Review: Uncanny X-Men -- Days of Future Past26 May 2014 0
Do you remember “Days of Future Past”? The classic X-Men comic book arc in which everyone’s favorite mutants ran slowly from left to right as they destroyed random warehouse supplies? What’s that? You say that wasn’t in the story at all? Well, maybe not in the new movie (Hollywood ruins everything, don't they) but in the original comic… oh. It wasn’t there either? Oh. I guess you’re right.
Ostensibly based on a standout storyline from Chris Claremont's celebrated run as the writer of the comic book, Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past is a side-scrolling brawler that attempts to hide its bland core under heaping helpings of fan service. It offers you control of some of the world’s most beloved superheroes, then does its best to make sure you quickly tire of them. It does, however, raise awareness of the greatest threat to peace and equality in the world today: the barrel.
In Days of Future Past, The American government has created an army of giant robots to round up mutants, who are viewed with increasing suspicion by the non-mutated voting public. This has gone predictably wrong, and the world is now an apocalyptic wasteland where mutants are hunted down and locked in concentration camps.
You play as the various X-Men trying to undo the damage via time travel, which sounds titilating until you realise that it means mostly running from side to side smashing barrels and crates on 2D levels. You smash some bad guys too, generic minions who (in the finest tradition of movie henchmen) couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from the inside. But mostly barrels and crates.
The creators clearly know their X-Men. The levels are riddled with secret areas which can unlock classic comic covers or cameo appearances from popular characters. The heroes spout their catchphrases with aplomb. This is a game rooted in the comics and not the still-in-theatres blockbuster film adaptation, and a deep respect for the lore is evident. So how does a game so aware of its history get the core experience so wrong? It serves up the references while skimping on what fans actually want in a superhero title.
The X-Men are more than costumed dispensers of memorable catchphrases. They’re an uncanny (!) blend of awesome abilities and personalities. They’re power fantasies writ large. They’re always ready to swing, or claw, or teleport or blast into action, with enough kinetic energy to power decades of comics and a seven-movie series. They’re many things, but they’re rarely boring. This game makes them boring.
Which hero do you want to be? Straight-arrow Cyclops, with with the laser eyes? Anti-hero Wolverine, with the metal claws? The unstable but immensely powerful Scarlet Witch, who can literally warp reality to her will? Too bad. Sure, the game includes these characters, but their defining traits have been stripped away, reducing them to substandard brawlers.
Let’s look at an example. Colossus wants to get through a heavy metal door, so he punches it down. No problem here -- he's a NBA forward-sized bruiser made of steel. Kitty Pryde (the X-Men's dainty "kid sister" with no super-human strength) wants to get through a heavy metal door, so she… punches it down. Huh. If the game took into account Kitty's super-power, namely the ability to phase through solid objects, perhaps that might come in handy for bypassing doors.
Moments like this are common. Each character gets a few special abilities that pay a token tribute to their mutant powers, but you’ll spend most of your time jumping and punching your way through the levels in the same manner, no matter who you choose to play as. There are five playable characters for the moment, two of whom are locked for most of the game. Three more are promised as “coming soon.” Cyclops is the only real standout here, as his ranged attacks vary up combat quite a bit. Don't get your hopes up though. Cyclops is locked until after your first playthrough. The other four heroes are all variations on the same theme. It’s like opening a tub of Neapolitan ice cream only to discover three slightly different versions of vanilla. You’re not playing as the X-Men. You’re playing as the Generic Punching Men, wearing the X-Men’s unitards.
If the Generic Punching was entertaining I might be more forgiving, but it’s not, sadly. The controls are cludgy. Jumps never land exactly how you want, and the combat consists of hitting your usually stationary opponents repeatedly until they fall over. There’s no sense of speed or adrenaline, instead there is only a slog. Walk walk punch jump punch special power punch punch walk punch walk.
Things get a bit better in later levels when the game realizes you'd probably rather be hitting bad guys than barrels. Yet these come with their own set of problems. Many of the late-game foes can fly, despite your own aerial manoeuvrability resembling that of a paper airplane strapped to an anvil. You collect experience points from defeating enemies and smashing the many XP canisters scattered across each level. These can be spent on special abilities which spice combat up a little, but usually take a backseat to good old-fashioned punching.
The game even manages to undermine the punching by making it inconsistent as required by the plot. On the very first level I easily took down a giant robotic Sentinel, but when a similar opponent soon after arrived he was impervious to fists. I eventually realized this was supposed to be a chase scene, so I dutifully began running (trudging) away from an foe the game had just taught me I could easily defeat.
Days of Future Past isn't awful. But it’s not fluid, it’s not fun, and it’s certainly not super heroic. With 23 levels, each taking a few minutes to complete, there’s a fair amount of content here. And your performance in each stage is ranked, giving you incentive to try again.
I'd happily sit down and have a beer with Glitchsoft to talk comics. Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past is a game with plenty of love for its inspiration, but it’s lost sight of what made the original stories so inspiring in the first place.
Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past was played on an iPhone 5s for this review.