Since getting our hands on a near-final build of Mega Man X8 from Capcom recently, we've been putting the playable characters X, Zero, and Axl through the paces in a number of varied levels and against a typically bizarre collection of bosses. Most of the levels that we've played through are exactly what you'd expect if you're familiar with Mega Man's previous outings, but there are also a couple of stages that eschew the traditional left-to-right platforming and shooting in favor of 3D vehicle-based gameplay, with mixed results.
Like Mega Man X7 before it, X8 allows you to choose two of the three playable characters before each level, and you'll then be able to switch between them on the fly simply by tapping the L2 button. Even at the start of the game--before you've unlocked additional abilities and weapons--the three characters handle differently enough that some of them are far better suited to certain levels than others, and you'll inevitably have a favorite. Ironically, we've found X to be the least useful of the three, since he's not as maneuverable as either of his colleagues, and he starts the game with a weapon that can be fired only horizontally and that is often useful only after you spend a few seconds charging it up. As in previous games, X will gain new weapons as you defeat each of the game's numerous bosses, but to date we've really seen nothing that would make him an obvious choice for any of the levels. When jumping, for example, X is able to perform only a single jump, while Zero can execute double jumps, and Axl can hover in the air for a short time.
X's default weapon is also showing its age these days, and while charging it up results in an impressive-looking attack that can penetrate most enemy shields, it's not nearly as user-friendly as Axl's pistol. Unlike X, Axl is able to fire rapidly and in any direction, and when firing rapidly you'll notice that every eighth projectile is a more-powerful one capable of damaging enemy shields. Axl is also able to temporarily assume the identities of certain enemies (thus adopting their traits, such as the ability to walk on spikes unharmed) if he shoots them with a "copy shot" attack--though in all honesty we've yet to find this particularly useful. As in previous games, Zero's default weapon is an energy sword that he can perform some devastating combo attacks with, especially since every third strike is powerful enough to penetrate enemy shields. Zero invariably gains new moves rather than new weapons when enemy bosses are defeated, but as you progress through the game, you will have the opportunity to purchase different melee weapons that afford him more-powerful or longer-range attacks.
In addition to choosing two of the three characters before each level, you'll be able to pick one of three navigator characters who will offer you advice as you progress. Based on our experiences with Alia, Layer, and Pallette to date, there really isn't an awful lot to choose between here--Alia will offer general advice about levels and enemies, Layer specializes in detailed information on enemies, and Pallette has a knack for discovering alternate routes through levels. You will have the option to play without a navigator's assistance, but since some portions of Mega Man X8 can be challenging even on the easiest of the game's three difficulty settings, you'll likely be grateful for any help that they can offer.
Your two characters will also be able to help each other out, at least insofar as when one of them gets captured by an enemy, switching characters will see the second character jumping in to rescue his partner. Switching characters frequently will also help you keep their respective health bars topped off, since characters waiting on the sidelines recover health at a rate determined by how well you're doing with the other half of the duo. The only other time that you'll see both of your characters onscreen at the same time, aside from in cutscenes, is when you have them team up for a double attack. You'll have to fill up an attack gauge by killing enemies before you're able to use a double attack, but the amount of damage you'll do to bosses when your characters combine their strengths is well worth the effort. The double attacks are also quite impressive visually, and see your characters putting their weapons to good use while surrounded by what is essentially the "code" effect from The Matrix.
Now, about those bosses.
Who's the Boss?
Like previous Mega Man titles, X8 features a number of unusual boss characters whose levels can be attempted in any order once you've successfully negotiated the mandatory first mission. The bosses you'll be facing in Mega Man X8 are as follows: Optic Sunflower, Bamboo Pandamonium, Gravity Antonion, Earthrock Trilobite, Avalanche Yeti, Gigavolt Man-O-War, Dark Mantis, and Burn Rooster. The different bosses' appearances and attack patterns are every bit as varied as their names suggest, and we found that some of them were a lot easier to defeat once we'd obtained weapons from other bosses. It's not just the bosses themselves who are incredibly varied, by the way--the levels you'll have to negotiate en route to your confrontations with them are perhaps the most diverse to appear in a Mega Man title to date.
The levels that you play on foot, for example, will see you running from giant maverick robots, piloting mech-style "suits," negotiating moving platforms and conveyor belts, moving stealthily through a weapons factory, and even hitting switches that alter the direction of gravity in certain rooms. The two vehicle-based missions are also quite different. One of them will see you piloting a small flying vehicle known as a Sirius through a futuristic city, while the other has you riding a snowmobile of sorts known as a Barius. Both of the vehicle missions require plenty of shooting, but the real challenge lies in avoiding the numerous hazards and obstacles that can end your chances of beating the level in an instant. The Barius mission, for example, is littered with chasms that be cleared only if you hit the small ramps that precede them--fall into one, and it'll be game over.
Actually, that's not strictly true--at least it's not if you've spent some of the metals that you've collected on extra lives rather than on new abilities. At the end of each mission (or each attempt) you'll be taken to the game's R&D lab, where you'll have the option to develop "power chips" using the metals that you've collected, which adds an RPG-style character-progression system to the game. There are two types of power chip: those that enhance an individual character's abilities, and those that provide consumables such as extra lives and single-use prickle barriers (which are as good as an extra life if you happen to fall onto something sharp). The character abilities that you can invest in are quite numerous, and include longer health bars, increased health and weapon-energy recovery speed, easier combos, and decreases in the speed at which you slide down walls. None of the abilities will change the way you play with your chosen characters, but they'll certainly help you last a little longer when the going gets tough.
With its mostly classic gameplay and polished visuals, Mega Man X8 promises to be a welcome addition to the long-running series. It's unfortunate that the titular character feels underpowered next to his colleagues, but purists will surely relish the extra challenge that playing with the blue bomber represents. Expect a full review of Mega Man X8 soon.