IGN Review of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
As the main foundation for innovative gameplay this generation, Nintendo has changed the game entirely, looking to improve user interaction with products at all costs. Of course loyal Nintendo fans have been following Wii since its early Revolution days, so we're no stranger to the concept, but now that games are hitting shelves we're starting to see what truly works, and what doesn't. Of course a unique controller is going to spawn creative titles like Elebits and Rayman Raving Rabbids, games that spawn gamers into a totally new direction. At the same time, is Nintendo's Wii-mote/nunchuk combination also going to alienate games from working on Wii? We'll give the system more time before coming to a resounding conclusion on that one, but when it comes to a game like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, there's really no substitute for classic control and upgraded visuals.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is one of Activision's serious cash cows, and has been since its debut as X-Men Legends a few years back. In fact, aside from possibly Tony Hawk and Call of Duty Marvel: Ultimate Alliance may turn out to be the hottest selling of Activision's licensed product this winter, and that's a testament to not only pure marketing power, but also a strong license. Since its more humble beginnings back in fall of 2004, the now Ultimate Alliance engine has been centered off core dungeon-crawling gameplay. Players will take control of their favorite comic book heroes, accept missions, and proceed to beat the ever-loving crap out of enemy after enemy. As play continues, characters level up and learn new abilities, stronger mutant powers, and overall stat increases. If you've played games like Baulder's Gate or Blizzard's Diablo franchise you pretty much know the score. Just insert the Marvel license, rinse, and repeat.
As a mindless beat-em-up RPG, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance doesn't do too bad of a job. You can select from over 20 playable characters including a few more famous heroes like Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, The Thing, and Ghost Rider, and create your own custom team to go beat up on baddies. The entire menu interface and character menus have also gotten better over the last two years, as Ultimate Alliance now allows you to switch out downed fighters pretty much on the fly, and handles the bulk of character level-ups automatically. If your goal is to grab a few friends and just kick some good ole ass, you won't be slowed down by countless menus or inventory screens. Nice.
But is it fun? That's the true question right, as Nintendo's Wii console is (essentially) sacrificing the graphical look of its competing consoles for unique control? Well, we'd honestly prefer classic control on this one, as the main concept behind the Wii control works, but the final product still just isn't any more fun to play. The goal was to incorporate five basic gestures into a more free-form fighting system. Players can shake the controller for a melee attack, swipe to do a heavy attack, lift up to perform pop-ups on enemies, smash down with the drop of the controller, or stab forward to do - you guessed it - a stabbing attack. The biggest issue with the control comes from the motion detection, as there's a specific right way and wrong way to pull off the move, and if you deviate from the pre-set motions you'll misfire into another attack. After a few hours with the game we could get about 85% accuracy with our motions, though there were exceptions having the lift attack translate into the slam (both vertical motions), or having a sweep actually stab. These little issues - while uncommon - definitely break up the otherwise acceptable gameplay.
In fact, there were actually quite a few solid decisions made on the design side of the game, though the execution wasn't entirely there. The camera control, for example, is actually pretty intuitive, having players simply tilt the nunchuk left or right to move the camera. It's simple, it removes buttons, and you don't have to stop fighting while doing it. In addition a few of the more repetitive tasks can be done alternatively with button presses, so rather than sitting there shaking the controller for hours on end just to see Wolverine slash baddies to bits you can simply tap the A button. It certainly isn't "Revolutionary" to use button presses for what will amount to at least 50% of your fighting, but neither is shaking the controller like a maraca, and it does make pulling off pop-ups or sweeps more of a special occasion.
Our only other major gripe with motion control integration is in the fact that each character controls exactly the same. Sure mutant powers add a bit of diversity per character, but it still boils down to the same five motions for each fighter, and that can be a bit of a letdown since the game is all about diversity and an entertaining fighting mechanic. In the future we hope to see games like this rely on programs like LiveMove, which allow for a more precise and in-depth motion structure for games, as more diversity and more accuracy in the motion will really evolve Wii titles to the next level. Sure there are other technologies we wanted to see added into the game, such as cursor usage for the interface and online play, but that just wasn't in the cards for this version of the game.
As far as the core game goes, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance just didn't have the sheer excitement we were expecting from the third game in the series. The enemy count seems too low when you're constantly rampaging through areas with four beefed up super heroes, and aside from boss battles the main characters are never really in fear of dieing. If you've got a team of Iron Man, Blade, Wolverine, and Captain America storming an enemy stronghold wouldn't you expect that group to tear apart dozens of baddies at a time? Any one of those characters smokes bunches of enemies at a time in their own comics/movies, so when a team of that much pure strength is put together we need to see them fighting far more enemies at a time. Let's pull the camera back, drop the poly count just a bit, and fight piles of enemies in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, rather than having just a petty skirmish with six or so ruffians as we move casually from room to room.
In addition, Activision hasn't really shown that the series is going anywhere, as the amount of changes from version to version has been incredibly minimal. Aside from switching around the core roster, Ultimate Alliance really just feels like more of the same. Missions are made up of slide puzzles and countless computer terminals, with the same old battles over and over again. Is this really a day in the life of an elite team of superheroes? There has to be more to the job than running from point A to point B, flicking switches and chasing waypoints. When you leave a game like Ultimate Alliance to totally bank on the combat system and licensed characters there's only so long players will stay attached. The more you love Marvel the more you'll ignore the issues, but eventually everyone is going to come to grips that the series is formulaic, mundane, and an exceedingly uninspired as a game design. Take away the Marvel characters and you'd have just another mindless dungeon crawler.
As far as the audio/visual presentation, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance sizes up a bit above GameCube, adding in 16:9 and 480p along with a few beefed up effects. The game feels like an upscale from the PS2 version, and while it has the general look at feel of its counterparts it really doesn't have much of a graphical bump. The game is filled with a solid amount of character VO, though a ton of it ends up going to in-game cut-scenes and still leaves the general combat with a bit of a repetitive sound. When Spidey is close to death, chances are you're going to hear "Your neighborhood Spider-Man could use a little help." It's a minor complaint, but it's definitely noticeable. That being said, the game's presentation and overall visual look is still very inspired, and even in its more low-res form it still has the Marvel feel. The animated cut-scenes (particularly the intro itself) is very impressive, and most of actual interface strong enough to hold its own.
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