Ultimate Alliance has its problems, but it's definitely fun.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance has a lot of problems. It has so many problems that I had to make a list of them, and I’ll cover them here. But that’s not even that big of a deal when it comes to Ultimate Alliance. It’s a janky game for sure, yet throughout this messy sea it still manages to be legitimately enjoyable. The production values are low, but that doesn’t even matter that much. It’s part arcade game, part brawler, part role-playing game, but above all, it never gets tiring, and it has enough variation to warrant repeated playthroughs.
I don’t want this to be an extremely negative review, because I already know I’m giving this game three stars. And yet, I can foresee that I’m just going to run down this list and spit out the bad things. As such, I will not prolong the inevitable. Here are my problems with Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
The PlayStation 3 version of the game was produced mainly using upscaled PlayStation 2 graphics. The textures look bad. The characters look terrible. The cutscenes are embarrassing. The lighting effects are definitely PlayStation 3-era, and some floor textures have been retooled for the PlayStation 3. Apart from that, though, the game looks offensive. It’s amazing for a PlayStation 2 game, but it’s unacceptable for a PlayStation 3 game. It’s exactly the same technique Activision pulled for the XBOX360 releases of Tony Hawk and GUN. The FMV doesn’t even look that good anymore. While the FMV models are old -- but that’s just a case of aging and FMV graphics becoming better over time -- the worst part of the FMV is the compression. In game FMVs are fairly compressed, and when there’s a high level of movement everything breaks up. Even worse, the titles at the beginning of the game look like PlayStation era FMV, not even FMV worthy of the PlayStation 2.
In tandem with the graphics, the animations are fairly repetitive. Each attack has one animation, and that’s it. Some characters look ridiculous in motion. There are some parts of the game where Wolverine will have his claws sheathed, but he still runs around bent over, arms akimbo, moving like an ape. The menus look terrible, too. The fonts look like basic system menu fonts. The menus are hard to navigate, and the character upgrade page needs some explanation but the game provides none (nor does the instruction manual).
The game is chock full of story, but most of it is garbage. The story is banal. You won’t be missing out on anything if you skip all dialogue and all cutscenes. Plot-wise, it does feel like something from out of a comic book. But the script is terrible. Characters are reduced to parodies of themselves. Wolverine grunts and essentially says the same thing the whole time. Spider-Man doesn’t say anything serious at any time. Both characters are false representations of themselves. The dialogue is painful to listen to, as is the voice acting. It’s scratchy, and it’s obvious that every line was recorded individually (if it wasn’t recorded in that manner, then something terrible happened inside the studio). Bad comic book story; bad script; bad voice acting.
In terms of gameplay, Marvel Ultimate Alliance fares well, if you can ignore two things. Firstly, there’s no way to order the members of your team around. You can tell them to be aggressive or defensive; you can ask for help. But you can’t tell them to defend a specific area or to attack a specific target. This isn’t so much a problem as an inconvenience. Then there’s the major problem for the PlayStation 3 version: the SIXAXIS controls. By default every quick time event in the game includes difficult SIXAXIS controls. Some events require the player to hit the sequence several times to proceed. The SIXAXIS implementation is essentially broken; it just doesn’t work. Only on the last level did I discover that tilt controls could be turned off by one setting in the menu. This made the game 100% easier for me. If I had known it from the start I probably could have shaved an hour of painful repetitive gameplay from my playtime.
So how do I merit giving Marvel Ultimate Alliance three stars when it seemingly has such a bevy of problems? Primarily, it’s Ultimate Alliance’s gameplay that vindicates it. The action is entertaining and easy to manage. Combos and attacks are simple to pull off, and the giant array of characters ensures that everybody will find somebody to enjoy playing as. Personally, I stuck with Wolverine throughout the entire game as he is one of the strongest characters, but there are many to choose from, including what one might think are unlikely inclusions in the game, such as Blade. The team system works very well, which is obviously important as it is this which the game revolves around. Players might be forgiven for assuming that they could play through the game with just one character after clearing the first level. The opening sequences are stupidly easy. It’s a testament to Ultimate Alliance’s great pacing that the difficultly level ramps up very smoothly. Soon you’ll find that you’re relying on all your characters to do their fair share in the battles, which they do. The teammate AI does get caught up every once in a while (in one instance I experienced all three of the supporting cast got snagged behind one wall), but 95% of the time your allies are there to help, and they act intelligently.
Ultimate Alliance also features a whole lot of environments. There is no repetition. You’ll begin on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s aircraft carrier and you’ll visit other planets, other realms, underwater settings, ice worlds, fire worlds -- in other words, the full gamut of Marvel’s storytelling resources are tapped. The environments also feature a great deal of destructibility. I didn’t get a chance to tryout the co-operative aspect of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but I have no reason to doubt that it would be anything short of fun. The leveling-up system in the game can be completely ignored. At the same time, there’s some customization there to keep RPG fans interested.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Ultimate Alliance. And it managed to be fun, which is the most important thing for me. The bad graphics don’t bother for me; the bad story doesn’t bother me. They are aspects that will disturb other players, but for me, the gameplay is stellar, arcade-y, and full of action. That’s what I expect out of a comic book game, out of a superhero game. As a result, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is one of the best Marvel Comics games to be released in years.