Marvel: Ultimate (Xbox 360)
…The Ultimate of Marvel?
As far as games go, Marvel have had their fair share of great, mediocre and poor games, going as far back as the commodore 64 in the 80’s. Generally however, as technology has progressed and video games have been growing in both technical and entertaining aspects, Marvel games as a whole have began to flourish along side them. Marvel: Ultimate is that next big step as the industry finally settles into the next generation and offers players a whole new experience that is massive in scope and fantastically entertaining.
The game seems to be set in some semi-alternate universe somewhere between the original Marvel comics and the newer Ultimate Marvel series where Dr. Doom has formed a new –ridiculously title- “Masters of Evil” group, intent on taking over the world or something along those lines. As a side note before I continue, I’d just like to question how on earth Dr. Doom can plan such a massive scale attack on the planet involving Gods and the giant planet eating beings, but yet still come up with a name that sounds as if a 6 year old came up with it. Anyway, it is then Nick Fury (Head of S.H.I.E.L.D.) who decides to counterbalance Doom’s plan by forming an alliance of all the superheroes in the Marvel universe and putting them against the Masters of Evil and their many minions. Throughout the game you then control any of the featured superheroes on the side of S.H.I.E.L.D., following a rather tiresome and cliché plotline that hardly ever leaves its post with sub-plots. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy Ultimate Alliance’s storyline, which was a major letdown. There were some moments including Galactus and the eventual ending of the game that I enjoyed, but for the majority of it, I was bored and uninterested. Oh and before you assume that I must just find Comic Book stories uninteresting, please note that I am an acid reader of Marvel Comics and enjoy the majority of the material they put out each week. Ultimate sadly, was a major miss however. I think the main problem with the story telling was that there were too many characters to cram into the game, leading to very little characterization and hence making me not really care either way whether the people I was playing as lived or died. There were some moments in the game that happened just by chance had you happen to have the correct character in your team ready to engage in a few minutes of dialogue with a particular bad guy, which further extends the games lifeline should you wish to hear everything put in the game but really, it was nothing too special. As a whole, the story isn’t too bad, it just doesn’t do as well as it could have, especially for such a fantastic game in nearly all other respects.
For the majority of your time playing MUA you will probably be working your way through the story-mode either for the first time or for a replay or two, and for the most part it’s the game’s only real game-mode. Whilst playing through the story-mode however you can take part in either an arcade mode simulator where you essentially take control of a hero and take them through a level from the storyline and battle through hundreds of enemies, trying to get a high enough score to achieve either of the bronze, silver or gold awards. Following the rather strenuous button mashing for 10 minutes or so, you will face a boss, usually significant to your character’s past and have to defeat them in order to finish the level. All in all there is an arcade mode for every hero in the game, leaving a whole lot of things for you to do should you get bored with the storyline or simply want to level up. I enjoyed this mode as a distraction for my first couple of plays through but eventually things got dull quickly and fingers were not happy to say the least; nevertheless it is still a great addition for pick-up-and-play purposes. Furthermore, you can also play a quiz/trivia game that tests your knowledge of the Marvel universe, and no, it’s not movie canon, it’s the comics. The questions range from so-simple-your-little-brother-could-do-it to being so completely fan boyish that it’s not funny. Safe to say, if you get over 90% of these questions correct, you need to accept that you maybe read comics a little too much… just kidding. So it’s not that much in terms of modes for you to play around with, but it’s still a decent effort for a game that’s story-mode would have been enough had the plot been a little deeper.
