The lineage of the Marvel action RPG is beginning to look a bit like the New Testament. X-Men Legends begat X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. X-Men Legends II begat Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. And now, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance begets Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. So it is written, so it is done.
Yes, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man are back to remind you that pounding your controller's face buttons while monitoring health bars and stamina meters is actually quite a bit of fun. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 takes the tried and true formula of taking a team of four heroes into battle and leveling them up via orbs and XP and tosses in some brand new Fusion Powers that allow you to unite two of your characters in one massive attack.
Avengers, assemble for our video review!
The trouble is, beyond that, there really isn't that much new under the hood.
Ultimate Alliance 2 actually combines two of Marvel's best, fairly recent storylines -- Secret War and Civil War. The game opens with SHIELD Badass Nick Fury leading Captain America, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Iron Man into Latveria to take down the new prime minister. Seems even though she's been making nice with the U.S. brass, Lucia von Bardas has really been supplying villains with deadly technology. Trouble is, Fury didn't mention to the supers that this wasn't a government-sanctioned mission, so when Latveria retaliates by attacking New York, people kind of flip out about the team's "Secret War."
With feathers ruffled over the terror attack, people begin kicking around the idea of a superhero registration act that would require capes to register with the government, give up their secret identities, and take orders from commanders and such. Anyone who refuses to register would be a criminal, and suddenly, we have the superhero world split in two -- there are the people ready to fall in line with the law and those ready to go underground and fight it.
You'll play through all of this with a superhero squad of your choosing. If you somehow missed the first three games using this setup, you'll constantly be in control of a team of four characters. At any time, you can switch which member of the team you're controlling, and most of the time you can swap in and out any number of the 24 heroes and villains there are to unlock in the game -- folks like Venom, Hulk, Daredevil, Penance, Ms. Marvel, and more
Putting a wrinkle in this formula is the fact that Civil War breaks the hero community in two. There's going to come a point when you have to decide if you want to give up your identity and register with the government or if you want to go be a fugitive. When you make that choice, you loose access to a certain number of heroes. Captain America, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are always Anti-Reg, so if you side with Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic, Cap and company are locked out and vice versa.
The typical MUA2 level has you and your other three teammates storming though an environment from an elevated, behind-the-back perspective and tearing everything apart -- boxes, cars, and anything else you can find usually hemorrhages experience points and health when destroyed, so get to smashing. Occasionally, you'll run into bad guys and use the moves you've been perfecting on inanimate objects on them. Now, there are normal button commands such as light attack, heavy attack, jump and grab, but the real fireworks come when you combine those buttons with the superpower shoulder button.
When you start up the title, most characters come armed with two superpowers, but as you play and level-up the characters, you'll unlock the two additional ones. These four moves are the ones that make me feel like the hero I'm playing as -- Iron Man's repulsor blasts, Spidey firing off a ton of web balls, Iceman creating ice spikes, and so on. Not every one of them is a winner (Captain America just running into people isn't going to turn heads), but the majority of these are really cool. Watching Deadpool plant his feet, cross his wrists and blast fools until he runs out of superpower juice is a sight to behold.
Sure, these feats are eating up the blue stamina gauge on your HUD, but that refills over time and you can always spend your Ability Points on your powers so that they eat up less juice and you recover stamina faster. From the powers menu, you can put these points toward the power's damage, your character's ability to resist attacks, and so on. Aside from those Ability Points, you're also going to be earning Power Points. These doodads are added to your superpowers so that the damage inflicted is increasing and the cost to use is decreasing. Of course, you're also earning XP as you play and this boils down to your character's specific level. Although one Power Point equals one increase in your power's strength, you're going to need to be a certain level to get your powers amped up. Awesomely, you can redistribute Power Points however you see fit, so if you want to pour all your stuff into one move, you can as long as your level is where it needs to be.
All that ability and power management sound like a drag? You can turn autospend on and let the computer do the work while you focus on bashing the hell out of everything you see. You can even do this with the Team Boosts you'll find and earn throughout the game. There are 200 of these bad boys and they'll grant your Fusion powers extra damage, add ice to your melee attacks, and so on. These are a nice touch, but they're pretty forgettable. I played my first game on the hardest difficulty available from the start, and I stopped worrying about the Boosts pretty early and never really needed to tweak them.
