IGN Review of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
Already released on multiple platforms (including the PSP and Xbox 360), Marvel: Ultimate Alliance has the distinction of being the PlayStation 3's first role-playing game. Developed with the mass market in mind, Raven Software's cross-system epic is an ideal introduction to the genre; it has an emphasis on beat 'em up combat and easily upgradeable characters instead of an overly-complicated storyline or management-heavy advancements. More importantly, though, it's a flawed but fun alterative to the PS3's otherwise sports and shooting-favored launch lineup.
Now obviously, if you've played with the X-Men Legends series before, then Ultimate Alliance will look more than familiar to you -- as it's the natural extension of that franchise. Dropping into a large but linear level, smashing a couple dozen minions, and fighting a super-powered boss or two are all par for the course. There's really no rocket science in it. In fact, Raven's favorite fallback is so close to the border between "pure actioner" and "action-RPG," that it's easy to argue its attachment to the former without much resistance.
What eventually separates Ultimate Alliance from the standard action genre, of course, is the fact that in-between all the punches, kicks, and explosions, there's a great deal of storytelling. Sure it's mostly done with in-game text and the occasional full-on cutscene, but there's still a lot to watch and it makes for a pretty decent narrative. Writer C.B. Cebulski certainly deserves credit for his impressive character juggling of more than 140 Marvel personalities, not the least of which includes such villains as Galactus, Doctor Doom, Ultron, Attuma, Mephisto, and plenty of others. Our only real beef is that a healthy portion of the mid-level supporting characters show up with little motivation and "Because Doctor Doom told me to" stands out as a popular excuse. Still, the overarching account is worth the ride and since this is an RPG that's what matters.
Another important aspect of any role-playing game is the inclusion of character upgrades. Though the system in Ultimate Alliance is a lot more simplistic than what you'd find in traditional games of the genre, it's still surprisingly flexible -- offering players the ability to automatically allocate skill points to the powers of their choice if they don't want to do so manually. Users can also find and attach special items for additional stat bonuses or improve three to four different costumes per hero for extra advancements (ex: Spider-Man has his traditional, symbiote, scarlet spider, and Stark outfits that have varying abilities). It's a much deeper setup than what we had before in X-Men Legends, and it should give level grinders plenty to shoot for.
As cool as the super power upgrades are, however, one of the biggest faults of the game is that the majority of them aren't really needed. Each selectable character has eight different abilities to choose from and one Xtreme power, but you'll only ever need two or three main skills to get by (just keep powering them up and you'll be fine). This problem is further amplified by the fact that specific characters aren't really needed to advance from stage to stage, which makes their powers feel even less important since you can pick whoever you want and keep on rolling. The final blow is that the playable character selection has some real stinkers in there too -- Elektra, Blade, Ms. Marvel... these folks don't exactly spring to mind when we think "Ultimate Alliance," especially when a number of high-profile heroes like Hulk, Namor, and the Sentry didn't make the cut. We did get Colossus, though.
Despite our hang-ups with the heroes and some of their powers, Raven Software still managed to deliver with the combat engine itself. It's surprisingly varied for a game of this type and offers a vast array of attacks thanks to the inclusion of "Attack, Smash, Throw, Block" and "Jump" buttons that can be strung together for combos or charged in conjunction with user-defined super power hotkeys. What's more, the PS3 version of the game even includes Tilt Support that can be used as a supplement to dodge, grab, disarm opponents, or charge your abilities. Of course, the tilt's biggest use is during certain boss battles -- where specific movements of the controller act as a mini-game mechanic to perform certain actions or defensive moves.
Using this system to its fullest is what Marvel: Ultimate Alliance does best. Even when dropping in with Thor, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wolverine at the start, it quickly becomes obvious how much fun beating up bad guys can be. This is especially true if you're gaming with another player (or three) on a single console or online, and having the option to experience multiplayer cooperatively or competitively (you compete for points, not races to kill each other) is a great addition.
Another one of Marvel's strongest features is just how much there is to do. Besides the main story that's spread out across five acts, there are also a number of optional sidequests and story points that require you to make decisions that affect what happens in the ending. Players can run cool Danger Room-like simulations for added goodies or experience as well, or look up cinemas, helpful tips, character art, and plenty more in the "Review" database. Hidden characters, trivia games, and other little goodies have also been added, and users can even create their own team (complete with logos and names) that become stronger and more powerful the more they work together (which, actually, is a pretty important feature to master if you want to beat tougher bosses later on).
Before we wrap up, there is one more unfortunate thing to be addressed and that's the quality of the sound and visuals. Though they aren't bad by any means, they don't scream "Triple A" product either. Most of the voice acting is slapdash at best (with a few strong performances here and there), while the contextual music does its job but doesn't offer anything too memorable. Regardless which of the resolutions you run them in, the graphics aren't up to next-generation standards in all areas either -- with stiff, poorly-detailed (yet bizarrely shiny) character models and animations looking out of place next to the pretty and highly-detailed environments. There's bizarre pop-in too.
Oh, and just for argument's sake, we popped in the 360 version of Ultimate Alliance to compare and we have to say... the PS3 edition just isn't as polished. Comparatively, there's a lot more framerate stutter with our game compared to theirs (expect hiccups when turning the camera in highly-populated areas) and the colors are deeper and seem to be in better contrast with the 360. At least Sony owners can take solace in knowing that in 1080p, their game's textures certainly look better, and that regardless of resolution, Ultimate Alliance has better bloom lighting and more particles on PS3.
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