Could've and should've been and didn't
You know how games can get incredibly dull and boring if in some spot your character gets too powerful and unbalanced, but you did nothing to achieve that? And you only bother to play it because of the awesome setting, great idea, interesting plot or a somehow innovating gameplay?
This is the case with THQ's Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, which tries to put some badass heroes and villains to kick some ass all over the known locations of the Marvel Universe. But first things first.
The plot mediocre at best. Doctor Doom gathers a group of other supervillains (including Ultron, Loki, Enchantress, Mandarin and Baron Mordo) to bust some rightous heads and take over the world. So, in return, Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organise an emergency group consisting of Earth's mightiest superheroes to battle the Latverian madman. Blah, blah.
Really, it's not rocket science, and I think that such an awesome occasion deserved more than just a basic, not really too engaging story. At least it manages to throw your characters to most of Marvel's cool locations in a natural way, and those places include Stark Tower, Sanctum Sanctorum, the Inhuman's base on the Moon, Asgard and Mephisto's Realm.
Shove the locations for now. What REALLY is interesting are the characters, both non- and playable. Raven probably had a hard time choosing them - they needed to satisfy comic book geeks and casual fans at the same time. And they did it - not perfectly, but they did. The roster includes must-have's Iron Man, Cap America, Wolverine, Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four and less-known guys: Deadpool, Moon Knight or Elektra. Still, like I said, it's not perfect. The first thing that'll probably come to your mind after seeing the list would be "WHERE THE FUCK IS HULK?". And yes - there's no Hulk in the "first", naked, non-modded version of M:UA.
In terms of gameplay, this is basicly Raven's X-Men Legends. You've played X-Men Legends? So you know what you're standing on. You form a team of max 4 characters, you bust shit with you're basic 3-hit combos and a charge attack, you throw stuff, jump, fly, dodge, block, collect coins (which you use to upgrade your heroes), orbs (which you grab to regenerate health and energy) and items and use powers.
The Cool Stuff.
The powers, AWRIGHT! I must say, powers are what really makes the game worth to play. They're mostly great - they suit the characters, in many cases they are very inventive, and some of the trademark ones (like Ghost Rider's Penance Stare) were adapted to suit the gameplay and don't be too unfaithful to the comics. While basic combat can get a bit dull, throwing Cap America's shield, slashing shit with Wolverine's claws or burning everything as the Human Torch never does. I catched myself having fun even using the shittier, less powerful or useful ones.
The characters' powers are broken into three basic categories - combat, auras and Xtreme. In the combat group you have your purely offensive abilities. Auras have different purposes, like boosting your and your team's damage, attracting attention of the enemies on your character or debuffing badguys. Xtreme ones are unique. You buy them only once, there's only one for each hero, they can't be upgraded and can only be used when you have a character's Momentum bar full. You fill it by beating enemies with your bare hands. When you use an Xtreme power, your surroundings go into slow motion and your hero/heroes unleash a quite devastating attack. Cool.
You can also combine non-Xtreme powers. For example - if Wolverine Claw Slashes an enemy that's already being fried by Human Torch's Flamethrower, you make a Burning Slash, which, apart from a lame name, adds +2 to given damage. Just like in X-Men Legends. Also, if you have Wolverine and Colossus or The Thing and Mr. Fantastic, you can perform a Fastball Special by grabing the smaller guy with the bigger one. Cool, and not exactly explained in the game.
Although the abilities are great and fun to use, in at least one case I had a feeling that a special power was a bit forced. Deadpool has an ability called Teleport Flurry. He teleports between a few enemies and slashes them. Also, instead of double-jumping, he teleports a few steps forward.
Alright, Deadpool gained the ability to teleport on short distances from Cable, but still, when you see the powers in action, you think about Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler is available in official DLC. And yes, he has the same fucking power. It looks the same. It works the same. You just get a bit of Nightcrawlerish smoke around. For a second, you think that Nightcrawler was supposed to be playable instead of Deadpool, but they pulled out the idea on a final second because in a point of the game, you can get (SPOILER ALERT) the X-men to die. Ok, I understand the decision, but hell, Deadpool has been "cursed with life" by Thanos. He's immortal. Why not give him a boost ability associated with this instead of the shitty Battle Cry?
Still, powers are great fun. Even if you use one the 1337th time, you won't get bored.
Even if it gets TOO FUCKING POWERFUL. Really.
You see, the problem with M:UA is balance. Basicly, almost every character has an ability that if upgraded a little it renders other powers obsolete. Shit, some have two powers like that. Really, in some cases I was forcing myself to develop my character in a less usefull way just to make the game a challenge. And this is a rule even on Hard difficulty. And even on your first playthrough you can't get into a dead-end like in Diablo, because you can delete points from abilities and redistribute them to others for free. You only can't take off the very first point you used to buy this ability.
Here's an example of a too powerful ability.
Ghost Rider has a LEVEL ONE power called Ravaging Flames. It's really basic - it's an charged attack that bursts up an enemy in flames and makes him burn for a while. Nothing threatning, you say? Wrong. The ability inflicts so much damage even on the beggining of the game that you don't even need to fight. Later on in the game, you don't need to even charge it, basic and weaker enemies just die. The fact that some enemies are immune to fire does not help, as it's never full immunity - they just receive less damage, but in case of this ability, you'll just need to use it two times half-charged to bust the jackass. Also, later on you get an aura ability, the Penance Stare. After you use it, nearby enemies regenerate your energy after they get hit. Yes, this means more energy for the Penance Stare! And when they die, they also give you orbs! That also means MORE ENERGY FOR THE PENANCE STARE. DAMN! Thank God Ghost Rider is unlockable and not available from the start, so at least it makes the first chapter of the game mildly challenging if you are a GR fan!