Outside of those individual super-moves are the Fusion Powers. Here is where you can take any two heroes/villains and combine their powers into one awesome effort that's either a clearing, targeted, or guided attack. Clearing moves are similar to the Wolverine/Iron Man combo. Here, Tony fires his repuslors into Logan, who uses his adamantium to reflect the blast back at the baddies and clear out a large number of them. While the animation's going on, it'll be up to you to tap a button and increase the radius of the blast. Take out the maximum amount of people, and you'll get rewarded with a healing token that can -- duh -- heal the people on your team or bring them back if they've fallen in battle. This relationship is good for the other two types of Fusions as well.
A targeted fusion -- like Spider-Man swinging Wolverine around by a web for a modified Fastball Special -- has your two heroes begin a move while you move some crosshairs around to the target you're looking to hit. These are perfect for targeting the games bosses such as Titanium Man and the Tinkerer. Meanwhile, a guided fusion puts you in the driver's seat as you run around clearing clocks -- like when Wolverine and Captain America run around side by side mowing bad guys down.
With the exception of the jogging attacks like that Cap/Wolvie one, Fusions are pretty cool. You'll have to wail on bad guys to build up a meter so that you can actually pull the moves off, but watching Deadpool toss grenades into Storm's tornado and Gambit hurl explosive cards into a chunk of rock the Thing is about to toss is pretty cool. Add in the fact that you can still have friends drop in and drop out on your console locally and play online with pals, and the ability to work together is even sweeter.
At least at first.
See, one of the main problems I have with Ultimate Alliance 2 is that it just feels a bit flat. Even though the idea of every character being able to fuse with every character is cool, you quickly realize that you're seeing the same stuff over and over. Iceman and the Human Torch do an attack where they shoot their powers at each other and you can then walk them around mowing anyone who gets in the way of their clothesline -- Captain America and Iron Man do the same thing with Tony blasting Steve's shield. Spidey hurls Wolverine for that Fastball Special, but every other big guy throws him just the same way. Lots of people are using that tornado fusion I wrote about earlier. Everything starts to run together and lose its luster.
In a similar vein, while it's awesome to be able to earn the game's extra costumes, it kind of stinks that there's just one for about every character. In the original Ultimate Alliance, there were three to earn for just about every character and the suits came with different bonuses such as allowing you to gain more XP. That's not the case here as each alternate suit is simply a skin; you could argue that the team Boosts make the old suit boosts irrelevant, but they made switching costumes strategic. Also disappointing is how long it takes to load one of these costumes. Switching Deadpool, Iron Man, and Spidey suits all took about seven seconds each on the PlayStation 3. That's seven seconds of just staring at a star spin on the screen. Similarly annoying is the six to seven seconds it takes to swap out characters. If you want to drop Wolvie and add the Invisible Woman or anyone else for that matter, you're going to be staring at that spinning star again. For the record, the Xbox 360 shaved about three seconds off that load, but that's about the only major difference between the platforms and it still seems like it should be an instantaneous switch.
These loads aren't huge issues, but they are a bit glaring when you're talking about the overall polish and presentation of the game. The same can be said the way conversations are handled in Ultimate Alliance 2. When you choose to talk to someone in Stark Tower or an underground SHIELD base, the character will begin yammering and then the camera will turn to you to choose one of three responses -- Aggressive, Diplomatic, or Defensive.
This is cool because not only are you getting to choose the mood of your character but you're also watching a meter fill. Say enough Diplomatic stuff and you'll get one kind of Boost whereas enough Aggressive responses will bring about a different Boost. The things you're saying don't really matter because Nick Fury's always going to give you a cranky answer, but what really hurts this give and take is that your character just stands there like a zombie while you choose the response, and then it jumps back to the NPC for their response. I mean, go look at the video review above and watch the part where the Thing is just standing there like a brain-dead beast. Lame.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the trivia game and mission simulator are back and welcome distractions, but they're presented in the same way as the original game. It eventually gets to the point where you have to scratch your head and wonder why this game took three years to produce when it's so similar to the last one. There are some new audio logs, but they're nothing to write home about seeing as how the voice acting here is pretty bad. I mean, Thor is terrible every time he opens his mouth and the Incredible Hulk radio show that's embedded in the credits is downright awful and a clear indication that the emotional toll of the Civil War storyline was overlooked for this game.
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