When I heard that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was being released on the Nintendo DS, I thought: “What were they thinking? This is going to be terrible!” And when it arrived in stores, I fully admit that I picked it up out of a sense of morbid curiosity. As I played the game, though, my thoughts changed – first to “Oh, those poor developers. I don’t envy them the task they were given,” and then to “hey, this isn’t bad!”
MUA 2 includes parts of the Secret Wars and Civil War storylines from the printed Marvel comics. Of course, if you’ve read those comics, you’ll notice that the game takes some liberties with the original stories. You begin in Latveria, where you stop yet another of Dr. Doom’s nefarious schemes, but after the tutorial is over, you jump into the meat of things. A superhero has inadvertently 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 DS features two storylines. The beginning and ending sections of the game are the same whether you choose the pro- or anti-registration sides, but the middle is all about the conflict between the side you chose and the side you didn’t. Both sides clearly feel themselves to be in the right, although I always find myself with more sympathy for Captain America’s anti-registration forces than for Tony Stark, who comes off as quite a jerk.
The story’s great stuff, but it’s not always well told. There were a number of occasions in the game where I found myself wondering just what was going on and why I had access to different characters than before. On one occasion, I actually wondered if the game had switched my choice and jumped me into the other storyline. Stick with the game, and you’ll figure out more or less what’s going on, but there are a number of disorienting moments like that along the way. Later in the game, Venom and the Green Goblin joined my selectable characters with no more preamble than one random character telling another one that we should try to recruit them. Speaking of the Green Goblin, as a fan of the series, I was really disappointed that the DS version doesn’t include any unique interactions between characters, especially when Spider-Man came up against Green Goblin. I have a hard time believing that this is something the DS couldn’t handle.
MUA 2 on the DS plays surprisingly like the original MUA. It’s an action game, and you 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 tapping their face on the touch screen. As you play, your characters level up, and those you aren’t using still gain XP, 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 game, but gamers’ opinions have always been divided on that element, so I can’t fault the developers too much for removing it.
New to MUA 2 are Fusion points. As you kill enemies, your characters’ Fusion meters fill. With two points, you can resurrect a fallen teammate, and when you’ve got all five points filled in, you can execute a very powerful combo with another team member that completely drains both of their Fusion meters. To do so, you touch a big icon in the center of your screen and drag it to the character you want to pull off a Fusion with. Unfortunately, I never remembered who was where on my screen, so I always had to look away from the action, which meant losing a bead on whoever I wanted to pummel. Unlike the home version of the game, Fusion attacks don’t really seem to involve the two characters working together – just both executing a really powerful move. Given that, it should come as little surprise that I always saved my Fusion points for resurrections.
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 meager four active and two 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, and the game does a fine job of it, so there’s very little incentive for taking an active hand in your characters’ development. 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. Kudos to the developers for providing a warning before you spend the cash though – I was made unhappy more than once in the previous game when I accidentally bought a skill point.
As I mentioned, you can choose sides in this game, and a few characters are only available to one side or the other. The roster has been stripped down from the home console versions, with a total of fifteen characters to choose from, two of which are exclusive to the DS: She-Hulk and Sentry. Sentry has a power that heals your whole team, so I kept him in my active group almost from start to finish. 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 Hulk, She-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 see a lot of the same levels regardless of which side you choose, but your objectives 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.
It hardly needs to be said at this point that the DS is not a graphical powerhouse, but I felt that MUA 2 uses well what it has to work with. The characters all look different, I don’t remember any slowdown, and power animations look good. In fact, I was pretty impressed with a number of the effects displayed when characters used a buffing skill. Speaking of buffing skills, kudos again to the developers for setting the AI to actually use them! That annoyed me to no end in the past, and I love them for fixing it in this version. Of course, if you’re used to the home versions or even the PSP version, MUA 2 will strike you as not a pretty game. True, some of the characters look a little goofy when they run, and fliers appear to be flying all the time, but those are really the only criticisms I can throw at the game when I look at its graphics for what they are and ignore what the other versions look like.
Speaking of presentation, I should mention how the game sounds. The music is good, 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. I was sad that there’s no voice acting in the game, but I probably shouldn’t have been – that is fairly standard for DS games.
The game controls fairly well. If you played any version of the original, you’ll jump right in with no trouble, and if you ever forget which button does what you want, there’s a reminder in the pause menu. You have weak and strong punches, and you can grab enemies, then throw or beat on them. The strong punch can be charged for greater damage, but I found that the game too often decided I was trying to charge rather than just throw a punch, so I threw a lot of weak punches. Combos exist, but the game doesn’t tell you about them, so if you don’t know, you’ll probably just find yourself wondering what you did to stun this enemy or trip that one. There’s no camera control, which is certainly not unexpected, but the game does a good enough job that you will rarely miss it. You can tap the touch screen to use your powers, but it’s almost always easier to hold the R trigger and use the face buttons, which made me very happy that the developers included both options rather than forcing you to use the touch screen.
When all is said and done, your satisfaction with the DS version of MUA 2 will rely in large measure on what you expect going in. The game is relatively short, but you’re supposed to play it more than once. Most folks will probably go for the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions, 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 and the DS is your portable system of choice, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had here.