Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
The X-Men: Legends games don’t offer a ton of gameplay possibilities, but they do their core element right: beating down wave after wave of enemies. With their spiritual successor to the series, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Raven Software has tried to balance and perfect the trademark hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. Let’s find out if they’ve succeeded. Time to sharpen those claws, Wolverine!
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is basically an action RPG that lets you pummel mobs hordes of bad guys with your own custimized group of Marvel comic characters. The story is a bit over-the-top and corny: Dr. Doom has gathered an entire army of supervillains around him, called the Masters of Evil to conquer the world and it’s jour job to stop him.
The pretty lengthy campaign (which should at least take you 25 hours to complete) takes you through a very large number of varied and great looking levels.
You start off ont op of a huge flying helicarrier that’s being attacked by Dr. Doom’s forces, but soon you’ll swim through the underwater world of Atlantis (one of my favourite levels), visit Mandarin’s palace in the Valley of Spirits in China, wind up in another dimension and ultimately visit Dr. Doom’s castle. The level design is a bit linear (one straight path through all our objectives, but with a sidepath here and there to grab some extras), but the different worlds are very colourful and atmospheric. The characters themselves are very accurately modelled after the comic book originals, but they could have used some more detail, something we’ve already seen quite a few times in next-gen ports of current-gen games.
To make the gameplay as interesting as possible, your heroes have a wide range of combos and special attacks at their disposal. Combos can be pulled off by mixing heavy and quick attacks and each superhero has 8 special skills. You can use those by pulling the right trigger and pressing one of the lower three face buttons. Combining RT and the Y button even activates a ferocious ultimate attack. Understandably, you can’t use your ultimates all the time. You need to build up momentum first by killing a whole slew of enemies. The combat system is a lot deeper and more fun than in X-Men: Legends II, which helps prevent boredom. From time to time though, the game feels a bit too repetitive. But then the game throws some new bosses at you and you quickly forget that.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance features a very interesting XP system. As you progress through the game, you gain experience and your characters level up. With each new level, you gain a skill point which you can invest in your heroes’ special attacks to make them better. Since you can only play with four heroes at a time, that means a lot of characters will wind up on the bench. In most games that means you’ll never use them again, since they quickly lag behind your main force experience-wise. In M:UA however, your spare characters get experience even when doing nothing, which means they’ll only be one measly level behind, so you can swap them anytime.
That’s not very recommended, though, and there’s a good reason for it. Pretty soon in the game, you can choose an existing team of superheroes or create one yourself. You give your crew a name, pick some superheroes to join it (I chose Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man and Human Torch) and choose a team logo. The benefits of creating a team are plentiful. By completing quests and side missions as a team, you get reputation points. For every 100 points, you can improve the passive team bonuses (e.g. +10% experience, +20% damage, + 15% max health,…). If you swap a team member, you’ll lose reputation points. If your reputation level is high enough, though, you’ll unlock ‘free’ bench spots. Another benefit of creating a team is that some combinations of superheroes get even more bonuses. The best examples are the Fantastic 4. When playing with Human Torch, Invisible Woman, The Thing and Mr. Fantastic, you’ll recover health with each kill. Creating an all-women team, on the other hand, lets you do more damage…
The number of superheroes Raven Software has put in this game is amazing. You start out with a nice selection of 18 superheroes, but more can be unlocked. Unfortunately some great heroes are missing, such as several of the X-Men (Cyclops! Jean Gray! Beast! Gambit!) and dear old The Hulk. You’ll gather quite a few in the campaign by rescuing them, others will be awarded to you when you collect 5 superhero action figures (Daredevil and Nick Fury are unlocked this way) and others serve as bonus costumes. War Machine is one of Iron Man’s extra costumes for instance. Each character has four costumes. Every costume has three passive abilities; one of which is extra defense, the others can include extra damage, more XP gained or health regeneration. Those passive abilities can be improved with money, which can be earned by smashing breakable objects. Money can also be used to buy skill points.
Other cool features of the game are the ability to create portals at any time. Portals take you to a save point instantly, and can immediately transport you back to where you left off. To prevent you from abusing this feature, there is a cooldown time. If one of your heroes should be knocked out, you can only revive him/her at a save point (use the portal trick!). This also has a cooldown period.
The sound effects in Ultimate Alliance are loud and impressive, just listen to your special attacks. It’s also nice that every level has its distinct background noises. When you’re in Atlantis, you’ll hear lots of echoing and hollow sounds, for instance. The music never really stands out; it keeps a low profile, but never bothers you. The voicework. Spider-Man is every bit the cynical smartass we know him for and Wolverine is just his old grumpy, oneliner spitting self again.
I’ve saved the best for last. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance features a fully functional cooperative mode that can be enjoyed with a friend on the same console or via Xbox Live. It’s so much fun that it could very well give this game a long lifespan. I already told you about the long campaign mode, but there are also comic book missions you can play. By collecting discs in the campaign mode you’ll gradually unlock them. These missions don’t take too long (about 10 minutes each) and focus on a certain episode in one character’s life (you don’t have a party). The missions are great ways to get extra experience and money and if you complete them all, you’ll get a nice surprise.
So, while Marvel: Ultimate Alliance doesn’t really bring great innovations to the genre (it still boils down to beating up bad guys), it does a lot of things very well. The combat system is great, there are a lot of really cool superheroes, tons of content and it offers a really fun co-op mode to boot. Those looking for some grade A slashing fun certainly won’t be disappointed.