undeadpool's Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order (Digital) (Nintendo Switch) review

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A Clunky, Repetitive Game With Bog-Standard Writing That I Cannot. Stop. Playing.

Whenever the topic of idle games comes up, it's often asked whether they are the lowest or the highest expression of a videogame. Often they are just about watching small numbers turn to big numbers and big numbers turn to bigger numbers, and sometimes that's enough. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, the return to the co-op brawler after a decade, scratches the same itch with just enough gameplay and charm to make the price of entry worth it, so long as you bring a lot of fandom to the table.

Cards on the table: I have only played this game solo, and I imagine the game could be the ideal 'sit and chat with friends whilst keeping your hands busy' sort of experience, but I don't feel I was missing out on much. The game's balance is an interesting one: characters controlled by the AI are generally fine, and they take about 1/4 damage while also dealing about 1/4 damage, creating a situation where it often behooves the player to jump from one character to the next as life bars and ability meters ebb and flow. While this could have been done with intention, the lack of an active healing system (you rely on drops of health and energy to restore both) means the player more frequently feels like they actually lose control as battles rage on.

That feeling permeates a lot of the game: the feeling that the player is along for the ride rather than actively controlling it. The game's linear halls rarely spoke off, and when they do it's a short jaunt to another pickup or an unlock for the "Infinity" mode, a self-contained mode with a series of missions that can be endlessly played to grind out rewards, and giving the player a set number of "Revives" for fallen allies often leaves the question "Why not just make those healing items instead?" Particularly in later parts of the game where standard enemy minions can take almost an entire bar of health with a single, well-placed attack.

Having said all that, the loop of this game is incredibly satisfying if the player is willing to engage with it on the game's terms. The cast, first and foremost, is incredible for fans of the movies or comics (or both). Recent favorites like Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales join old-hat standbys like Captain America, Iron Man, and Hawkeye, while a few are thrown in for true-blue, completely out there comic fans. A movie about Michael Morbius, the living vampire, was recently greenlit, but big props to whomever insisted Elsa Bloodstone and fan-favorite Ms. Marvel also play prominent roles. Even a few villains get in on the action, for those who like feel bad while doing good, and the characters all work fairly well with one another. The game feels geared toward letting the player craft their team of personal faves rather than trying to force teams that make sense along story lines, and that level of freedom is fun in a game of this scale. Each character also feels unique enough that their movesets aren't simply interchangeable, and at higher levels, the screen-clearing synergy moves, when two heroes combine their powers in spectacular fashion, become incredibly satisfying. The dialog and storyline are both fine, a light retelling of the recent Infinity War movies that serves mostly as an excuse for location-hopping and a reason for villains to be working alongside heroes. It rarely rises above good, though is occasionally incredibly charming (largely when the younger heroes take center-stage).

Recently added DLC put in both an endless Gauntlet survival-style mode, and a PVP-mode, allowing different players to compete in similar instances to see who can reach a goal first, while sending obstacles in the other's path through mini-missions within each round. The ever-present-in-Marvel-games Iso-8 also appears to give another level of customization to individual heroes, but both of these concepts feel half-baked. The Iso-8 especially becomes necessary at higher levels, but managing the inventory of it is far more a chore than something worth sinking one's teeth into for a rewarding result.

This is a messy game that sometimes borders on being broken, but I'm personally thrilled it exists. It feels like a passion-project that was originally designed to have microtransactions that were hastily cut out, but the devil's in the little details that make the game so eminently playable. It's not a great game, it's barely a good game, but it is an extremely FUN game, for those who have a love of the source material and are willing to play the game on its own, narrow, terms.

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