Bytes & Flops 3.29.12: X-Men: Destiny
Posted by Vince Osorio on 03.29.2012
The action RPG X-Men: Destiny flopped upon its release last fall. But is it another lame comic book game or an underrated tour de force? 411's Vince Osorio takes a look!
The odd, drawn out saga of Silicon Knights, the now-independent Canadian development team led by the infamous Dennis Dyack, has enough history behind it that it probably would take two, or perhaps even three of these articles to fully cover. Instead, I'll just give you a Cliffsnotes version of the story. Founded by Dyack in 1992, Silicon Knights started out developing the real-time strategy/action hybrid known as Cyber Empires for the PC, and followed that up with the Dungeons & Dragons title Fantasy Empires and the cult classic Dark Legions. It wasn't until 1996 when Blood Omen, the first in the Legacy of Kain franchise, saw release, that Silicon Knights saw prominence in the gaming industry. Surprisingly enough, Silicon Knights gave the reins of that franchise to Crystal Dynamics who developed the Soul Reaver titles, while Knights was given a lucrative exclusive content to make games for Nintendo platforms. Their first title, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is possibly one of the most beloved survival horror games of all-time, and for good reason. It's a horror title through and through, with some of the most memorable scare tactics to ever take place in a video game. Even to this day, the idea of meta-horror (with infamous "sanity effects" such as fake video game glitches, noises and the illusion of a lost game save) is almost non-existent and still totally brilliant. For that alone, it's an important title.
Silicon Knights only released one more title with Nintendo- the visually impressive but derisive remake of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the GameCube before they hooked up with Microsoft in order to release the decade-in-the-making action/adventure/RPG title Too Human. I'd rather save that discussion for a future article, but needless to say, the game failed to sell well or strike a chord with the audience, after numerous development & PR disasters during that game's production for the Xbox 360.
Though to be fair, if it wasn't for Too Human, we wouldn't have this classic video. (NSFW)
And so our story brings us to September 27, 2011, the day that X-Men: Destiny, Silicon Knights' latest (but certainly not greatest) title originally hit shelves. And as you could probably guess by virtue of the game being featured in the column, X-Men: Destiny didn't quite light the charts on fire.
X-Men: Destiny has a ton of potential from the outset, which is why I was attracted to it in the first place. When Activision (the game's publisher) announced X-Men: Destinyin late 2010, it had a very interesting premise, one that isn't seen in the often linear and dull comic book adaptation genre. You are given the choice of three new, distinct mutant characters, each with their own backstories and motivations, and you are not only able to choose and upgrade their powers as you see fit, but you can also choose whether to ally with the X-Men or the Brotherhood of Mutants, giving the game a neat karma system that's mostly seen in open-world titles like iNFAMOUS. So off the bat, I was intrigued. But the game fails to make good on its potential in a multitude of ways.
So full disclosure, I normally play games to completion once (unless the game is inherently terrible, by which I impose Wolpaw's Law and just call it a day). For X-Men: Destiny, I played through the entire game twice, the first time to see the Brotherhood ending, the second so I could see what Cyclops & pals were up to. The gist is this, you can choose from one of three characters per playthrough, and each character discovers his/her abilities during a "Mutant Peace Rally" that takes place in front of the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. Aimi Yoshida (voiced by Jaime Chung) is a Japanese-born teenager who was forced to immigrate to San Francisco by her parents, and still feels resentment over that fact. Grant Alexander (voiced by Milo Ventimiglia) is a UC Berkeley student who is more interested in getting on the football team than any ongoing mutant conflicts. Adrian Luca (as played by Scott Porter) is possibly the most intriguing character- the son of a martyred "Purifier" who was brought up under an anti-mutant extremist household, Adrian seeks revenge against the mutant threat until he finds out that he is one of them as well. I skipped on Grant's story (sorry Milo) and chose to play as Aimi for my first playthrough, Adrian for my second.
So with this little context, you're basically thrust into the ongoing war between the purifiers and the mutants (all mutants, not just X-Men or Brotherhood members) in a confusing world for people who don't read the X-Men: Destiny comic series. In this world, Magneto is missing, Professor X is dead and the X-Men are forced out of their mansion in order to move to San Francisco for reasons that aren't particularly explained well to a newcomer like myself.
After an attack during the peace rally, the character that you choose discovers that they have powers, and you get to decide between three different attack types- "energy projection" which are long-ranged energy blast attacks, "shadow matter" which is a powerful mid-range ability, and "density control" which is a solid close range quick attack method. The first of many problems in X-Men: Destiny has to deal with these abilities. Although the powers are technically different from one another, the combat is nearly identical no matter what abilities you choose. You're still going to be mashing the light and strong attack buttons to kill purifiers and other faceless attack drones throughout the game's 5+ hour story mode. The energy projection power was the most interesting by default, since the energy blasts themselves look cool, have a wide range, and can be upgraded to devastating, "kamehameha" type super abilities, while the others were less interesting in comparison. Regardless, the game's combat is its weak point, as you'll be performing, more or less, the same moves in the first minutes of the game as you will during the final boss fight. It's repetitive at best, tedious and boring at worst. It's nowhere near games like God of War or Bayonetta when it comes to combat, and actually feels more shallow than the combat found in the X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance games. Considering that 90% of the game consists of the combat, it's a total bummer that the powers themselves aren't all that interesting enough to use, even with the multitude of X-Genes (upgradable passive/active abilities), equippable X-suits (suits modeled after famous X-Men costumes that also gives you access to new dodges or extra abilities).
