Not Angry, Just Very Disappointed.
Join me, if you would, on a brief allegorical journey to a restaurant. Let’s call it Denis’ restaurant. Better yet, let’s call it Denny’s. You see, you have fond memories of eating there in 2002, and getting some of the best and most original survival horror pie in your life. Two years later, you went back, and had an excellent, if not quite as original, piece of action stealth cake. Since 2004, the restaurant was silent, but the rumors were that Denny’s was working on something amazing. Sure enough, in 2008, they flung open their doors and gave you a dish of… something. You still aren’t sure what it was, but it was complicated, somewhat interesting, if not tasty, and you felt like you should have liked it more. You were going to ask the owner about it, but he was too busy suing the company that delivers their flour, meat and vegetables.
Since that time, you have begun to question whether this restaurant really was all that magical to begin with. It’s been another three years, and seemingly out of nowhere, they open their doors again and start taking orders for an entirely new dish. They promise you it will be a deep, complex and original dish featuring many things that the diner already enjoys. Fine. You bite the bullet and place your order. What do you get? Perhaps a well crafted sauce? Maybe a nice juicy steak? Nope. What comes to your door is, in fact, delivery pizza. All you can think is: After all that, that’s what I get? Really?
I want to be frank: X-Men: Destiny is not a good game. A developer like Silicon Knights, previously known for their pedigree and skills, should be ashamed to put out a game like this, especially as a come-back title after so many years off the market. The Silicon Knights I thought I knew, would never put out a game that at most could be complimented as “competent.” When Denis Dyak cooks for you, you expect steak. X-Men Destiny is delivery pizza, a boring, ugly, button mashy, poorly acted, licensed pizza. That should be enough for some of you: this game is not recommended. If you want to know more, read on.
X-Men: Destiny is a single player third person action brawler set in Marvel’s X-Men universe. Players may pick from one of three characters: Grant, a varsity football player who doesn’t know anything about politics, Aimi, a Japanese girl whose father sent her on a boat to the United States to hide from Japan’s anti-mutant practices, and Cole… er… I mean Adrian, a tall white guy with a buzz cut and a cattle prod who comes from a family of anti-mutant purists.
The set up for the game is that Professor Xavier has been killed by Bastion, the X-Men have scattered, and the main team is now stationed on the West Coast. In order to quell a recent spate of human-mutant clashes, Cyclops, the leader of the X-Men sets up a peace rally with Louis Reyes, a politician. The game begins at that rally, where don’t you just know it, things go tits up, and someone attacks. Surviving the attack, your chosen hero discovers he/or she has mutant powers, and runs off to join the battle.
The Story: It’s Terrible, And There Is So Little Of It!
X-Men: Destiny has a terrible story. This goes both in terms of narrative direction as well as in terms of the writing. The overall narrative seeks to put both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants on the same side of a battle, ostensibly against some evil force that is attempting to start a war between humans and mutants.
In the process of doing so, the story actually starts to pose some interesting thoughts: would it be better for Mutants to just have a land all their own to be safe from humans. To that end, Magneto more or less destroys San Fransisco in order to create a sort of neo-Israel for the Mutants to go to. This actually seems pretty interesting. It’s a shame the main storyline just brushes by it in favor of conspiracies between the Purists, the U-Men, and another darker force, that you will almost certainly not care about. Literally, good story ideas like these are never explored, and get only a few lines of dialogue at most.
Moreover, the narrative completely drops the ball when it comes to working with the X-Men and Brotherhood themselves. Each of these characters (and plenty of your favorites will be missing, sadly) has a deep and interesting backstory that could be explored and exploited in light of the current crisis. The story really just doesn’t do much with these characters, other than putting them in rolls and giving them powers to blow shit up with.
In fact, despite some early opportunity to create an interesting narrative, the game largely feels like a C-Grade 5 issue series of the comics. It isn’t quite as bad as, say, the third X-Men movie. Rather, it’s mediocre.
This extends to how the story is told throughout the levels. Most of this is done through dialogue. However, dialogue in this game often doesn’t tie together well. Both in terms of tone and in terms of content, it often feels out of place. For instace, the first time (and one of the only times) I met Wolverine, my character Aimi, went right in to talking about her dad, as though she and Wolvie had known each other for years. It didn’t fit the circumstances and it didn’t fit the characters. At this point in the story, Wolverine did not know who the hell I was, I had just met the guy, and how on earth would he know anything about my father, or give a crap that I was sad?
In fact, this lack of narrative consistency extends to pretty much all of the writing. Conversations often feel like they were written by two different people, at two different times, in two different places, sometimes without access to the other person’s work. Characters will often respond to each other as though they had been asked an entirely different question. They feel stilted, disjointed, and unbelievable. This also extends to the voice acting, but I will cover that more in a minute.
The writing is bad enough that dialogue made me wince more than a few times. It felt like the game was written by people who had only a passing familiarity with the Marvel Universe, and access to Wikipedia. The developers completely failed to capture these characters’ voices, and in a game that seeks to steep itself in the Marvel Universe, this is a critical failure.
