Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

X-Men: Next Dimension

Year: 2002
Developer: Paradox Development
Publisher: Activision, Marvel
Platform: PS2, Xbox, GameCube
Metacritic score: 60 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 710,000

Until now we've held firm (more or lessto a self-imposed rule that in order to be considered a game must hold at least a 75 average on Metacritic, when scores are available.  While it's possible the individual preferences (or drinking habit) of a single critic can miss a game's hidden potential, it's not likely the entire collective field of video game journalism could all undervalue the same game?  Or is it possible that a confluence of seemingly disjointed variables cause a group of distinct writers to all view a game more harshly then it deserves?  I'm going to try and argue just that and hopefully by doing so convince you that while X-Men: Next Dimension may not be the one of the best games ever, it is one of The Best Games (You Never Played).

X-Men: Next Dimension could actually be considered the third in a trilogy of fighting games based on Marvel Comics' mutant superheroes.  X-Men: Mutant Academy 1 & 2 both shipped for the PSX to generally positive reviews, but the name was changed to reflect the shifts brought on with the move to the next console gen.  The name change was fitting, because the early 2000's brought some big shifts to the fighting genre.  3D polygon games have been around since at least 1983's I, Robot for the arcade and Atari 2600, but was still seen as a rare and exotic feature when Star Fox released for the SNES nearly a decade later.  But Sega changed all that in 1993 with the gorgeous (for the times) 3D rendered polygon characters in the arcade crowd-drawing classic Virtua Fighter.  The game still relied on the same standard 2D plane of motion that's defined fighting games from the beginning, but it's sharp, crystal clear graphics were a noticeable improvement over the 3D pixelated graphics being used the nascent 1st-person shooter genre in id Games' Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Sega triggered the polygon count wars and a race towards realism that would come to define the next era of gaming.  It was a war Sega would badly bungle with the release of 1994's Sega Saturn, evidently taking their success with Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing as a sign that traditional 2D environments using 3D models was the endgame rather then just the first step.  But the importance of that breakthrough game can't be overlooked and most fighting developers spent the rest of the 90's toying with how to mesh the rise of 3D games with the 2D principles their genre was based in.

There was a good selection of characters available from the start with a few unlockable ones waiting for you to beat the various modes.
One series in particular, Team Ninja's Dead or Alive, took the foundation set by Virtua Fighter and incorporated a full 3D plane of motion.  Unlike the free roaming Power Stone, fighters in DoA still locked onto each other in 2D planes, but players were now free to attack, dodge and counter in 360 degrees within intricately detailed stages.  The Tekken series had used elements of this before, but Team Ninja put a much greater focus on 3D movement by making it more fluid and also using it as a trigger to shift to different parts of the stage.  Paradox Development was no doubt influenced by these games in using 3D range of motion, fast-paced combat and detailed multi-part stages to take Mutant Academy to the Next Dimension.  The evolution was completed by the fullest roster yet, 3D stages based on familiar locales, and an interesting new story mode drawn from the comics themselves.     

Yeah Beast, we were stunned also to see Bishop and Forge in this game.
The story mode derives from the Operation: Zero Tolerance crossover storyline (spoilers) from the late 90's and puts a unique twist on the mode.  The X-Men and the Brotherhood are forced to team up when hyper-sentinel Bastion threatens to wipe out mutant-kind.  Instead of choosing from the total roster and then receiving that fighter's unique backstory, Next Dimension's story mode unfolds as a series of cut scenes (voiced by Prof. X himself, Captain Jean-Luc Picard).  Interspersed between these are matches that play out according to the plot, sometimes limiting your picks to a few characters while other matches are preset depending on who's involved in the story's current battle.  There's also the standard Arcade and 2-player Versus modes along with a Survivor mode that pits you against an unending string of opponents.  The GameCube version also gets Practice and Team modes as an exclusive feature.  The Xbox version gets a bonus stage and Pyro as a playable character, but the poor PS2 version only got coal in its stocking.  

