Between the PSP and DS versions, I’ve now played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 four times. I’m not sure I could say that about many other games, and yet if I had the chance to play MUA 2 again on the 360 or PS3, I’d probably take it, because the difference between the DS and PSP versions is so noticeable. There aren’t very many reviews of this version of the game as of this writing, and if you’ve seen them, you’ll notice that this score is significantly higher than theirs. Given that fact, I want to say, as someone who’s played a lot of action RPGs and a lot of PSP games, that I had a great time playing MUA 2 and I feel totally justified in scoring it the way I did.
All versions of MUA 2 include parts of the Secret Wars and Civil War storylines from the printed Marvel comics, and if you’ve read those comics, you’ll notice that the games take some liberties with the originals. You begin in Latveria, where you stop yet another nefarious scheme by Dr. Doom, but after the tutorial’s over, you jump into the meat of things. An episode of a superhero reality show has caused the deaths of hundreds of people, and in the aftermath, the government finally signs the long-threatened Superhuman Registration Act. As one might expect, some heroes support the law, some don’t, and which side you take is entirely up to you.
Yes, like its siblings on the home consoles, MUA 2 on the PSP features two storylines. The beginning and ending sections of the game are the same whether you choose the pro- or anti-registration side, but the middle is all about the conflict between the side you chose and the side you didn’t choose. Both sides clearly feel themselves to be in the right, although I have always had more sympathy for Captain America’s anti-registration forces than for Tony Stark, who comes off as a real jerk.
After being confused by the poor storytelling on the DS, I was very happy to see the excellent cutscenes in the PSP version of MUA 2. A few of the really big story moments appear to have been taken straight from the home console version, while others start out using the regular game engine, but then switch to silhouette-style animation that really worked for me. The regular gameplay looks pretty good as well, although the game is clearly based on the same engine used in the original PSP MUA. The skills animate well, as do the enemies, but at times of extreme action, you’ll see some framerate issues. It’s nothing that kills the game, but it will make a few fights more difficult than they would be otherwise.
With the same engine, MUA 2 on the PSP plays very like the original MUA on the PSP. It’s an action game, and you’ll always have a four character party. You have direct control over one character at a time, and can switch between party members at any point by pressing different directions on the d-pad. As you play, all of your characters level up, whether you’re using them or not, so when you choose to switch, you can do so without the frustration of suddenly using low-level characters. There are no team-based bonuses in this version of the game, even though they were in the original MUA on PSP and are also on the home console versions of MUA 2, but you do get to equip badges that improve stats for your entire team, and being able to switch them at any point makes them more useful than the original MUA’s team bonuses.
New to MUA 2 are Fusion points. As you kill enemies, your characters’ Fusion meters fill. With one point, you can resurrect a fallen teammate, and when you’ve got all four points filled in, you can execute a very powerful combo with another team member. All four characters share the same meter, and it generally fills up quickly enough that you’ll be able to use it whenever you want. Fusion attacks do a lot of damage, but they don’t all work the same way, and you’ll have to memorize who does what in order to use the attacks to your best advantage. Some Fusion attacks affect an area directly around one of the two characters, others can be aimed at a specific spot on the screen, and a few create a sort of energy bar between the two characters that you can drag around the screen. Aim them well, and you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with massive damage.
Sadly for gamers like us, the RPG elements are extremely light. As you level up, you earn skill points that you can apply between a number of active and passive skills per character, or you can just let the game auto-assign the points for you. You can take skill points out and redistribute them at any time, whether the game assigned them or you did. The game does a decent job, but you can only assign four skills to buttons, and most characters have more skills than that, so you will probably want to take an active hand in their development at some point. As in the previous game, you can also spend money (which is dropped when you kill enemies) in place of skill points, but it’s not really necessary. Unlike the DS version, there’s no warning before you spend the cash, so you’ll accidentally buy at least one skill point as you play, but you’ll have enough money that it’s just annoying, rather than being a gamebreaker.
As I mentioned, you can choose sides in this game, and a few characters will only be available to one side or the other. Whenever you’re at your home base, you can chat with the various heroes you see there, and doing so can unlock opportunities to add new team members by completing bonus missions. The reasons why these people would join you aren’t really explored, and I really have to wonder why villains like Venom and Green Goblin would want to help either side, but I can forgive that without too much trouble. On the other hand, I am disappointed by the fact that this installment has lost the character-specific interactions that exist in the home console versions and even in the original MUA on the PSP. Once they’re all unlocked, the roster includes 26 characters, and they’re all worth using, but some are definitely more useful than others. For the most part, I was happy with the characters, but a few are so similar that it seems they should have been left out in favor of someone a little different. For example, why would you need both Hulk and Thing? They’re not identical, but they fill the same role on the team, and there’s no reason to use more than one of them. In addition, you’ll the exact same levels regardless of which side you choose, but your objectives and enemies there will be different. Repel the invaders from the rebel base, or invade the rebel base. Protect Cloak and Dagger, or fight them. Not amazing differences, but still fun. Past a certain point in the game, many enemies grow stronger when they’re close to each other, and you’ll often run into enemies who require that you hit them with a specific attack before you can damage them, both of which help the button mashing from getting quite as monotonous as it could be.
The music is good, and includes some new compositions as well as some retreads from the first game, but it stays in the background most of the time, and gets lost quickly in the heat of battle. Enemies will sometimes give a shout as they die, but they tend to all sound the same. The normal punching, energy beam, and “you’re picking up money” sounds are present as well. There’s nothing spectacular, but nothing to complain about either. After playing the voice-free DS version, I was really happy to hear the voice acting here. I don’t know if they’ll win any awards, but the actors all do a fine job, and I appreciated Deadpool’s constant assaults on the fourth wall.
With one exception, the game controls fairly well. If you played any version of the original, you’ll jump right in with no trouble. You have weak and strong punches, and you can grab enemies, then throw or beat on them. Combos exist, and one of the early tutorials pushes you to learn them, but there will be times when you’ll find yourself just mashing away and taking whatever combos come. You can control the camera when you’re blocking, but blocking itself is fairly awkward. You press the R and L triggers to block, but you have to make sure you press R, then L, or the game will think you’re trying to use a Fusion attack.
How happy you are with MUA 2 on the PSP will rely to a certain degree on what you expect going in, but your expectations will probably have a lot less effect here than they would if you were playing the game on the DS. I had fun on the DS, but I really enjoyed this game a lot on the PSP. It is relatively short, but the idea is that you’ll play it more than once. Most folks will probably go for the Xbox 360 or PS3 version, and admittedly, you won’t get every single bit of the home console experience here, but if you are in the mood for some super powered action on the go, the PSP version is the one to buy. If you played the original, this installment will often feel like more of the same, but with the original MUA being so great, even those times are a lot of fun.