E3 2011: The X-Men Destiny Demo’s Mutant Power Is Boredom

I shouldn’t have to begin a piece like this by touting my superdork bonafides, but here goes: I promise I have spent most of my life reading comics and a huge chunk of that was spent nose deep in the Marvel canon. Hell, I still have my Secret Wars wrapped in mylar bags. Spidey, Avengers, and especially the X-men were friends of mine for years. I watched the cartoon series, I’ve seen all the movies (despite very middling quality) and even at my advanced age still check in from time to time with the ongoing series (even if I’ve since graduated to arty grown up comics).

I mention this to make it clear I’m not being a reflexive, anti-comics jackass. Honestly, I REALLY wanted to like Activision’s and Silicon Knights’ X-men: Destiny, and going into the non-playable demo at E3, I was kind of excited.

Though the graphics aren’t great (you can see these screenshots, right? Blegh.), it at least has a cool concept and is based on one of the long running series’ cooler storylines. The game is set in San Francisco during an approximation of the U-Men storyline; that is, a group of human supremacists stealing mutant DNA for use in something something spoiler plot. You’ll choose one of three non franchise characters, teenaged mutants whose powers have just manifested, and play them through the conflict. In the meantime, both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants battle the U-men and each other, while actively recruiting your character.

The idea behind the ‘Destiny’ in the title is that the player has the ability to make morality decisions during the game that will affect their character’s destiny. Those choices will, by the end of the game, determine whether or not your character joins Professor Xavier’s good guys or Magneto’s extremists. Neat concept so far right?

The problem is that, from what we saw, the ‘Destiny’ concept is, at best, garnish. Though the game is being hyped as somewhat non linear, during the demo it was stated (and implied) that the main story has a set ending that happens regardless of your player’s moral choices. While there will be slight differences dependent upon whether you chose to share vital information with the Brotherhood, and based on which characters you acquire as allies, that major conflict will conclude the same way. Once the story is over, you’ll end the game sorted into one of the two main mutant factions. That’s fine and all, but why bother including so many morality choices at all, if the ultimate outcome of the game is the same.

It’s possible, though they weren’t able to answer this question during the demo, that should the game do well enough to merit a sequel we will see the decisions you make in this game actually affect the outcome of the story in a significant way, but based on what we saw, we aren’t sure it will get that far. We are not confident there will even be a sequel. That’s because despite the fact you’re playing a mutant with super powers, the powers don’t seem that super, or powerful. Your character has standard innate abilities – agility, speed and the typical lasers-shooty-things-from-fingers powers we’ve come to expect in games like this. But those powers aren’t unique. X-men might not be scientific but it’s cool, each character having a very specific mutation that gives them a recognizable, signature power, like Cyclops’ laser eyes or Storm’s weather abilities. Yet I saw 10 minutes of one of the characters – Aimi Yoshida – in action and I still can’t tell you what her mutation is.

That’s a pretty big problem, worsened by the fact that the game’s wham powers come from the ability to use the DNA extracted by U-men to augment your character’s abilities. Take DNA from Quicksilver, as we saw in the demo, and you move super fast. Cool idea, but it only emphasizes the fact that the actual powers your character has are unremarkable. If you’re making an X-men game and you can’t come up with an original character whose powers are at least memorable, you’ve made a mistake.

Sure, I loved the meticulous San Francisco setting. And again, I want to stress that this was a non playable demo; it’s possible that what I saw will be vastly improved by the time X-Men Destiny is released. However, it’s due in stores in September – not a lot of time to make improvements. And the fact they couldn’t provide a playable demo despite that impending release date seems to indicate either they’re trying to keep criticism to a minimum, or they’re not finished, in which case the game is going to feel extremely rushed out. Neither option is promising.

I’m happy to be wrong but based on what I saw, X-men: Destiny is a cool concept in dire need of good execution. Pity too, because it sounds like it could have been a great game.

This commentary based solely on the non-playable demo presented at E3 2011; X-men: Destiny is available for Playstation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS and Xbox 360 in September, 2011.

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