IGN Review of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
For the past three years, Raven Software has satisfied the button-mashing needs of millions of gamers with X-Men Legends and its sequel, The Rise of Apocalypse. As we reach the end of the current-gen's lifespan, Raven is set to take on the entire Marvel Universe. Gone are XML's cartoonish character models that lacked detail. Instead, we are given fully-realized 3D renditions of some of Marvel's greatest heroes and villains. The core game remains the same. Ultimate Alliance is a four-player top-down brawler where you pummel an endless army of villains. The new visual style and handful of gameplay tweaks prove enough to keep the formula from feeling stale.
A Date with Doom
When Doctor Doom assaults the SHIELD Helicarrier, an emergency call is sent to all available heroes. Why Doom would choose to make such a direct attack and draw the attention of the world's mightiest heroes is curious, but there's no time to contemplate the reasoning behind the attack. You must first punch things and make them explode. Questions can be asked later.
In the quest to stop Doom from gaining the power to remake the universe in his image, your faithful troop of heroes will traverse across the Marvel Universe. Though the action begins on the SHIELD Helicarrier, the heroes soon find themselves in some of Marvel's most famed locales. You'll trade quips with Namor in Atlantis, deal punishing blows to demons in Asgard and attempt to topple Galactus, the World Eater, on the Skrull Throneworld.
Over the course of this galactic adventure, you'll have access to 23 playable Marvel characters (Colossus and Moon Knight are next-gen exclusive). Some, including Spider-Man, Thor and Wolverine, are true legends. Others are b-list characters including Blade and Elektra, apparently thrown in to ride the wave of popularity from mildly successful feature films.
There is a definite imbalance in the characters. Ms. Marvel is useless as is the aforementioned Blade and Elektra. However, just about any character can get enough upgrades to survive in combat. It would have been nice to see more bonafide superheroes in the mix. Big, green superheroes. But there are at least a half-dozen good characters which is more than enough to enjoy a four-player beat-em-up.
Almost every character comes with three alternate costumes, unlocked only when you play as that character. The alternate costumes are absolutely fantastic. Some characters have little history with eccentric alternative wear, such as the Thing, who basically is a big orange rock dude in pants no matter what time period you look towards. Unlocking different pant lengths isn't going to give you much of a thrill. Then there are those who change costumes with every season. Spidey has a walk-in closet full of potential outfits, but gets three of the better classic wear: Symbiote Suit, Scarlet Spider and the new Iron Spider costume.
The costumes aren't just for show this year. Each has three upgradeable stats that affect how your character performs. One outfit may allow you to increase the Max Health and the rate of XP gained while another gives a bonus to a specific type of attack and increases defense. Ultimately, the type of upgrade proves far less important than dressing your hero to the nines. Does it really matter what kind of bonus you get from donning Asgardian Armor? Thor makes that look good.
As if that weren't enough customization, you can also create your own super-team. After selecting the appropriate icon and name to properly represent your team, you choose four charter members. Anytime you play with at least three members you gain Team Experience. As the team levels up, you can add more roster spots and improve overall performance with enhanced damage and upgraded health. In some ways this defies the idea of having two-dozen playable characters. If anything, this will discourage play with a variety of heroes. Still, it's nice to think that the "Pinko Avengers" can be a reality -- at least in a virtual world.
Button-Mashing for Daredevils
If you've never played either X-Men Legends title, the gameplay is easy to understand. You progress across a linear path and bash in the face of hundreds of enemies on the way to a boss battle. It's simple, yet addictive. Though at first glance it would seem Raven has done little to change this formula, they have actually made some simple but significant upgrades.
In previous iterations, you selected a power to use and then watched the animation happen. Ultimate Alliance gives each character at least one power that has added interactivity. Doctor Strange, for example, has a low-powered energy burst. But you can keep mashing the button so long as you have energy and unleash a rapid-fire burst. That trigger-happy mashing adds extra joy to combat.
The best of these interactive powers is Captain America's shield, which can be controlled after it's thrown. Forget the laws of physics, in Ultimate Alliance, Cap has mystifying control over his shield. It will bounce off walls and through enemies on its own, but when you maintain control, you can make it do just about anything short of loop-the-loops. It's awesome.
You can also wrest weapons from the hands of your enemies. Get near an ax-wielding Asgardian and hit the grab button. A struggle begins as you must now fiercely tap the grab button in a see-saw struggle to gain control of the weapon. And once you do have weapon in hand, you can obliterate the enemy with a couple of hacks. The weapons are vastly overpowered and can take down foes far more easily than powers. But hey, who can say that an axe isn't more potent than Adamantium claws? Thanks to these minor tweaks to powers, the flow of combat is greatly improved.
