Does a rising Apocalypse require yeast? It's probably best to leave that question to the philosophers, and instead concentrate on the more pressing issue of whether or not we really need annual updates to game franchises. Certainly, as far as the bank statements of most of the large publishers out there are concerned, we do. If that's true, then as gamers we're better off having games that actually add new content, new challenges and not just a bit more visual sparkle and (in the case of certain games that we won't mention by name or publishing company) just a few paltry roster updates. Activision's X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse is undoubtedly a game that fits into the "yet another sequel" category, but thankfully it provides a greatly improved gaming experience to justify its existence. Yes, the roster's been updated -- and considerably increased -- and yes, it doesn't change much about the core mechanics of last year's Dark Alliance-esque X-Men Legends game. To use an incredibly over-used journalistic cliche, if you liked last year's game, you'll like this one, and if you didn't, you won't.
Like its predecessor, X-Men Legends II uses a pseudo-3D cell shaded motif for all of the game's visuals. This provides a nice comic-book effect -- arguably not as spiffy as those in Ultimate Spider-Man, but you can't have everything. You play as your choice of four mutants, but the big twist in this year's version of the game is that you're not all good little mutants. Professor Xavier's X-Men must team up with Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- who, as an aside, were clearly napping when all the good villain team names were being handed out -- to defeat the evil Apocalypse. This gives you a massive initial roster to play with, from the standard and rather well-known characters such as Wolverine and Cyclops, to the slightly more obscure (unless you're a comics fan) characters like Sunfire and Juggernaut. Given that it springs from the same creative well as the Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath camps -- big, essentially-dungeon-bashing quests -- it's a really nice change to be able to mix up your team setups from mission to mission. You're never forced into a particular character set, either, as your inactive choices gain levels as you go along, so everyone retains parity throughout the game.
X-Men Legends 2 will suffer a bit if you play it as a single player -- there's no denying that at its core, you've got to be able to get some enjoyment out of simply being the X-Men (or Brotherhood), and if you strip away the licence, what lies beneath is a whole lot of enemy splatting along with the odd bit of mutant-power bridge building, fire dousing and puzzle solving. Multiplayer definitely improves the X-Men Legends 2 experience, and like last year's game, you can opt to play on a single console or online in most versions. It's tough to get too excited about online play, though, as the real fun in the game comes from being able to cheer, jeer and share beer with people who are physically next to you while you plough through hordes of bad guys.
Where X-Men Legends 2 shows its franchise roots is in the fact that it genuinely isn't that much of a visual step up from last year's model. It's essentially the same gaming models -- although this time round extra "skins" for your mutants are available from the get-go -- in slightly prettier gaming environments. It's just that with the addition of the Brotherhood to your gaming choices, there's an awful lot more game to play, and a reasonable amount of impetus to actually replay the game, just to see how the different character's powers deal with different challenges.
We tested with the Playstation 2 version of the game, but there are also PC, Xbox and Gamecube variants, as well as a portable PSP version. The Xbox version uses Xbox Live for its online multiplayer malarkey, while the Gamecube version lacks online multiplayer altogether. Then again, the Gamecube version also lacks twenty sweet dollars off the asking price compared to the Xbox and PS2 versions. Given the relatively low takeup of online gaming, it's hard not to wonder how an online mode is, in and of itself, worth twenty bucks. Or, to put it another way, if you've got a Gamecube and either an Xbox or PS2, plump for the Gamecube version and spend the twenty bucks you'll save on some pizzas to eat with your mates while you tuck into some tasty mutant-based action.