Thankfully one of the greatest things about Marvel Ultimate Alliance is the ability to play as any of the many heroes seen in al the major Marvel comics of the past decade. In total there are over 30 different characters for you to select and play as, each with their own set of special abilities, combat mechanics, 4 costumes and upgradeable attributes. Among them are some of the more popular of the franchise including Spider-Man, Captain and the Fantastic 4. Alas, if you are a Marvel fanatic and have grown tired of playing as such characters, MUA will cater to you quite a bit offering you to select the most diverse of the lot including Deadpool, Dr. Strange and Moon Knight. When playing through the game you will have the option to select any 4 of the heroes to be on you team, as you go through whatever level in ahead of you. You can do this prior to every mission but not during, which is fair enough and is well suited to the gameplay. Now you might think –as I did- that this could end up being just a little too overwhelming, and yes it is in the beginning when you first start playing. Thankfully as you progress through the game you should begin to notice patterns in how each character plays out his abilities and how they affect your team, with the controls further helping to create a nice seam between each one that unifies their control and functions but at the same time makes them feel totally unique to the hero.
…Masters of Evil? Pah.
Engaging in battle couldn’t be simpler with two buttons assigned to attacking, one for short quick attacks, and the other for slower more powerful ones. String certain combinations of these two buttons together and you will form a combo move which will inflict attribute defects to your enemies depending on the move and character. Essentially, if you’ve played a button mashing hack and slash game before, specifically from the X-Men Legends series, then you’ll know what the deal is straight away. For a new player, things shouldn’t be much different, after a few minutes you’ll be a regular pro, beating down henchmen left right and centre. In addition to these basic attacks you will also be able to grab your enemy and either attack them, throw them off ledges or launch them into a special grab attack. Depending on the hero you are playing as you may also be able to fly using the double jump feature, or swing on webs with Spidey.
Don’t get too comfortable though, it’s not all simple, and thankfully there is more to the game’s combat than just hitting 3 buttons for hours on end. You are also able to activate special superpowers unique to each hero as mentioned earlier. For example you can fire webs at enemies as Spider-Man, set people on fire as Johnny Storm, or burst into an angry rage as Wolverine. Each has their own advantages but fall in a few main categories of ranged attacks, powerful attacks, charges and power-ups. Furthermore you will also charge up a rage meter which when filled up to the brink by being attacked by enemies, you can simply press a couple of buttons and have you players and sometimes whole team unleash their most powerful attack, usually disposing of entire squads of enemies within viewing range. You can also destroy environments or use them to your advantage by lifting them and propelling them at your enemy should your hero be strong enough to do so. And should your foe be carrying any forms of melee weapon, it’s also up to you whether you want to take it off him with some fast button mashing, leaving you with even more damage to inflict around you. Not only does this help break the tedious button mashing but it creates a much more unique feeling to each character, showcasing some of their trademark ways of getting things done. Oh… and it’s a whole lot of fun.
In order to unlock a lot of your player’s attributes and special abilities you will have to gain experience from defeating your foes and destroying the environment around you, allowing you to collect tokens. Once you reach a predetermined amount of tokens you will advance in level, increasing your hero’s powers and statistics, making it a whole lot more interesting and lifts the weight off your shoulders a little. As a whole, the balancing system with the leveling is fairly well done. As has become customary, you will require more and more tokens to level up as you increase in rank, but the rewards you receive for getting so far get even better as a result. Upon leveling you can upgrade your player’s 4 costumes and with the collection of tokens you can upgrade or ‘buy’ special attacks which you can assign to any of the 3 shortcut buttons on the D-Pad. It’s this system which brings the role-playing aspect of MUA into full display, and it’s not bad at all. In fact, for such a simple hack and slasher, the mechanics behind the customization system in the game are brilliant and add a whole new dimension that without, Ultimate Alliance’s gameplay wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is.
The AI in Ultimate Alliance shows no real problems at any point in the game, usually reacting and attacking appropriately to your actions. Your players will follow orders almost exactly all the time, with no frustrating disobedience seen in so many games today. Enemies will relentlessly go for you as soon as you appear on the scene, never showing any give-away signs that they are being controlled by algorithms. I would however, have liked to have seen your fellow superheroes take a little more initiative than they had been blessed with as I hardly ever noticed them using their best attacks or special abilities. Other than this though, the AI is solid and certainly some of the best I’ve seen to date for a game of its genre.
…Quick, look away! It’s a cut-scene!
