Slam a 4-pack of Red Bull, chase it with a pot of black coffee, and then jam one of those giant, adrenaline-filled needles directly into your heart, Pulp Fiction style. All set? Okay, good; now you're prepared to experience Legendary's blood pressure-spiking opening. Allow me to elaborate a bit: while most mediums are given the creative freedom to introduce characters and plot points through boundless exposition, games are not afforded that luxury. While a great story, supported by engaging characters is expected and appreciated, the window of opportunity for game creators to develop them is tight. By nature games are interactive experiences, so, feel free to tell all the tales and introduce as many characters as you like, but you better be keeping my thumbs just as busy as my brain. As proven by Legendary's rapid-fire pacing, the folks at Spark Unlimited (Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty) totally get this.
Once titled Legendary: The Box, the game is now subtitle free. And after playing it, I understand why; there's no need to put "The Box" on the box because the title's pull-no-punches opening introduces you to the package in question almost as soon as you hit the start button. No need to explain it--you're already living it. Your character, slickly-attired master thief Charles Deckard, places his palm on it, and it immediately grabs him, pierces his hand with a spike and brands it with a mysterious signet (more on that in a bit.)
So, with Pandora's Box properly pissed off, I can get back to the adrenaline-amped state I suggested you bring upon yourself. Wasting no time--you've been playing for all of 120 seconds or so at this point--Legendary thrusts you into a situation that'd make even Jack Bauer break a sweat. With a fiery bolt of badness shooting from the box, you begin your harrowing escape through a New York City museum. The chaos around you is palpable, as giant columns crumble to the ground--and often on top of museum visitors--chunks of ceiling pepper your path, and cracks spiderweb through the floor. There are also some fresh corpses to crawl over and people, desperately nursing their injuries, to pass by. While Hell is literally being unleashed, Legendary occasionally hits you with a tutorial text box teaching you how to sprint, duck, and jump. By the time you ascend to the second story, the piercing fire from the box is coming through the floor and shooting out the museum's ceiling. In a scene ripped right out of a summer blockbuster, this powerful force is sucking up civilians and shooting them through the hole in the roof. After ducking a few emergency gates and hopping some obstacles, you finally make your way outside where enormous griffons are attacking the city; an especially cool scripted moment sees one of these winged beasties fly off with an NYPD cruiser while an officer clings to its swung-open door for dear life.
Just a few minutes and several gray hairs later, you witness a bright, almost nuclear blast slamming into the pavement, creating a street-filling wave that tosses everything--cars, busses, people--into the air. Narrowly escaping through a maze of twisted metal and cracked concrete, you head into a local business. But before you can even think about catching your breath, another griffon pokes its head through a smashed window and gobbles up a civilian in its beak. Soon you grab a fire axe and a gun, serpentine through some more disastrous conditions, and find your way in an underground subway tunnel...where firedrakes--a cross between a fire breathing bullfrog and pitbull--are waiting to make Deckard's bad day worse.
Now, I don't feel guilty in having spoiled anything for you because all this happens in the game’s first 5-10 minutes. Plus, I didn't even reveal the best part, taking place sometime between leaving the museum and entering the subway, involving a threat that makes those killer griffons look like annoying pigeons. My point, if you haven't figured it out, is Legendary doesn't let up. I played its first three chapters--about four hours of gameplay--and was continually collecting my jaw from the floor. Some might scoff at its mostly linear path and reliance on set pieces and scripted events. However, when these elements look as good as they do in Legendary, and are fed at such a fast and furious pace, it's hard to argue with the design.
The gameplay is pretty standard FPS fare; you get a nice variety of guns and grenades, can look down the barrel of your weapons, and generally feel like a badass. There's also some simple puzzling involving door hacks and wheel valves that control fire and water pipes. These expected elements are complemented by your signet powers--that nice burn you got at the beginning of the game is actually a blessing in disguise. It allows you to suck up animus energy, which can then be used to revive your health or be channeled into a sort of Force-push power that’ll knock some enemies on their backsides. Speaking of going toe-to-toe with bad guys, Legendary's line-up of adversaries is refreshingly original. Sure, you blast the usual assortment of private army a-holes, but it's the mythological menaces that'll really test your skills.
We've seen griffons, werewolves, minotaurs, firedrakes and golems in other games, but those titles usually unfold in medieval dungeons or RPG fantasy worlds. Placing these otherworldly threats in modern-day Manhattan and London is a satisfying stroke of genius. These talon-baring, fang-showing, fire-spitting beasts don't go down easy, either. Soon after my subway encounter, I was faced with taking down some werewolves, after watching one feast on the rent-a-cop who was helping me out. They're fast, fierce and absorb bullets like a sponge. Additionally, they don't die until you blast their heads off, so, if you take one down it'll get back up unless you've properly splattered its moon-barking brains.
Legendary looks like it could be the sleeper hit of the season, proving there’s room under the Christmas tree for more than just Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty: World at War. Its accessible mechanics, original story, and brimming stable of cinematic events are impressive. And its amazing enemies—did I mention the creepy giggling ghost children?—ensure we’ll finally be playing a shooter that doesn’t have our reticules trained on evil extraterrestrials, undead flesh-eaters, or fanatical insurgents. Based on my afternoon with Legendary, I can’t wait to dive back in and shut that freakin’ box.