Ultimately, the fact that the story fails to engage or go anywhere very interesting is fatal to the game. It is a huge missed opportunity for Silicon Knights to spend all of their resources on poorly telling this underwhelming story at the expense of delving into the deep and complicated relationships between the mutants. Some of these things are touched on, briefly, but like everything else, must make way for a far more boring narrative.
You Think She Looks Bad? You Should Hear Her Sing!
This is an ugly game. Not only are the in-game graphics bland, uninspiring and flat, but the cinematics somehow manage to look even worse. The game looks so bad it reminds me, in some ways, of graphics I would have expected last generation, or at the very least early in this generation. After playing Gears of War 3, it was a shock to go to this.
In a comic book game, character design is extremely important. Unfortunately here, it is all just bland and directionless. Not only that, but the game lacks any real sense of style when it comes to characters. They feel like literal, undetailed, and low-resolution copies of drawings you have seen a million times.
The three hero characters are also uninspired. They can best be summed up through unfair comparison: Grant is a football playing Colossus wannabe (He actually brought a football to a peace rally), Aimi is Jubilee in Raziel’s scarf, and Adrian is a racist Cole McGrath, right down to the backpack and the cattle prod. Like all the characters, they look distinct, but lack any of the fine detailing gamers have come to expect from top-tier games.
The animation is hit and miss. In game, it’s fine, but nothing special. In dialogue though, characters are stiff, emotionless, and the lip synching is completely off. Actually, this highlights a bigger problem: the voice acting.
You see, the voices in the game run the gamut from decent to awful, often repeatedly. For instance, Aimi was annoying and unbelievable. For a girl who was fresh off the boat from Japan, she sure said Konnichiwa like an American. They sneak in a few Japanese words there every now and then to remind you, you see. Some of the NPC voice acting is fine, but once you get into accents, it all falls apart. Colossus, Gambit and Nightcrawler sound all wrong. Colossus particularly sounds as though he should be performing a one-man show in Branson. What a country! Though accent free, Mystique is also a hot mess, both in how she looks and how she sounds. I couldn’t find a good picture online to demonstrate, but they made her face slightly too small for her head, and made her talk like a valley girl.
The voice acting problems are compounded in dialogue sessions. Often, I found it to be the case that when two characters spoke to each other, their tones did not match. It sounded as though two separate people were speaking from two separate locations, having never heard each other. This was probably the case, many games do this. However, they do it well enough so that it is not apparent. This kind of dissonance in the dialogue brings you out of the game, and makes it all sound silly and amateur.
Throughout all of this, you cannot skip dialogue, even if you have heard it before. This was a conscious decision made by Silicon Knights, and frankly, it sucks. Considering that the game encourages multiple new games, sitting through the same bad writing and voice acting gets very tiresome. Just let us hit x to move forward please.
Oh, and this may be a small complaint, but I like to play with the sub-titles on. Just my own personal preference. In some games, I notice that the voice acting doesn’t exactly match what is being written in the sub titles. Generally, this doesn’t bother me. In this case, however, there is a huge disconnect between the sub titles and the voice acting. Almost as though they used two separate scripts for each! Entire sentences will be different, or will be missing altogether. It’s not exactly a deal breaker, but it’s lazy, and really speaks to how other areas of this game came to be as they are.
So how do these super powered mutants look when they fight? Meh. Yes, Cyclops shoots a red laser out of his visor, Iceman shoots ice beams, and Wolverine jumps at people and yells a lot, but honestly it all felt rote, boring, and unremarkable. The special powers that your player gets, be they shadow blades or energy projectiles, are nothing to marvel at. Everything that could be defined as a “special effect,” were this a movie, would charitably be described as underwhelming. Again, these are the kinds of graphics that we saw 8 years ago. For all of its flaws, Too Human looked significantly better than this.
Further, there are significant technical issues in the game. In certain cinematic scenes, and in scenes where many enemies are on screen at once, the game’s frame rate dips considerably. The game is also fairly buggy, once crashing on me completely, and more than once clipping me through the environment, or failing to detect my hits on enemies. The message boards are full of reported bugs, as well.
But How Does It Play?
As if the game didn’t look and sound bad enough, the gameplay was uninspiring. At its core, X-Men: Destiny is a brawler, somewhat in the vein of God of War or Darksiders. Even more so, at times, the game feels quite a bit like Dynasty Warriors. This is because you will spend nearly 80% of your time hitting various combos of x, y. x, x, y. x, x, x, y. And so on. Mash on the x and y buttons until everything is dead, and then move on to the next area.
That’s pretty much everything you do in the game. Sure, between fights you can crawl around areas looking for a couple of collectables, and you can talk to certain NPCs at various points in the missions, but apart from a few climbing platforming sequences, and a couple of boss fights, you will spend the vast majority of your time with this game button mashing your way to victory.
This kind of gameplay has its place, but it shouldn’t be here. Silicon Knights and Activision marketed X-Men: Destiny as an RPG. This game is NOT an RPG. This isn’t even really an Action RPG. Rather, it is a beat-em-up with RPG elements, similar to how the Dynasty Warriors games are. In both Dynasty Warriors and X-Men: Destiny, your character can level up, equip new items and learn new skills, but at its core, both games are about hitting x and y until you win.