Ultimate is a nice looking game when your playing through the massive levels and tearing your way through hordes of enemies and it’s probably all to do with the isometric camera viewpoint that is employed throughout. You see, you witness all the action from quite far up so even the lowest of low resolution textures acceptable for today’s gaming standards will look super crisp from such a distance, but when you get close, things turn ugly. The thing is however, you only ever really see the models and such up-close when it comes to cut-scenes, which is when games usually look at their best: nice and scripted with fine tuning all around the seams. Not with Marvel. In fact, I’m pretty sure a lot of the cut-scenes aren’t even real-time; they actually look pre-rendered because even when you get the odd close in shot of a bad-guy talking mid-game they don’t look half as bad as they do during one of these cut-scenes. Nevertheless, this is just a minor fracture in an area that is more or less done brilliantly.
The funny thing is, there is another type of cut-scene which I believe is of the FMV variety, and I can honestly say that some of the graphics displayed during said scenes are breathtaking. These short movies are very far and few between unfortunately, and often the high quality is substituted for the weird grainy looking low-resolution scenes mentioned above. You’ll be glad to know however that whilst playing the actual game, Ultimate Alliance does its job well. All the animations, models and especially the level designs in all their glory look fantastic, often being reminiscent of typical comic book settings yet at the same time establishing a feeling of originality. Character models are all very accurate to how they appear in the comic books (even if the two major series are used as reference, thus tying them together) and such epic battles as the fight with Galactus and Dr. Doom will be stick in your mind for quite some time. What’s more, there’s virtually not problems with frame rate at all, running smoothly for the most part, even with around 30-40 characters running around on screen.
…More vocal performers than programmers
A high point whilst playing was definitely the work the audio department put in to making Marvel a game rich in sound and talent, whilst trying to remain true to established Marvel trademarks. In modern RPG fashion, all conversations that take place throughout your journey are all voiced by actors portraying every character you encounter. For the majority of the time, the talent has been well chosen and the actors play their parts well, often nailing the hero’s characteristics brilliantly.
The sound effects are at best mediocre, but this is mainly due to the fact that there isn’t that much there in the first place. Most environments when broken make the same noise regardless of what material they are made from. What effects are present though are well done and original at least, but it’s a shame there’s not more of it. The game’s music on the other hand is both diverse and well produced, often adding a whole new edge of drama to an already intense situation. There’s a nice mix between industrial and more guitar-based hard rock music that fits the action well. There is also some original music created specifically in their own unique style in comparison with the rest of the soundtrack for specific levels.
…Being a Hero isn’t too hard
The difficulty in Marvel Ultimate Alliance can be manual selected from 3 preset options of Easy, Medium & Hard and of course each has it’s differences. Whilst playing on the regular difficulty setting I found the balance to be more or less just right, perhaps leaning a little too far into the easy side, but generally, skill levels were built up at a good pace and the game never left you without a paddle nor did it feel like a walk in the park. Well, I say it didn’t feel easy when actually it was pretty straight forward for the majority of it. I never saw a game over screen once and only lost about 3-4 heroes during my entire campaign. Now I know I have little to no experience with these types of games, so it definitely wasn’t skill. So yes, the difficulty could have been tweaked to allow for some more challenging battles and such but to be honest, it isn’t that far off.
The game takes quite a while to complete, at an average of 20-30 hours depending on your skill level and difficulty setting. Following this you can also indulge in the arcade mode and practice your trivia questions should you decide to relay the story mode which seems highly possible given its replay value. I’d say to get 100% completion in MUA without getting too dragged down and bored you would probably get a good 50 hours out of it, plus an extra play through the story again, especially if you’re a Marvel fanatic.
In conclusion Marvel: Ultimate is a fantastic game and certainly worth looking into if you’re interested in the comic book franchise or simply want a solid game to waste a good amount of hours. One thing I did feel when I was playing was that it was an original experience, especially for the Xbox. Overall I’d highly recommended it for fans and definitely advise a play or two for anyone else.
Story & Game Modes… 6
Gameplay & Control… 8
Graphics & Design… 8