Simply put: Ultimate Alliance is more fun than X-Men Legends.
Perhaps more important to game flow is the removal of health and energy potions. No longer must you manage your team's health (and worry that the AI is wasting your precious potions). Instead, enemies readily drop health and energy. And if a character has full health but collects one of the luminous red orbs, the healing touch is given to another needy member of the party.
There are still some AI issues with your squad mates, who can often be found acting as spectators while you pound on the bad guys. The enemy AI is a tad more engaging, however. Enemies tend to focus on player-controlled characters, which allows you to worry more about your own ass and less about the AI-controlled heroes being easily offed for fighting like idiots. The aggressive baddies are also smart enough to back away if they spot you powering up an attack. Of course, it's annoying to hold down a button, prepping Thor's mighty hammer, Mjolnir, for a devastating strike only to see the target back out of range. That's why Thor has his trusty hammer throw for such situations.
Who's the Boss of Galactus?
Taking a cue from God of War, many of the bigger bosses in Ultimate Alliance cannot be beaten with fists. Instead, you must discover ways to activate mini-games. When fighting the Frost Giant Ymir, you must hop onto his club after he's slammed it to the ground. Then by matching a series of moderately-paced cues, press the correct buttons to scale up Ymir's shoulder and deliver a damaging strike.
The majority of the big bosses cannot be harmed in any way but through these minigames. They're fun and easy, but get a little old towards the end of the game. It would have been nice to see Raven Soft find a way to integrate button-mashing combat with these minigames, so each were equally important. There's nothing worse than leveling up your characters only to have your power nullified by invulnerable bosses. The final boss, however, is free of such minigames (and you will need every ounce of power your characters can muster).
Puzzles Aunt May Could Solve
Now for the bad news. The level design and puzzle elements have not seen any improvement. Get ready to pull blocks and smash generators! Even in the few moments where Raven Soft attempts to have true puzzles, gamers are handed answers on a silver platter.
In Asgard, you come across a statue with a clue. It reminds the heroes that this particular God is of the North and West winds. Later in the level you come across two statues which can be rotated. Obviously, you need to set one north and the other west. But Raven was worried gamers were too dumb to figure this out. There are markings on the floor showing where to position the statues. Sure, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a mass-market game meant for everyone to enjoy. But does Rave Soft really think Forrest Gump is going to be picking up this game?
The puzzles are pathetic and the level design feels flat and pulled from a variety of D&D modules. This is Ultimate Alliance's great weakness and keeps the game from ascending to the next plateau in game design.
Play with Your Friend's Thing
If you are one of the lucky few in this world to have friends, Ultimate Alliance could provide the perfect bonding experience. MUA supports online and offline cooperative and competitive play for up to four people. The offline aspect is an easy plug-and-play set-up where anyone can hop onto the same machine and jump in and out at any time. Online is slightly more restrictive.
Online requires that one person sets up a game and loads one of their saves. No other players can bring in their own characters. Instead, everyone plays off that one save. The good news is, each person can save the online to their memory card and continue offline. The bad news is that you can only have one player per console and the PS2 offers some considerable lag at times. With strong connections from all parties, you should be able to enjoy with little problem, but with even a moderate connection expect some latency issues.
Coop is the standard story mode, just with your friends riding shotgun. Competitive play (or Arcade Mode), also has you progressing through the story. However, while you're working to defeat the nefarious Doctor Doom and his cronies, you're also competing for points. The hero who delivers the final blow to an enemy gets credit for the kill, which can create a fury as friends wait until the last moment and jump in to steal a kill. At the end of each level, points are tallied and awards given on a variety of merits, including most items destroyed and fewest deaths.
Competitive play is a great idea, as it allows your and your buddies to enjoy the full story, but still work for bragging rights. It's just like being in the Avengers!
The Sound and the Fury
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a welcome advancement on X-Men Legends' visuals. The cartoonish models were an easy way to maintain high performance with detailed environments and pretty special effects. While it was a fun play, XML felt visually neutered. By creating fully-realized 3D renders, Raven Soft has given Ultimate Alliance some balls. As an added treat, Blur Studios provides a half-dozen drop-dead gorgeous cut-scenes that serve as reminder that games still don't look nearly as good as CG. The characters are colorful and there are some nice effects, but the PS2 version suffers from some framerate issues. It's not enough to hurt gameplay, but it's noticeable.
The score is epic and amazingly varied. It seems as if every location has several different soundtracks that give each a unique identity. The voice acting doesn't fare so well. Most of the voices are passable, but aiming for a C- doesn't seem very heroic. Each character comes with a handful of one-liners, which you will have heard a dozen times by the third level. It gets old and stale fast. Apparently the first thing Doom did when he gained ultimate power was to wipe out the dialogue writers.
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