Raven Software has a good thing going with the coveted Marvel Comics license. They’ve put it to good use with two excellent X-Men titles, Legends and its sequel Rise of Apocalypse. The next logical step was to exploit the entire tight-clad Marvel universe, and that’s basically what they’ve done with Marvel Ultimate Alliance. A show-stealer at E3, Alliance promised to be the most over-the-top super hero dungeon crawler yet. And that’s exactly what we’ve gotten—but just maybe, the caffeine-like rush of this series has begun to wear off.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Marvel Alliance, the novelty just wasn’t there this time. So, what I played was a very competent brawler that pushes the boundaries of its series about as far as they’ll go without some grand new innovation. The story is much like that of the Legends games; full of comic campiness, in-jokes, convoluted continuity and geek-out references that would make even Comic Book Guy falter for a second. This game’s story won’t be winning the Pulitzer and it isn’t The Watchmen, but it was never intended to be. It’s a very complicated excuse to throw as many Marvel characters—over 140 of them—into a single game, and it does its job well.
The plot boils down to Doctor Doom, Marvel’s uber-villain, gathering up the rest of the world’s rogues gallery and leading them all to a singularly nefarious goal, which I won’t spoil here. Inevitably, the do-gooders of the Marvel-verse band together under the leadership of playboy-billionaire-hero Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. This gives you the opportunity to pick and choose a team of four legendary heroes, from a possible twenty, and customize it to fit your tastes.
There are many positive aspects to this new wider setup, and a few negative ones too. First, the good: once I broke out of the introductory missions, it was awesome to build my own team of heroes and name the team whatever I desired. The amount of customizability might scare off a novice to the series, but tweaking every option of my team was a huge geek rush, especially when all the equipment, costumes and items are faithful to their roots. Within minutes I’d put Spider Man into his symbiote costume, had Wolverine in his classic yellow spandex, with Reed Richards and Electra in there for good measure. If I’d wanted too, I could’ve played the entire game with the Fantastic Four.
As I said, however, there are drawbacks. Once you’ve finalized your team, you’d better stick with it—swapping characters around once your banner is solidified is penalized by the loss of renown points and team bonuses. This doesn’t make much sense because other heroes are unlocked as you go, so if a new guy you really want on your team is available after that last mission, you’ll have to start from scratch because one new guy makes a whole new team. You can eventually add heroes to a “waiting room,” so to speak, so they can enter the fray when another one gets knocked out. This is nice as breathing room, but ultimately you’re still limited to a handful of heroes. If you restore your team to its original status later on you pick up where you left off, bonuses and renown included, but that doesn’t help much if you’ve been using a crappy character and want somebody better.
Speaking of crappy characters, that’s my second complaint. I know it’s hard to make a game completely balanced, but seriously, some of the heroes in Alliance just felt tacked on. I wanted to try out some of the more obscure characters, but more often than not their powers were uninspired and their attacks weak. It was probably another incentive to stick with a team of four good characters, but I wish every one of the heroes had gotten a chance to shine.
Complaints aside, the gameplay is just as good as it’s always been, just slicker and with a few new bonuses. You’ll still be smashing your way through several comic-style levels, and the environments are even more destructible this time, filled with level-up coins and powerups. The maps are big and the enemies numerous, so at any given time you’ll be laying waste to the minions of evil, although the action gets a kind of jumbled “mosh pit” feeling at times. Health and super power is streamlined now, as your heroes won’t be knocking back elixirs any more to replenish themselves; red and blue powerup orbs burst from defeated enemies and destroyed objects.
The RPG elements from the previous games return with about the same amount of complexity, and can be made completely transparent if you so desire. I had auto-level up activated most of the time, but if you really want you can get in deep and customize every aspect of each hero. Adding new levels to powers is about the only thing that needs individual attention, and you’ll only be doing that once or twice a map, if you’re as thrifty with XP as I am, that is.
The boss battles have seen the most change, as you won’t exactly be attacking the bosses directly anymore, but killing them through environmental means. Basically, you’ll go to a marked point of the arena and engage in a button-pressing minigame. This makes your character dodge around while influencing the environment in some way that will be lethal to the boss. One example is knocking down huge pillars to kill the Cracken in the underwater level. I felt that this took some of the fight out of boss fights, and hunting around my keyboard for the right keys in a split-second grew frustrating. I’m sure these battles are easier on the console versions with all the face buttons conveniently clustered together—I didn’t have Simon-esque minigames in mind when I customized my key setup for Marvel Alliance.
Boss fights notwithstanding, all of this franchise polish filters over into the multiplayer, which is really the best way to play this game. The single player AI is just a bit stupid, so playing with humans on your team is the best way to go, and Marvel will probably go down in history as a great LAN party game. Over the net it’s workable, but I can’t imagine playing alone without the ability to heckle my team members.
Presentation wise, Marvel Alliance has some improvement over its predecessors, but not enough to really blow my doors off. The biggest change is the more realistic art direction; there is no cel-shading anymore, and the heroes are more faithful to their various comic incarnations. There are some nice shader techniques and the action is resplendent with particle effects, explosions and glitzy super powers. Getting caught on the scenery was still a bit of a problem, but overall my heroes felt less clumsy this time around, and the animations were smoother.
Music is pretty generic, but does a good job of punctuating the action without being specific to any of the Marvel movies or TV shows. I would’ve liked more dynamic music, but what we end up with works, if not spectacularly so.
Sound and voice are a little lopsided. Most of the effects are carried over from the Legends games, so you won’t be hearing a lot of new sounds this time. The Legends effects work just fine, it’s just a little disappointing that Marvel sounds so similar. The voice work is kind of hit or miss across the wide spectrum of characters; it works for most all of them, but doesn’t stand out much. I really wish Patrick Stewart or Hugh Jackman had reprised their roles, but with the X-Men films pretty much over I guess Raven thought it was time to move on to new voice talent. The dialogue is about as comic book corny as you can get, with villains promising vengeance and destruction, while the heroes give suitably altruistic retorts. Most of this cheesy feeling is intentional, I believe, as it’s been the same since the first X-Men Legends, but by the third time around it wears a little thin. I really liked Spider Man, however. After hearing Toby Maguire’s lifeless, Valium-laced deliveries in all of the Spidey movie games, it was refreshing to have a voice actor who was an animated smartass the way Spidey was in the comics.
Marvel’s appearance, sound and feel are much like Raven’s other attempts, and in the end that really isn’t a bad thing. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this long, passively deep beat-em-up RPG, just don’t expect a whole lot of new features. The team building is really the biggest improvement, with a few small drawbacks and a huge level of geek appeal. Marvel Ultimate Alliance feels like a really big expansion pack for the series, much like another Raven-made fan favorite, Jedi Academy. I just hope Alliance is a stepping stone to something even better.