In a general sense, the way the game plays, the style of the boss fights, and the way the levels follow in a single linear path, the game feels old. Old as in designed by people who have not been aware as to the advancements made in gaming this entire generation (or even in the last generation by games like God of War I and II.) X-Men: Destiny is old school without being ironic or interesting. Thinking back on it, it reminds me, in this way, quite a bit of Alice: Madness Returns.
There are other, more specific complaints I have about the gameplay. The environments are generally large, ugly and empty, except for a few random collectables. Also, there are challenge arenas in the game, hidden off of the main path. If you find one, your goal (like all of the rest of the game) is to kill a bunch of enemies. Usually with a time limit. These are not hard, but I discovered, after my attention lapsed, that if you fail one, you do not get an immediate second chance to retry it. Rather, you have to go out of the game, go to the load screen, select challenges, and select the one you failed to try it again. This kind of irritating decision only serves to make the game less fun to play.
So, the gameplay is simple and generic button mashing, the environments are big, empty and ugly, and more than anything, it all feels like old game design.
Not Exactly Build-A-Mutant
For those of you with dreams of creating your own kickass mutant, I have some words of warning: the customization options in X-Men: Destiny are pretty bare bones. Regardless of which character you pick, you get the same three options on which to start your game: Density Control (hit things hard), Energy Projection (shoot lasers/electricity), and Shadow Matter (use shadow blades and warp around fast hitting things). These powers can evolve over the game, for instance, you can get the ability at the high end of Shadow Matter to temporarily grow wings and fly, swooping down and killing folks. You can’t, however, just create any kind of X-Man you want.
The true customizability in the game comes from the x-genes and suits, all found randomly in the environment. X-Genes are defined as a character, and either offensive, defensive or utility. For instance, the Wolverine Offensive X-Gene allows you to do more damage, and if upgraded, allows you to do massive damage that also does damage over time (trauma). The Northstar Utility Gene, when upgraded, allows you to fly, albeit close to the ground, and not in battle. If you equip all of a character’s x-genes and their suit (if you are lucky enough to find it all), then you can use their x-mode, which will drain your mutant powers but generally makes you faster, stronger, etc.
That’s about it, in terms of customization. Sure you can add ice powers by equipping Ice Man’s defensive x-gene, but it can be taken off any time. It never feels like you are really building your character. It feels much more like Prototype than say Morrowind or City of Heroes.
There is also the matter of choice. The game makes a lot of hay out of the concept that the player can choose their own destiny, meaning whether they will support the Brotherhood or the X-Men. Throughout the game, the player is given repeated choices that could benefit either side, including missions that gain you respect with one side over the other. Ultimately, however, these choices don’t mean anything. You can choose to join the X-Men or the Brotherhood, but this doesn’t change the story, nor does it change the missions, apart from a mission here or there that’s side-specific. Once again, it’s the illusion of choice, and poorly written, at that.
Further, I will say I was not a big fan of the three characters they had for you to choose. They could have either worked on making them more distinct, interesting, and with better stories, or they could have given us more. Either way, three unremarkable ciphers is hardly inspiring.
It should go without saying, but just to make sure there are no misconceptions here: You do not play as any of the x-men in this game. There.
Anything Nice To Say?
So at this point I have said some very mean things, and probably ruined my relationship with Silicon Knights permanently. While I stand by this review, I did not go into this game wanting to slam it. Far from it, I was looking forward to it! I am generally a fan of Silicon Knights’ work, all the way back to Blood Omen.
Whenever I write one of these reviews, I do so with the aid of a sheet of paper I keep with me while I play the game. I divide the sheet into two sections, one for positive comments and one for negative. While I play, if I think of something that I want to touch on later in the review, I write it down in either the + or – areas. In this case, and I am not joking here, literally the only things I have written in the positive area is “Decent voice acting, except Colossus and others” and “Interesting ideas on presentation.”
So that’s a fair point: the game does have at least one interesting idea: the way it presents data to the player. Instead of having a menu item or alert pop up and say “Kill 10 Enemies!” the game will actually project this information, in three dimensions, into the game world. If you turn the camera, you can see the letters from the other side. Sort of similar to what was done in the most recent Splinter Cell game.
Still, faint praise is damning. I wanted to like this game. I love the X-Men, and I want Silicon Knights to succeed. The road to hell is paved with good intensions like these, and I have to tell you, this is a bad game. I would only suggest purchasing it if it was on a steep discount (which I suspect it will be soon). In an age where games keep on getting bigger, better and more interesting, there just isn’t room for this kind of lackluster game design.
We, rightfully, expected more from Silicon Knights. A supposedly top tier developer working with a huge non-movie tie-in license? It could have been huge. We expected steak. What we got was bland delivery pizza.
I wonder, in closing, how X-Men: Destiny will be remembered? Will it be thought of as a terrible missed opportunity? Or will it be remembered as the point where everyone decided Silicon Knights wasn’t as good as we had previously thought? Only time will tell.