision-making freedom of Deus Ex, but this title can’t claim to be even attempting that.
Overall: 4.6 out of 10