2011 is set to be a banner year for Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise. "First Class" is making the rounds in theaters, leaving quite an impression on audiences thanks to Matthew Vaughn's swift direction and a stellar cast that includes James McAvoy and Kevin Bacon. Likewise, Activision is revitalizing its line of mutant-starring games, shifting away from the typical old-school exploits for something a little different. "X-Men: Destiny" looks to be quite the reboot when it makes its way to store shelves this September.
The first thing you should know is who's making the game. Rather than turning to the usual development team at Raven Software or some other familiar third-party, Activision opted to go with Silicon Knights, the development team behind memorable games like "Eternal Darkness" on the GameCube and "Too Human" on the Xbox 360. When we first heard SK was involved, we were pondering what kind of changes it would bring to the X-Men brand. As it turns out, the answer is plenty -- and they seem to be for the better.
"X-Men: Destiny's" story is written by Mike Carey, the regular writer on Marvel's "X-Men Legacy" comic. Rather than focus on familiar characters, however, the game will instead concentrate on three mutant newcomers -- the ferociously electric Aimi Yoshida, the powerful Grant Alexander and the mysterious Adrian, a "Pure Fire" seeking vengeance for his father's death. Each has unique abilities that will aid them in combat, which they'll need considering the odds are firmly stacked against them.
At E3, Activision showed us a hands-off demo in order to give us an idea what to expect from "Destiny's" storyline. The game opens in San Francisco, where a peace rally is being held following the demise of Professor X. As the demo progresses, we learn a bitter rivalry has grown between the X-Men and the Purifiers, a new breed of enemy and one not led by Magneto, surprisingly enough. In fact, a few have even defected from the X-Men crew, including Gambit, who has an agenda all his own. As one of the three central characters involved smack dab in the middle of the rivalry, it's up to the player to use their mutant powers to make things right -- even though you'll face some hard choices down the line.
Instead of focusing on role-playing style tactics and combat like "Too Human" did, Silicon Knights opted for a general combat system. It actually suits the game better, as you can mix light and strong attacks to beat enemies into submission, then gather energy and X-Gene power-ups from fallen foes to avoid fatigue. Seeing Aimi in action, she certainly looks as though she can hold her own, turning enemies into pure mush with her electrical capabilities and swiftness.
As you proceed into combat situations, you can actually use some of the X-Gene skills you gather in order to fend off stronger foes and clusters of enemies. These will drain an X-Gene meter that appears next to the energy meter atop the screen, so use it carefully. You won't be completely defenseless if this energy is drained, but you'll be more susceptible to attacks than if you were powered up by mutant strength. The best thing you can do is balance between regular and X-Gene powered attacks, resulting in some mesmerizing combos and bringing Purifier soldiers down with just the right amount of authority. The stronger your X-Gene, the stronger your powers.
Some players might be concerned by the repetitive combat nature, as seen in previous X-Men and other comic book-licensed games. Not to worry. Silicon Knights has implemented a new customization system, in which you can balance out your mutation progression. You can balance between offensive, defensive and utility slots, enhancing yourself however you see fit. Want to be more of a defensive character? Stack up your shielding and take out the trash. Prefer to be super-physical? Buffer up your offensive awesomeness and go to work. The choice is yours.
And the X-Genes can be expanded even further than that. There's an option to wear "suits" in the game, outfits based on the more popular (and a few obscure) X-Men characters. If you manage to be wearing the right suit at the right time, matched up with an ideal X-Gene layout, you'll create a set that gives you an extra advantage on the playfield.
As an example, at one point in the demo, we came across a situation where John Sublime was using X-Genes a little too strongly, enhancing his size and power in the process. Considering he's in an enclosed, secret facility, you have a short amount of time to stop him before he gets loose. Using a chromosome set and a suit picked up from Quicksilver, you're able to form a set and give yourself a super-speed ability. By utilizing this, you can get around Sublime's rampaging attacks much more quickly, sneaking up behind him and delivering a pounding.
Granted, this boss battle isn't just a one-tier system where you beat Sublime until he's tired. This particular fight was separated into three tiers -- one involving a basic encounter and two where he grows even larger than before. The third one actually requires you to temporarily distract him, climb atop him like a mountain and eventually dish out the final damage. It's not the most extravagant boss fight we've seen, but it was an interesting challenge, with plenty more enemies promised. Personally, we'd love to see what this stuff would do to Sabretooth.
The choices you make in "X-Men: Destiny" will guide your character down one of two paths. Either you'll stay loyal to the X-Men, led by Colossus; or you'll join with the Brotherhood, with Gambit "in charge." One particular choice at the end of the demo involved a package containing an X-Gene compound, granting those without mutant abilities the chance to try some out. The choices you make have an effect on your character, leading to one of multiple endings at the end of the game. Will you stay loyal to your fellow X-Men or tread a different path like Gambit has? The decision is yours and should prove fun to see how each one plays out.
We have to admit, the choice of Silicon Knights as developers of "X-Men: Destiny" had us skeptical at first -- especially considering how much "Too Human" threw us off. But they've surprised us with a great choice of gameplay and art direction. The refuge that shifts through San Francisco is quite a sight, and it's also cool to see light-up words pop up to show you how well you're doing in combat. without getting in the way. They appear to the side of your character, evaporating after a few seconds so you can continue pounding the crud out of the Purifiers. Character animations look solid, though there were some stutters here and there, indications that the game is still a work in progress. The destruction levels are outstanding, however, especially during the boss fight. Sublime, juiced up on power-providing X-Genes, really wants nothing more than to destroy you.
As for the audio, it still needs some cleaning up, as most of the sound effects came across as low volumed, not leaving much of an impact. However, the voicework is just about spot on. Colossus sounds just like the big guy should, as does Gambit's Cajun dialect. The new characters haven't sounded off much yet, but Aimi should be a convincing one when she's finished. The music isn't half bad either, but you probably won't hear any familiar tones from the films. This is an all new project, after all.
One other side note for X-Men fans -- this is still a game that's meant for you. Despite the fact that you won't be directly playing as your favorite characters, it doesn't mean they aren't here. As we mentioned, Colossus and Gambit make an appearance, and others, both familiar and unique, will stop by as well. These include Wolverine, Surge, Beast, Northstar, Toad and Emma Frost, all of whom appear in the gene selection menu. Can you imagine how amazing Aimi would be with some extra adamantium in her system? Color us intrigued.
With a robust customization system, some solid beat-em-up action and a presentation that's shaping up better than we first expected, "X-Men: Destiny" could be a huge step for Activision's X-franchise. Granted, there wasn't anything wrong with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," as it was one of the better games the company's released to date. But this is a bold new step, one that could reinvigorate the franchise the same way X-Men First Class is doing for films. And there's nothing wrong with that.
"X-Men: Destiny" debuts this September for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3