Giant Bomb Review

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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 Review

4
  • X360
  • PS3

It trades its predecessor's goofy fan-service enthusiasm for something approaching relevance and seriousness, but MUA2 still packs a superhero punch.

Raven Software sharpened its skills at blending Marvel superheroes and action RPG conventions with its Diablo-riffing X-Men Legends games, but it didn't really nail the formula until the 2006 release of Marvel Ultimate Alliance. This was an exuberant kitchen-sink love letter to the Marvel Universe, an all-star greatest-hits compilation of both highly recognizable and obscure Marvel characters and locations driven by a conflict big enough to justify what was essentially the greatest superhero team-up imaginable. As much as it was designed to make comic-book geeks giddy, MUA was also a remarkably engaging and accessible action RPG with just enough role-playing trappings to keep the button-mashy gameplay interesting.

 Hero up!
 Hero up!
Vicarious Visions, the developer that created the technology that powered the first MUA and handled the PSP and Wii ports of that game, has picked up development duties for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. While Marvel Ultimate Alliance lovingly embraced the often corny history of the Marvel Universe, MUA2 opts to focus on a more serious, modern version of it. The net result is a game that's less expansive and enthusiastic than its predecessor, despite being mechanically streamlined and technologically superior.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 borrows much of its story and tone from the Civil War event that took place in the Marvel comic books a few years back. The central premise here is that, after a careless superhero-related disaster that cost hundreds of civilian lives, the US government decides there's been enough collateral damage and clamps down on all the unsanctioned superheroics with the passing of the Superhero Registration Act. While the pro-registration heroes see it as a necessary means of establishing accountability and regaining the public's trust, the anti-registration heroes see it as nothing short of a fascist attack on civil liberties. It's a security-versus-freedom parable that, at least in the Marvel comics, really resonated in a post-9/11 world.

I'll admit that I'm personally disappointed that MUA2 chooses not to pursue the cosmic cliffhanger left by the first game, but the Civil War concept is a strong one, and a terrific justification for pitting your favorite Marvel heroes against each other. The problem with its implementation in MUA2 is the way it pulls its punches with the story. While it's true to the Civil War's brother-on-brother turmoil and unlikely alliances, MUA2 ultimately uses the Civil War as setup for a more far-fetched and less satisfying crisis. The sole respite from all of MUA2's seriousness comes with the presence of Deadpool, the Merc with the Mouth, as a playable character. His fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans and free-floating psychosis bring some color to the proceedings, and ultimately made me wish there was more silliness of this nature in MUA2.

 Deadpool lightens the mood in more ways than one.
 Deadpool lightens the mood in more ways than one.
Despite these prominent but superficial differences, MUA2 still captures the gameplay of the original quite well. You'll assemble a team of four superheroes from a roster that eventually balloons up to 24 characters and smash your way through wave after wave of robots and quasi-military grunts, taking regular pause for boss battles. It's a slightly different roster from the original MUA, though it still covers all the expected bases with regards to major players like the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. Like the original, you'll earn stat bonuses by playing as one of these teams, as well as more discrete teams like the Avengers (in Original, New, and Secret varieties), and the Thunderbolts. There are also thematic team-ups like agile warriors or femme fatales that you can assemble.

The nature of the Civil War story means that you'll be squaring off against other heroes more often than you will proper villains, and the locations you'll visit are comparatively less fantastical than those found in MUA. You'll still take a trip to recognizable hotspots like Latveria, Wakanda, and the Negative Zone, but much of your time is spent in less colorful military and industrial locales. The Civil War story also necessitates that, after the game's first act, you choose whether to follow a pro- or anti-registration act path. For a time, this limits which heroes you can use, and the story splinters in kind, though you'll visit the same locales either way, just from different perspectives.

Experience is earned through combat and spent on upgrading your heroes' stats and abilities, though heroes that aren't in use still earn experience. You can jump between any of the four currently equipped heroes on the fly when playing solo, and there's support for up to four players both online and off. Additionally, you can swap out any heroes you're currently using on the fly at any time, rather than having to wait until you hit specific checkpoints. These features encourage you to experiment with different combinations of heroes often, rather than just sticking with the same quartet throughout.

 Fusion attacks are as explosive as they are necessary.
 Fusion attacks are as explosive as they are necessary.
There are other minor changes to the MUA formula here, such as health pickups that you can use to revive downed comrades and badges that you can pick up which have team-wide stat effects, but the other big addition to the gameplay in MUA2 is the introduction of fusion attacks. These are basically super-powered team-up attacks that combine two of your heroes' abilities to devastating effect. While there are theoretically hundreds of different fusions to be used, they all break down into three basic types--targeted, guided, and clearing. Targeted attacks are great for knocking off a chunk of a boss's health bar, guided attacks let you run around and decimate any enemies in your path, and clearing attacks create a radius of destruction. These fusion attacks are as powerful as they are visually bombastic, but they lack the variety to keep them fresh throughout.

While MUA played almost exclusively from a bird's-eye, three-quarters perspective, MUA2 is much looser with the camera, allow you to get closer to the action, and locking the perspective when it needs to. Like the environments, the heroes have a grittier overall look, and there's no shortage of over-the-top visual effects. The heroes are plenty chatty, with lots of one-liners during combat and simple dialogue options in between missions, though the voices aren't always spot-on, and the one-liners repeat more often than they ought to.

It's hard not to let the experience of the first MUA color the expectations for MUA2. By those standards, MUA2 isn't as exciting a game, largely due to the choices it makes with the fiction. On its own, though, this is still an enjoyable action RPG romp that makes good use of the Marvel Universe in its own way.