The galaxy is at peace
The original Marvel: Ultimate was released in 2006, a simpler time for superheroes. Back then, superheroes weren’t at war with each other over some kind of ambiguous superhero registration act and the comics weren’t trying to reflect reality with a social commentary…or at least they weren’t as obvious. Ultimate took place back when Captain was Steve Rogers and not the three or four people that have since tried to fill his HGH-filled shoes. And with the new Ultimate Alliance 2 game seeking inspiration from the heavy-handed Civil War, I can’t help but reflect on the original, more innocent Ultimate Alliance 1.
This self-contained story involves Dr Doom unleashing a decidedly ultimate alliance of Evil on the world, while Nick Fury retaliates with an equally ultimate alliance of justice. So, on the surface this seems like a conflict to see whose alliance is more ultimate, but Doom has a scheme of his own. One that involves a series of excuses to exploit countless characters and locales within the Marvel universe, of course.
And similar to an unproportionally musclebound superhero (like for example, all of them), Ultimate Alliance looks the most impressive when it flexes its bulky Marvel fiction. 50 years of comic book history has been tapped and drained within the confines of the many settings and characters you’ll run across. There will be no abandoned warehouses or robbed banks here; the game throws your alliance into such odd locales as the Skrulls’ native planet (planet!) or Namor’s underwater kingdom. Along the way, you’ll come across many of the most famous and unlikely characters, and I can’t help but enjoy getting the mix. Sure, cornerstone characters like Doom and Professor Xavier are here, but so are obscure, hokey, spandex-loving fiends like the Wrecking Crew or Mysterio. The personalities and character depth (or lack thereof) of each unlikely goon shines through, and players may find themselves frequently Wikipedia to find out the true origin of a Fing Fang Foom.
Likewise, you the player are given the chance to assemble a four team combination of your choosing, from a strong roster of classic and not-so-classic characters. Fan favorites like Spidey and Captain are here, but so are lesser known characters (or at least characters that haven’t gotten the summer blockbuster film treatment yet) like Luke Cage or Ms Marvel. Each character has distinct attributes and attacks to make them unique, or at least unique enough from the pair of tights before them. Playing as Wolverine isn’t going to be the same violent thrill ride that the X-Men Origins movie-game provided, but still scratches, claws and proclaims himself the best at what he does all the same. And while some characters (Spider-Woman) seem surprisingly more effective than others (Mr Fantastic), you still get the freedom to succeed with any combination you like, whether it’s the real Fantastic Four or the not-quite-real Deadpool’s Sexy Cheerleader Squad. If your favorite character isn’t in the game, a downloadable expansion for the Xbox 360 will enable you to add eight other characters, such as The Hulk, Venom and Dr Doom himself (most of these new characters really annihilate the storyline’s continuity.) If your favorite still isn’t in the game, well sorry. Someone’s hogging the Punisher license right now and abusing it with great vengeance.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this sentence, but this sub-genre of gaming has seemingly fallen off the face of the planet, so I must; Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a throwback to games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Champions of Norrath and older cousin X-Men: Legends. I guess the alias for this genre would be “the Diablo clone” in that they procure every major aspect of Diablo except for the fervent, arthritis-inducing mouse-clicking. Your characters walk across assorted corridors and beat up legions of thugs and accumulate quantities of health and money along the way. One’s first inclination would be to think that all this goon-thrashing would get a bit redundant, but brace yourself for a shocker, Shocker, because it doesn’t. While the common strategy to defeat your foes (including most bosses) is for your troupe to gang up on the sucker and pummel them to nothingness, your characters also have a handful of different attack combinations, throws and most importantly, super power attacks to give your brain different thumb commands to send. Should you find yourself growing weary of one character’s one liners, just switch to another, even if it’s someone you wouldn’t expect to care about. You’d be surprised as to how amusing it can be to beat up aliens in outer space with Daredevil. Except for a few of the downloadable characters, each savior of humanity has their own unique attributes; if someone should fly, they can fly with no penalty to their special meter. If someone should web-swing, they can web swing. If someone makes playful children’s jokes while sticking a pistol down someone’s throat, you got Deadpool.
The previous paragraph’s list of games consist largely of fantasy titles where knights and sorcerers would slay legions of goblins and collect numerous articles of stat-boosting armor. Since wearing the breastplate of mystical defense and the Elven Gauntlets of striking +1 is a bit uncharacteristic for The Thing, the equipment system in the game is considerably more streamlined. You need only worry about equipping individual pieces of invisible armor like “the Fangs of Fing Fang Foom”, and you can even elect to not bother and let the game handle the wardrobe. However, you’ll eventually reach a point in the game’s eve where you’ll be told your inventory is full and you’ll have to do the minor chore of going to the menu screen to sell extras, though I doubt you’ll shed a tear pawning your Mephisto’s Essence.
Likewise, you can choose whether or not to elicit any emotion besides apathy in regards to how your characters level up. These points can be used to either unlock or strengthen new superpowers, and you can opt to exercise complete control over how they’re spent or automate the process (you know, in the event that you’re in a multiplayer session or just don’t give a damn how strong the Hulk’s Bash attack is.) But if you reach a point where you do give a damn and begin to think that you’d like to strengthen Elektra’s “spread her legs out spin kick” attack, you have a modicum of control in reallocating some of the points. The catch to automating the system is that the game will sometimes reassign the special attack buttons for new abilities, but you can undo the Watcher’s stupidity and change them on the fly anyways.
The game’s tragically not perfect, as the game shows some weaknesses as strange as the weaknesses of DC characters. Too many boss battles consist of easy quick-time events asking the player to simply press the button on the screen when asked. In doing so, you’ll bare witness to the exact same animations during these quick-time events four or five times over. The production values seem to falter in these battles as a lack of sound effects during these action sequences make your altercation feel less like a battle of superhumans than a battle of your old action figures. Several imperfections litter the game’s story sequences, which often consist of the character models standing still while dialogue appears and the audio clip of the voice actor plays in the background. When a scene of action needs to occur in these sequences, a decided lack of action occurs on the screen. Giving away examples would spoil the plot however, so you kind of have to marvel at the stupidity for yourself.
But honestly, I liked Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. A lot. Part of it could be from me being a fan of assorted Marvel characters, but this game encouraged me to be even more entrenched in the frightening mess that is the Marvel Universe. If you’ve got a casual interest in say, the Spider Man movies or the X-Men cartoons, you can expect to walk out of this game with a newfound curiosity as to who exactly the Black Panther is. With four player co-op, both online and off, the game also makes for some solid multiplayer action. And you can buy it for dirt cheap nowadays.
4 ½ stars.
Finally, a note on the upcoming sequel, a game I feel like I’ve been waiting on for about 3 years. Jean Grey could’ve died at least five times in that period. While I can’t make any honest judgments about the game until I’ve played it myself (and I am enough of a fanboy that I’ve got the pre-order in place, just to get my Juggernaut on) I can’t help but feel hesitant. The Civil War storyline was a very serious affair, one that I doubt will allow the creative freedom to feature the many gloriously odd moments from Ultimate Alliance 1. Can we hope to see anything that tops Spiderman fighting orcs in Norse mythology? Not to mention, part of the fun of Ultimate Alliance 1 was the freedom to create combinations of superheroes, an aspect that can be a bit difficult in a game relating to a Civil War. I understand the need to keep Iron Man and Captain in separate rooms, but they both wound up becoming two favorite characters to play as in this Canadian’s experience, and how I’ll miss my charismatic combination.