IGN Review of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2
The tradition of melding together Marvel characters with a Diablo-like hack-n-slash dungeon crawler formula has been alive and well for over five years now. Kicked off in 2004 with X-Men Legends, the concept of blending superhero squads with waves of baddies and plenty of experience for each kill found its niche with both comic and RPG-lite fans alike. What it still hasn't done, however, is execute with true polish across any version, as each iteration of X-Men Legends (and now Marvel: Ultimate Alliance) feels like a "sort of there" experience. Unfortunately, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 for Nintendo DS continues that tradition as well. Developer n-Space – known for its impressive DS FPS titles in the Call of Duty series – was called on to bring the Marvel world to life, and while the core design is there, it feels like Ultimate Alliance 2 is a victim of its own history. The concepts are there, but amidst the 15 playable characters, larger than life story, and epic Ultimate Alliance feel the developer didn't have time to add the most important element into the mix; fun.
Ultimate Alliance 2 on DS strikes a similar chord with the developer's Force Unleashed offering on Nintendo's a handheld last year, with players controlling their character and doing all main attacks with the d-pad and face buttons, but pulling off any substantial specials via the touch screen. Just like with Force Unleashed, Ultimate Alliance 2 is a visually stunning game on DS as well, mixing some nice animations with large worlds, a full-3D look, and plenty of effects to check out. On the technical side n-Space has always rocked the house on the visual side, and that tradition is continued.
Where the game falls apart, however, is in its gameplay. The trick with Ultimate Alliance has always been that you've got a huge team of heroes or villains that work together to take out waves of baddies. On DS – hell, on any system, for that matter – the members of your squad always feel overpowered though. So you've assembled the Avengers and are now ready to rip through level after level, right? Well you will, since even a full two-on-one ratio of enemies-to-heroes is hard to come by. With as much hitting power as your squad of four has you never really feel like you're up against a challenge. When comics have taught me that Hulk can take out an entire city when he's pissed enough, or when Spider-Man 3 has Parker going toe-to-toe with three villains and overcoming tremendous odds, what chance does the team of "Henchman 1, Henchman 2, and Henchman 3 (with machine gun)" have against a whole squad of heroes? The answer: No chance at all.
The only equalizer on DS is the fact that your team AI is mind numbingly stupid, often getting stuck or seemingly wandering around off-screen while you take on the brunt of the combat yourself. The best way to call them all back into the fight is to switch to another character in the group (via the touch pad), so I found myself constantly tapping around the sides of the screen to switch from fighter to fighter just to have them all appear back on screen. I'd fight, kill a few guys, and then tap-tap-tap-tap to get everyone together again; not the most "team-centric" experience.
In fact, given the DS's horsepower limitations and the inherent fact that yes, four superheroes can dominate any obstacle, I would much rather see n-Space allowed to focus on just one playable character out at a time, having the other allies spawn in when swapped for the other playable hero. Since the AI is troublesome anyways, and since the added polys could be used to spawn more opposition instead of a few useless comrades, it would have made for a much stronger experience. Instead, the game's scattershot of quality tells the story all too well. This was a game that was developed to satisfy the back of a box or fill shelf space, and while n-Space pushes to create something fun, the formula just doesn't work on the platform. Too much to juggle, too little space.
When you get right down to the core mechanics, Ultimate Alliance has some great concepts that border on entertaining gameplay. It's fun to smack the hell out of henchman, some of the game's supers are entertaining to pull off – though again, I feel like my squad is always too overpowered – and while the framerate is a bit on the low side the game is consistent. Boss battles are pretty fun, building your squad has an inherent element of fanservice that can't be denied, and little additions like touch-based turret control and fusion attacks add more entertainment into the package; it's a shame the core game just isn't stronger. Along with the AI hitches come other odd little bugs, such as the collision of already dead enemies still remaining while flickering away, causing roadblocks in the level. In addition, the DS version (which has two screens to work with) didn't have room for an on-screen map, so I found myself constantly pausing to see where I was going and where my objectives were. I'd much rather have the touch screen used for navigation than combat, and even after checking the map it often wasn't too helpful, as it doesn't rotate with the camera or indicate which way the squad is facing. A few big changes could go a long way with this game, so if we see an Ultimate Alliance 3 (we will; it's profitable) it'd be great to see a little more freedom given to the developers on this one. One playable character, an on-screen map, and the removal of some of the game's odder combat bugs could turn a "meh" experience into a much-needed entertaining action RPG on DS.
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