With the success of the X-Men movie, Marvel's atomic poster children for mutation have never had a higher profile. Activision and developer Paradox have teamed up again to offer mutant fans a fighting game featuring a bigger roster of characters, a bulked-up fighting system, and larger fighting arenas. We had the chance to check out an early preview build of the Xbox version of the game to see how the mutant fighter's evolution is progressing.
The game's story draws on several recent plot threads that have run through the various X-Men comic books and snowballs into the sweeping life-or-death epic clashes the comics are known for. Fans will recognize the game's antagonists, the well-known robotic villains Bastion and the prime sentinels. The trouble all begins when the prime sentinels liberate Bastion from prison and then set out to destroy the X-Men by using one of their own against them. The mechanical menaces capture X-Man Forge in order to exploit his mutant ability to create any device he can imagine. In this case, Bastion intends to use Forge to re-create a weapon to wipe out mutants. Professor Xavier and the X-Men, obviously taking issue with Forge's kidnapping and Bastion's "kill all mutants" agenda, set out to thwart the robotic menaces.
Our build of the game let us check out five of the game's modes: story, arcade, versus, survival, and practice. The story mode takes you through the aforementioned events and follows the X-Men's efforts to rescue Forge and stop Bastion. This mode offers a twist on the linear structure you'd expect from a story mode in that you'll engage in a series of one-on-one fights that are broken up by cutscenes that move the story along. The twist is that you'll have the opportunity to choose a character to use out of a rotating selection of characters in between battles for a bit of variety. While the story mode offers something new, the rest of the game's modes are what you'd expect. Arcade is a standard run through a series of fights, while versus lets you take on a friend. The survival mode challenges you to get through as many fights in a row as you can. Finally, practice mode lets you familiarize yourself with any available character without the hassle of being assaulted by an overeager AI-controlled opponent.
In terms of the game's roster, our build of the game gave us limited access to the selectable fighters. We were only able to try Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Phoenix, Toad, and Havok, but we were able to get a glimpse of the rest of the combatants. Along with the previously mentioned six, you'll also find Gambit, Storm, Mystique, Sabretooth, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Forge, Juggernaut, Psylocke, Lady Deathstrike, two different prime sentinels, Bastion, and four slots with question marks on them.
The game's fighting system has been expanded from the one seen in the X-Men: Mutant Academy games on the original PlayStation. You'll have access to two punches and two kicks that you can chain together while attacking to create lengthy combos. You'll also be able to throw your enemies and counter their moves once you get the timing down. You'll even be able to move in eight directions à la Soul Calibur. Each character will have its own unique set of special moves that will reflect its unique mutant power, as well as four different super moves that will vary in strength according to your character's super meters.
Besides the character's various abilities, another significant component of the new fighting system is the environment. The arenas in X-Men: Next Dimension borrow a page from Tecmo's Dead or Alive 3 and feature huge interconnected, multitiered areas. Our demo let us check out the X-mansion, Danger Room, Egypt, and the Sentinel Invasion. The X-mansion features five sections: the hallway sitting room, Xavier's office, the garden, the hangar lift, and the hangar, which are accessed by knocking an opponent into trigger points in each area. The Danger Room is one large area whose environments change on the fly during a fight. The room will change from the basic practice room, to the Roman Colosseum with gladiators racing around you on chariots, to a nighttime war zone. The Egypt level is divided into three large sections: a treasure room, catacombs, and a crypt that holds X-Men foe Apocalypse, who'll periodically pop up and survey the ensuing fight. Finally, the Sentinel Invasion stage, which is taken directly from the Days of Future Past storyline, offers three sections: a construction site, a patio area, and the city streets. This stage stood out as the most atmospheric of the bunch, thanks to the presence of wrecked sentinel parts strewn throughout the area.
Graphically the game is pretty solid. The characters are detailed well enough and all look like the various mutants, but character animation is a bit stiff at the moment and doesn't flow very well. The various levels featured a smattering of breakable objects and some animated elements, such as bystanders in the X-mansion stage and scarabs in the Egyptian stage's crypt section. Each character's mutant abilities are conveyed well due to good use of particle and lighting effects. The various special effects benefited the mutants by making some of the powers flashier (Phoenix's and Cyclops') and by adding motion-blur trails to others (Beast's and Toad's). However, while the game looks good enough, we'd hoped for a bit more graphical punch out of the Xbox, such as greater detail and richer special effects. On the plus side, the game's frame rate is fairly solid even in its early state.
Sound in the game was fair in our early build. Each of the mutants has its own unique voice, which more or less suits the character. Fans of the X-Men movie should recognize Patrick Stewart's distinctive voice as Professor X. Aside from having a unique voice, each character also features distinctive sound effects for its various powers. Like they do graphically, the flashier mutants fare better in the sound effects department--there's just something more satisfying about the thrum of Phoenix's telekinesis than the whoosh of air heard during Beast's attacks. You'll also hear some ambient tracks in the various stages, such as Apocalypse's laugh in Egypt. The music for the levels we saw was suitably melodramatic and helped sustain the appropriate mood.
From what we've played so far, X-Men: Next Dimension is walking a rather fine line between becoming a good game and a merely competent one. Given the game's early state, a lot could change before the game ships, which leaves us hopeful that everything could come together. X-Men: Next Dimension will ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.