X-Men Legends Hands-On

Professor Xavier's merry band of mutants are headed for the N-Gage, but not before we give them a preview.

Activision's X-Men Legends game--which will be making its way to the PC, Xbox, and PS2 before the end of the month--is also bound for the N-Gage in Q1 2005. The N-Gage version is currently in development at Barking Lizards, a relatively new studio that has experience in both console and mobile games. We weren't surprised, therefore, when the early build of X-Men Legends we played at Nokia's Vancouver N-Gage event displayed a nice balance between console-style depth and mobile playability. Due to X-Men Legends' high-profile console releases, this is one game that Nokia really can't afford to get wrong. The results thus far are promising.

X-Men Legends' team-based combat will add a lot of depth to its gameplay.

Like its more stationary counterparts, the N-Gage X-Men Legends is an isometric beat-'em-up adventure with substantial RPG elements. The story behind the action reads right out of the X-Men comics' greatest hits: An evil, human-supremacist official, General Kincaid, wishes to incite antimutant hysteria in the US, with an eye toward precipitating a civil war. To further these malevolent ends, he aids the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (which is staffed by classic baddies like Mystique, the Blob, and Pyro) in their quest to break their leader Magneto out of the hoosegow.

Of course, the mutant heroes in residence at Dr. Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters--better known as the X-Men--aren't going to stand idly by, and neither will you. Instead, you'll form your selection of X-Men into teams of four, equip them as you see fit, and guide them through three separate story acts, stretched over 22 episodes and 50 different missions. Nokia claims that this arduous journey will be good for up to 40 hours of single-player gameplay. At first, you won't have many X-Men to choose from, but as you progress through the game, more heroes will become available, until they fill out the full roster of 11. These will include old standbys like Wolverine, Cyclops, Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, Colossus, Gambit, Beast, and Iceman, as well as somewhat more obscure mutants like Magma.

Fundamentally, X-Men Legends' gameplay is built upon proven hack-and-slash mechanics, but Barking Lizards is adding a sizable dose of depth to the model, in terms of both tactics and scope. For instance, it will be important to configure your team correctly for combat, because your X-Men differ in their ranged and melee combat skills. You will also be able to configure a particular team member's CPU controls in a number of areas. These variables include stance (which is akin to aggressiveness level), rate of item usage, and reliance on mutant abilities. Since your X-Men are actually fairly vulnerable in combat as individuals, progressing through the game will require tuning these behaviors to promote effective team fighting. Item-seeking and conservation will also play a fairly crucial role, since, according to Nokia, combat is designed to exhaust your supply of consumable items, forcing you to scour the levels for succor.

Use the D pad to select from the in-game menus.

X-Men Legends will also highlight the importance of building up your characters' statistics, equipment, and special abilities throughout the course of the game. For instance, the mutant superheroes have access to only a few of their innate powers at the beginning of the game, meaning that you must play to unlock the others. In addition, the characters will become tougher in battle as they gain experience, and equipping them with certain items will boost their damage resistance and the like.

We had a chance to play through the first level of the game, which was introduced by a brief FMV sequence (which, incidentally, is a first for the N-Gage platform) detailing a horrid antimutant riot. The objectives in the first level are to stop the fleeing Mystique and Blob, and also to rescue a little girl who is about to be trampled by the mob. At first, you are limited to the default team of Wolverine, Iceman, Rogue, and Cyclops, which you lead on a merry chase through the waste-strewn streets, occasionally beating down gangs of riot cops.

Your success in combat will be heavily dependent on your characters' stats.

At this stage in the game, the combat is pretty elementary, consisting mostly of jamming on the 5 key to use your X-Man's basic attacks against the goons. In a neat design twist, all your character's menus--from which you select your operative special power, use items, and manage equipment--open with a press of an assigned button. The menus themselves are organized into four-item groups, allowing you to make your choice using the D pad. You can also switch characters on a whim by pressing the 7 key. As you wield your mutant powers in combat, your energy bar drains. It recharges gradually on its own, but you can also use items to refill it instantly.

The isometric perspective lends itself to visibility, but the N-Gage's screen clutters quickly.

During the course of play, we were impressed with the amount of detail that has made it into the game, even at this early date. For instance, many of the environmental features are fully destructible, meaning that you can destroy certain barriers to open up new areas in a given level. The character graphics are hand-drawn sprites, which look very sharp on the N-Gage's small screen. The sprite-based graphics also insure that the game runs at a reasonable clip, even when there are a dozen characters mixing it up onscreen. However, such sequences are still very visually congested, making it difficult to tell exactly what's going on or what your character is doing. Hopefully the developer will take steps to clarify the action before the game goes final. X-Men Legends' sound effects and music are still in development, but the percussive blows and terse music that have been put in so far punctuate the action nicely.

According to Nokia, X-Men Legends is on point for a late January or early February release. We'll have more details on the game as they become available.

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