You can say - heck, he's unlockable and there are still other characters. Yes, he is, yes, they are. But basicly every other character has such a problem! The only two heroes that are not over-buffed are Blade and Elektra. But they're on the other side of the road, they are crap! They're not outstanding in basic combat and they have together two and a half useful powers, which are hard to use. Still, if you get a grip on them, you are still a god, albeit a lesser one. Not much, because you'll probably have at least 2 other murderous motherfuckers around you.
Another problem, although a rather minor one, are the controls. No, don't get me wrong, the gamepad works very intuitive and there's no problem with it, the buttons are assigned very well and there's really no need to look up into the options menu more than one time. When playing with keyboard and mouse, it's not so good. The game tries to make you play it like a simple hack'n'slash like, for example, Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone. In such games, you aim with a locking system or with no aiming at all, just running and doing combos and that works great. Running with WASD or arrows, beating up with the mouse buttons. In Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, you aim with your mouse all the time. You still can run and bust crap, but for maximum efficiency, especially when using powers, you should select your targets. This is really not so intuitive, to run, select and perform combos in the same time, as M:UA is not Diablo. It's much more dynamic, so you can't really just focus on one enemy and bash him and expect to be uber-effective.
Still, the keyboard has an advantage above the gamepad, which is... weird. When playing on the gamepad, you only get to use four abilities assigned to the four action buttons (jumping, attack, heavy attack, use), but one is always assigned to the Xtreme one, so really you have three. And you can either have three combat powers, or two combat powers and an aura power. Not a big deal, really, as you'll probably won't focus on more in case of most characters. Most.
Some heroes, for example Mr. Fantastic and Iceman, are really more effective when you have a wider spectrum of powers to use than just three. That's when the keyboard controls come to play - you can use every bought ability, as they are assigned to the 1-0 keys. Still, there comes the keyboards' flaws I told you about earlier. Those are only my personal thoughts, and probably I'll be the only one really bitching about it, but it felt like the game tries to challenge me in a way I really don't like. Because it's annoying. While I understand that this problem is virtually unsolvable, and Raven did not have in mind pissing off players this way, but I still feel the way I feel about it.
From what I wrote to this moment, you can assume that the game is shit. Or at least it's very annoying. No, it's not. Those are flaws, which can sound serious, especially the balance one, but you don't really pay much attention in practice. There is some magnetism in the simple gameplay, the powers, the setting that keeps you playing even when the game gets too easy. It's repetitive like hell - mostly destroying stuff, kicking ass and smiling after you understand an allusion to the comics or when they introduce another character from the comics. The game manages to satisfy the inner geek and rewarding the player at the same time.
You get unlockable outfits for heroes, each with different boosts that you can upgrade by spending cash. There are unlockable characters. There is a satisfying Trivia Game in every chapter, which gives you a bit of XP points if you answer correctly to the questions. There are finally simulator discs scattered across the levels, in which you can play a time trail with a single character or your chosen team. Completing them reward you with shitloads of XP points, so they contribute a bit to the balance problem, yet they are extremely satisfying. Some solo missions have clever ideas, so basic asskicking doesn't get boring, and the team ones puts you against SHITLOADS of enemies and it's really fun to abuse your powers to an extreme for about 20 minutes.
The Technical Stuff.
The graphics on the PC version depends on the power of your graphics card. You can probably change it, as M:UA's no Crysis, it probably would just take a few changes in the .ini files like in the case of Black & White 2, but I never really bothered trying this.
So you either get graphics that aren't really different from X-Men Legends II (actually, I had a feeling they're a bit... worse? Maybe it's the art style, or something), or the game looks like on the next-gen console. Still, even without shaders and special effects, it has a certain appeal. When it's next-gen, it looks very nice, the characters look much better without losing the cartoonish appeal. Also, the game runs very smooth in high resolution and maximum details in both graphic "versions", and that's important with a lot of thing blowing up and a lot of characters appearing on screen at the same time. Really, there's not much to say about how the game looks - apart from some simple adjectives like "nice", "nifty" or "cool".
When speaking about the visual side of the game, it's hard not to mention the awesome CGI cut-scenes. Those are great. You don't get a lot of them, only about 5, but all of them are awesome (although the characters can look a bit like dolls in some frames).
In terms of sound effects, it's a different story. There's not a really varied score to Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and that can become a pain in the ass at some points. I found myself getting bored with the music after Act II, so I launched foobar in the background and enjoyed some of my own music. The themes are not awful, but they're really nothing that gets to your mind and does not want to get out, and they can get repetitive.
The voice acting is much better - there's no huge names in it (I only recognised Robin Atkin Downes!), but the voices suit the characters and everyone's doing a great job here. Nobody sounds annoyed and bored, there are also no over-enthusiastic and infantile dialogue lines. They even managed to get Deadpool feel like Deadpool, although his voice is not too "gravely" like described in the comics.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a good game, I can't deny that. I also can't deny that it could've been so much better. There are some flaws that don't really matter THAT much in overall, but you still play the game with a bitter feel, like Raven could make something awesome instead of just good and a half.
But there's a chance they're going to do awesome - there's a sequel and it takes on the Civil War storyline. Now that's cool. So let's wait for the sequel to beat that pompous Tony Stark's butt.