Just like Camilla Parker-Bowles, sometimes a game can have the best pedigree and come out a bit of a butter face, andMarvel: Ultimate Alliance is just this type of game.
M: UA is the third Marvel title from the partnership of Activision and Raven Software, after the unequivocal smash hit X-Men: Legends, and the very successful follow-up X-Men Legends 2: Rise of Apocalypse. To ensure proper adherence to the Marvel cannon, Raven again teams up with a well-known writer from the comic universe, this time it’s C.B. Cebulskiof Marvel Mangaverse fame.
This time around, it isn’t just the X-Men you get to run around through a top down set of levels, dungeons, and intermediate bases scenes, rather nearly 140 unique characters from the Marvel universe appear in the game, with roughly 20 of them that are player controllable (some of which are unlocked as the game progresses). Characters from every team you’ve ever read about are including, along with some of the most popular solo acts (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and Ghostrider) to ever grace the pages of a marvel mag. There are special characters that are unlockable in each version of the game, and I think it’s unfortunate that players who don’t have different consoles cannot experience playing as a character available on a different console (like Moon Knight, who as my all time favorite Marvel character is only available on the Xbox 360.)
Graphically the game is an improvement over either of its two predecessors. 3D renderings of characters provide much of the visual enhancement, but as they constantly on screen, it makes for a major facelift. The cell shading of the previous two games has gone the way of the dodo and it really works to the games benefit. The levels are roughly the same graphically as the previous editions, but Castle Doom and the visit to submerged Atlantis are especially visually appealing. Of note are the CG cutscenes from Blur Studios, in particular the opening scene, which stands out to remind us that even on a no-longer top of the line console, graphics can still be truly mesmerizing.
The audio of the game is about average. Unlike the XML titles; none of the voices that have become synonymous with the big-screen editions of the characters are present. This is very disappointing, as Spider-Mans quips are hollow without Tobey Maguire’s delivery and Professor X is really not Professor X anymore without the power of Patrick Stewart delivering the lines. On the plus side, the score is one of the better scores written specifically for a game in a long time. The music almost always matches the tone of the game play, and with the exception of the repetitive combat theme, it’s diverse enough to never feel like we’ve heard the same music throughout the game.
The controls are solid, and anyone who has played the XML titles will feel right at home immediately. This game is a button mashers delight, with the ability to really work in the special powers of the characters if the player feels like being more in depth with the controls. Up to 3 “specials” for each character can be applied to the “alphabet buttons”. The actively controlled character is changed by a quick press of the D-pad in the direction the character appears in the on screen four-way health meter.
The focus this time around is on building a good team of characters, and improving those characters from mission to mission as you take on increasingly harder opponents. Where before, you were basically stuck with the relatively few members of the X-Men and their subsidiary teams, you now have the freedom to build your own team from the pick of the litter of Marvel Heroes.
At first, the team is about building up the individual members of in each level, adding to their physical strength, speed, focus, and special powers, as well as improving the bonuses from wearing their costume. As the game progresses, the player can actually create a team, for which bonuses can be earned and applied so long as the active group is made up entirely of player-selected members of the team. The team bonuses aren’t really all that noticeable for the most part, with the exception of the ability to increase the depth of the team, by adding characters to the “bench”, allowing a character who was “knocked out” in combat and is still “resting”, to be replaced without the loss of the team experience or power bonuses.
The characters are for the most part some of the biggest names of the Marvel universe, with a few less popular characters, such as Ms. Marvel, thrown in to add some extra dimension for the true comic aficionado. The problem is that every character is basically the same. They all start out very week, and have no discernable differences in their powers. Every hero has a melee power, a distance attack power, and a power good against multiple opponents, and a high-end ultra power that can only be activated after a certain number of bad guys have been hacked and slashed to bits. Through killing multiple low-end mobs, experience is gained and powers are leveled. Also powers can be enhanced through purchasing upgrades or finding random character stat upgrades just lying around. (Note to self: when beginning world conquest, lock up or destroy all power upgrades for super heroes, do not just throw them on the floor of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, or in nice little display cases in Castle Doom.) Carrying on with the “Danger Room” tradition from XML are training discs found throughout Ultimate Alliance, which are specific to each hero. These discs give you a chance to play in solo combat, reliving a mission from the past of the hero you’ve chosen. The reward for completion of this mission ranges from power ups to new costume unlocks. Finally, at various stages in the game, players are rewarded with costume add-ons that will further buff the characters chosen to wear them, sometimes dramatically so.
While the battles against the bad guys in the game are mostly hack and slash, the level bosses are quite a bit different. Each level boss, except the last can only be beaten through mini-game puzzle combat. Frankly, it’s not good. When I send heroes up against Galactus and other top-level baddies, I want a challenge, not simply a series of “Simon Says” style button exercises. At least the final baddie is a mostly four on one combat, pitting your team against the leader of the alliance of super villains, but by that point at least two of your characters are so buffed, that the opponents attacks do little to no damage, and the combat doesn’t last all that terribly long as you hack away with your ultra attacks and specials.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say to pay attention to the secondary goals in each mission, as there is a neat add-in based on these missions when the final battle is complete.
In conclusion, the game is fun, but it feels like just more of the same play we’ve seen in the prior two games. In future games, the heroes power balancing needs to be radically adjusted. Iron Man should be able to fly easily carrying heavy crates he struggles to push around. Not every character should be so clearly designed to be able to “do it all”. They should all have weaknesses to their individual skills that require being a part of the Ultimate Alliance necessary to complete the tasks at hand. Also, the team building should provide skill buffs based on the makeup of the team, not just based on experience earned while playing.
I can recommend this game to comic book fans, super hero fans, and anyone who really loved the 2 XML games, but beyond that it’s a nice but relatively average hack and slash game that is thankfully set in an interesting universe with a decently written plot.