Silicon Knights founder Denis Dyack is happy to hear that X-Men Destiny looks unlike many of the games already based on Marvel's mutant universe. "We've been collaborating with Marvel and Activision to do things very differently," he says.
In most X-Men games, you pick a familiar hero, like Wolverine or Gambit, and then explore the world from his or her point of view. In X-Men Destiny, however, Dyack and his team have been given free reign to separate powers from characters. Your custom-built hero can play through the RPG-driven side of the game by equipping powers as you would gear. You could combine Cyclops' eyebeams with Juggernaut's charge, or Wolvie's healing factor, all while finding a place in the campaign somewhere between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants.
Unfortunately, while there are a lot of interesting touches in the story and powers system, X-Men Destiny's core game struggles to hold the higher ideas up. The graphics look only marginally better than those leaked screens, and even in the short demo I played the game's combat and enemies teetered on the verge of becoming notably repetitive.
Gallery: X-Men Destiny (Comic Con 2011) | 5 Photos
If you look at the whole game of X-Men Destiny as a make-your-own-superhero machine, the powers system does show a lot of promise. Your three hero choices are Aimi (a Japanese schoolgirl and mutant refugee), Adrian (a former anti-mutant fundamentalist who turns out to have some powers of his own), and Grant (a high-school quarterback more interested in girls than genetics).
Early on in the story, you get to choose your first power, and it turns out that these powers have nothing to do with that original backstory. I chose to give hulking jock Grant, for instance, a pretty flashy caster-type energy power, which resulted in a big brute character delicately bursting out yellow bolts and spheres.
That kind of customization could make for some fun creations and, later in the story, when you start collecting X-Genes, you can modify those core powers in all kinds of ways. I could beef up that caster side of Grant, Dyack says, and then give him Juggernaut's inertial power if I so chose. "So you can be a caster with a Juggernaut power, and then just start charging and bowling people over," Dyack told me. "The idea is choice; how do you want to play it?"
The flip side of that, of course, is that while many powers drop into your lap randomly, actually getting the powers you want might be tough. Fortunately, there is some story direction, says Dyack. If you want to be more of a Wolverine, for example, "you start to lean towards more of the X-Men side when you're making choices, and his genes will come up." But the idea is experimentation -- combine some powers you choose with some you want and some you find, and you'll have a hero unlike any other.
When you think about the game that way, the fight sequences in-between power discovery and character conversations almost become filler, a way to simply test what you've created -- and that might explain why they're so boring. Your character can perform a light and heavy attack, of course, and you also have dash and a block/parry button, but things don't feel precise or varied at all. Your enemies don't help, either. Most of the fights in the demo consisted of crowds of similarly dressed bad guys who had some vague reason to hate your mutant character, so you're left to just wade into them, clear them out and then move on to the next scene. The game even counts down to the end of the fights, putting up things like "Ten enemies left" on the screen.
And what's really crazy is that those floating titles are probably the most fascinating thing about the gameplay itself. Rather than just telling you pertinent information like that countdown or your combo counter on a flat 2D heads-up display, titles actually manifest inside the game world as flashy comic-book style text that hovers in the air.
"A lot of games are going towards hyperrealism. That was not the goal with this game," Dyack points out. "You can shatter them!" he says, and he's right: Pulling off a big move with a title hanging in the air above you will crack it apart, and you even get extra XP for doing so. Dyack says that particular graphical element shows up elsewhere, too, when famous X-Men characters appear, and during certain big plot-related sequences.
That's a really wild, original development choice, and it makes X-Men Destiny really stand out, both visually and in that extra bit of gameplay. Why doesn't the combat sparkle like that? Why stick with the boring light/heavy attack scheme that every third-person combat game uses? "You've got dual analog from Too Human -- that was very, very different," says Dyack. Okay, sure, though maybe that didn't work out so well.
Light and heavy attacks, however, are "things that people know and understand. It's sort of like the QWERTY keyboard in some ways, quite frankly." Dyack hopes that even if the combat starts off slow, players find complexity in the customization instead. "Is that [light/heavy attack combat] something completely new and original? No it's not. But that was sort of the foundation for us to explore the other elements, with the X-Genes and the powers and the choices."
I'm not yet convinced that foundation is strong enough to hold up X-Men Destiny's more interesting choices, but I'll form a more conclusive opinion when it launches this September.