So scratch the combat off the list, and you've at least got an interesting story at the core, correct? That's where you're wrong, unfortunately. Like I mentioned previously, the game drops you in the battle with little-to-no context of what's going on, especially if you haven't been reading comics lately. Apparently the story was written by Mike Carey, who also writes the X-Men: Destiny comic series, but none of the dialogue or events in the game felts remotely interesting or organic to me. Too many different factions are introduced, too many characters and appearances by B and C list X-Men and Brotherhood members (you know, your favorite X-Men characters like Pixie and Caliban!) so everything is just a jumbled mess. Sometimes you're fighting an enemy, then in another scene, they're actually helping you take out another enemy, and so on. The game breaks the cardinal rule of licensed video games- you never actually play as one of the X-Men. You'll fight alongside Wolverine, Mystique, Emma Frost and others in too-brief sections of the game, but that's really all of your major interaction with those characters. You'll interact with them in dialogue segments and are able to learn more about the story, the character's history or even take on some exclusive missions in order to gain XP (though these missions usually consist of arena challenges such as "kill 30 enemies in the allotted time"), but you never feel like you're a part of the crew, just an outcast trying to make themselves fit in. Dialogue segments and cutscenes are unskippable, which is supremely frustrating when you reload a checkpoint and forced to watch another stilted CGI cutscene full of expository dialogue and lame banter.
The performances by the voice actors are just hit-or-miss across the board. Nightcrawler, Mystique, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Iceman & especially Magneto are on point, while some of the other characters like Toad or Caliban approach high levels of irritation. Cyclops, as voiced by Nolan North, kinda does a more serious take on his normal voice, but I'm sorry, I just couldn't unhear Nathan Drake whenever Cyclops opened his mouth. Scott Porter & Milo (of what I've heard of him) were servicable at best in their roles, but Jaime Chung really dropped the ball with her character, making her wide-eyed and naïve when she should've been edgy and tough. It's especially jarring to see her character talk cutesy to Juggernaut & Magneto when she's trying to join the Brotherhood and just takes you out of the moment entirely.
You'd think the Good/Evil meter would make the game stand out, but it doesn't. There's barely any rhyme or reason for choosing a side, except for Achievement Points/Trophies. Minor spoilers here, but basically both the Brotherhood and the X-Men are fighting for the same side by the end of the game, so whichever faction you'll choose will have little bearing to the end result of the game. Either you'll be fighting enemies alongside Quicksilver & Mystique or Wolverine & Iceman. The karmic "choices" you make in the game are laughable & poorly developed as well. Often times, you'll enter a scene where a member of the Brotherhood & a corresponding member of the X-Men are arguing about what to do next. The Brotherhood member would have a more violent approach (rushing in, blowing up a building & killing the enemies inside while saving as many innocents as possible) while the X-Men member would have a more peaceful solution (sneaking by and rescuing as many mutants inside while distracting the enemies from off the premises). You can choose whether to go with the Brotherhood's plan or the X-Men plan. You'll receive a boost in your faction meter depending on who you choose. That's pretty much it. And for the record, the story is basically the same regardless of what character you choose, which is a huge bummer, because each character has the opportunity to develop over time, which would've been interesting to see. However, the backstories of each character is brought up from time to time (most often in Adrian's campaign) and dropped by the last half of the game, with focus shifting to the story at hand. For all the effort I put into creating two largely different characters with completely different playthroughs, I came out with the same result, just with one having a slightly darker ending than the other. I felt defeated by the end of the second playthrough, realizing that all the effort I put into the game had been for naught (or, if you're a "half glass full" guy, had been all for 700+ gamerscore).
The game hosts a bunch of technical issues as well- voice acting cutting in and out, subtitles not lining up with the dialogue, a poor framerate during particularly large action scenes, crummy, PS2 worthy graphics. It's a game that feels half-finished and rushed across the board.
Here's another look at the combat & powers available in the game.
And this game failed because?
I think we've touched up the annual "Activision Burial Grounds" event before at Bytes & Flops. Every year, Activision publishes a game that they just about know is garbage, and proceed to bury it at every opportunity, giving it a passive-aggressive marketing effort, withholding review copies and sending it to store shelves without much hype. 2009 saw Jurassic: The Hunted get that treatment, and 2010 saw the future Bytes & Flops entry Tony Hawk: Shred get buried, while 2011 was the year for X-Men: Destiny to get the treatment. Activision was being unnecessarily coy with the game every since it was announced in late 2010, though Gamestop & other outlets did receive pre-order bonuses as incentives to sell the game (normally, a crappy game that no one wants to buy/sell would not get these bonuses). The game came out in late September to horrid reviews and in the shadow of the much higher profile Spider-Man: Edge of Time (also released by Activision) among other blockbusters such as FIFA 12, Warhammer 40K: Space Marine and others. Activision literally gave X-Men: Destiny away during an Amazon sale for people who bought a copy of Edge of Time during a special promotional period. As for my copy, I purchased it for a whopping $8, barely 5 months after its original release. Silicon Knights lost about half their workforce a month after the game's release, though the development house is looking to making their next (as of yet unannounced) game for next-gen consoles.
Unfortunately for X-Men: Destiny, the only interesting thing about it is the development house behind it & Activision's lack of faith in the final product. Even they saw that this one was a stinker. It's too bad, because all of the ideas here are fresh and exciting, but the game is too unfinished, uninspired, and most importantly, boring to stand out as anything other than a colossal misfire for a down-on-its-luck video game studio.