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Heroes and Villains: 

The free-roaming superhero genre's pros and consVideogames

As with the newish fad of complex comic book movies (think Batman Begins), superheroes have always been a draw for the arcade screen. Superman and X-Men games predated Hollywood's comics craze. What makes a good superhero game and good movie are similar: the original spirit of the comic should be preserved and the game must be entertaining. If you miss either tenet, after 50 or so hours of game play, the flaws will be annoyingly noticeable.

The first time I played X-Men Legends II, I turned it off in frustration. I'm glad I got goaded into trying it again. While the rule book is about as clear as George Bush's speech patterns, the game itself is great. In this second sortie, the X-Men team with the Brotherhood of Mutants to fight Apocalypse. Aside for non-fans: the X-Men and the Brotherhood are sworn enemies and Apocalypse is the most dangerous mutant alive. Teaming up these two groups allows players full access to any of the characters involved, regardless of their usual enmity. I was ecstatic to toss Gambit, Rogue, Juggernaut and Magneto together as the ultimate fighting team. With more than a dozen initial characters to choose from, the game offers more variety and selection than most of its kind right off.

As for style, X-Men Legends II plays like an arcade battle game. Most of the time you're kicking ass and blowing stuff up. There are a few puzzles, but this isn't Myst; it's a die-hard X-Men game. You pick a team of four mutant superheroes, choose which one to control (the rest are controlled by AI) and take off after the baddies. It's a lot more fun and challenging than it sounds, especially with a fully-destructible environment. Usually, these types of games don't allow you the chance to punch through the walls.

By the way, this game is about dying. If your characters get offed, you can't just take a potion and get better. And there is a convoluted process to switching out characters and reviving them. This involves finding an Xtraction Point, choosing Change Team from the menu and then figuring out how to buy back your characters' lives.

The confusing menu theme runs throughout the game; I was amazed at how user unfriendly they were. The control buttons were all out of whack, making it almost impossible to scroll through. Instead, you have to figure out which button connects to which character. Menus also take a long time to load, which can be annoying when you simply need to equip a character with an item.

One of this game's major strengths is its dedication to the original comic series. There's even a trivia room where you can answer questions for extra points. I actually knew most of the responses, so I have attained the level of "geek." Seriously though, the game is really solid when it comes to the characters. While the voices often sound lifted from the 90's X-Men cartoon, Professor X is guest voiced by Patrick Stewart, a familiar Xavier and a welcome addition to the game. Since the good Professor is often our verbal guide, he makes the explanations and descriptions worth listening to.

X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is by far one of the better games I've played this year. I strongly endorse it for anyone around, even if you don't get your geek on with the X-Dudes.

Ultimate Spider-Man is a one-player game, and that immediately made it less fun than X-Men Legends II. Without friendly assistance, everything rides on Spidey. And while there are some cool characters (I always love seeing Venom), there isn't much substance as far as game play goes. A lot of chasing segments, too many aggravating speed-checks, and nothing that really piqued my interest. Spiderman himself is able to do just about what you expect: toss webs, jump, climb, hit hard and hang upside down. The tough part about his skills is that they require a buttload of hand coordination. Making sure to hit the right button at the right time is especially vital, and this game offers very little wiggle room.

I like the comic book feel permeating the graphics. This makes Ultimate Spiderman comfortable for comic geeks like me. However, the titular antihero Peter Parker comes off as the postmodern teen showcased in current cartoons, and the visuals will seem just a tad too Disneyfied for Spiderman diehards. Ultimate Spider-Man does manage to retain some authenticity through the characters. Aside from the killer Venom, there is a segment where Spidey and the Human Torch compete. Another non-geek alert: this is an age-old schoolboy conflict that has been going on since the 60s. It's nice to see Activision stay true to some Marvel traditions, because these days game producers tend to obliterate the roots of characters and give the general viewing audience the load of crap they "want."

Spidey devotion aside, I'm still advising players to go with the X-Men. Maybe I'm a traitor, but Legends is just a better, more solid play.

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