There's a full cast of characters and alternate outfits showing plenty of love to fan favorites with the likes of Gambit, Sabertooth, Nightcrawler and Rogue joining regulars like Magneto, Wolverine and Cyclops.  Moves for each character are well suited to their abilities, for instance Beast has longer, more agile combos of powerful basic strikes whereas Storm uses ranged lightning attacks, wind traps and flight to overwhelm her opponents.  The controls are like a simplified version of the button combos used in most Capcom fighters.  Basic strikes are assigned to individual buttons while pushing two or more trigger special attacks.  Special attacks can be charged up to greater levels by dealing or receiving damage, though one route is more ideal the the other.  Since you're using the joystick to maneuver rather then input complex movements for combos the game lends itself better to button mashing, but someone familiar with the controls and characters moves will still have a definite advantage.  Duking it out around the Savage Land or Asteroid M is made all the more fun by pummeling your opponent into different areas.  There's a special joy in watching Toad connect an air juggle combo to knock Blob through the X-Mansion's second floor window only to land a tongue-based special attack that sends him further flying into the underground hangar.

Getting kicked off a skyscraper sucks.  The fact it was Toad who kicked you just makes it depressing.

It's pretty clear that mixed reviews, including some rather negative ones, might have played a role in the game's underwhelming sales.  Releasing the week before Grand Theft Auto: Vice City also was probably not helpful in getting the mass market's attention.  Despite being mostly uniform in scoring the game in the poor to fair range, critics disagreed with each other over what exactly made the game so displeasing.  Some complained that there wasn't enough depth to the combo system while others appreciated the ability for less skilled players to learn big flashy combos while still leaving room for more experienced fighters to toy with their techniques.  There was also some confusion over whether the graphics were typical for the time or noticeably outdated, but with the benefit of time on our side we'd say the visuals have held up better then other games from 2002.

I've seen worse versions of Psylocke
But what really stands out is how favorably it's viewed by the gamers who played it.  While the critic reviews on Metacritic average out to a fairly mediocre 60, the user reviews sit at a significantly more favorable 8.9 out of 10.  That's a pretty big spread between then and now, and it's unlikely to be explained by mere nostalgia for a game that was never too popular in the first place.  It's surprising that critics who liked 2001's Dead or Alive 3 were so turned off by Next Dimension, particularly since some of them cited the strong similarities between the two as a weakness.  One critique which does still stand out as true is the imprecision in the game's hit animations which can give the characters a clunky feel.  The animations themselves are smooth and gratifying, but connecting them feels a bit disjointed compared to most fighting games.  But does the game's unsuitability for the pro fighting tournaments make it mediocre?

Maybe DoA3 raised expectations too high by the time Next Dimension released.  The game did have more realistic graphics and prettier visuals combined with an enjoyable combo system.  X-Men: Next Dimension certainly couldn't match it's dedicated breast physics algorithm, for what that's worth.  Perhaps X-Men fans were afraid the game's visual connection to the Bryan Singer film's would another lazy movie tie-in game.  Who knows, maybe everyone was just burned out on fighting games as scores for most series seemed to decline during this period.  Whatever the reasoning, the reviews weren't going to motivate a lot of people to give a new game a chance the week before a blockbuster like GTA: Vice City hits.  Most gamers let this one pass them by, but those lucky enough to get a copy on discount later could enjoy a fun fighter suitable for both game nights with friends and mastering on your own.

The Juggernaut appropriately towers over the ol' Canucklehead, but if those claws actually retracted into Wolvie's hands they'd go all the way up to his shoulders.

Not looking good for this one.  Paradox Development was bought by Midway in 2004 and went defunct in 2008.  Activision still has the publishing rights to X-Men along with the rest of Marvel's properties, but has shown no interest in bringing an HD remake or even straight port to Xbox Live or PSN.  Mobile platforms, a prime target for re-releasing older niche games, is not exactly an ideal outlet for the fighting genre.  Neither the Xbox or PS2 versions are on the backwards compatibility list for their respective consoles, and as for the GameCube version... yeah that's not gonna show up in the Wii Shop channel anytime soon.  

As far as hopes for a sequel go, well those are pretty dim too.  Activision has published other X-Men games from various developers since 2002, but none of them in the fighting genre.  It really feels like a wasted opportunity, since so much of what makes the X-Men a great property translates well to fighting games.  The huge cast of heroes and villains provide for a large, well-rounded roster while their mutant abilities lend themselves perfectly to unique and exciting move sets.  Marvel vs. Capcom 3 provides a tantalizing tease of what could be, but stops far short of delivering on 3D mechanics or a fleshed out story and leaves many favorite characters on the sideline.  Fortunately for those wanting to give it a try, old copies can be had for quite cheap online.    

In Next Dimension Wolverine may not quite be the best there is at what he does, but he's still pretty damn good at it.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

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