Another year, another Marvel Ultimate Alliance review from me. Last year, I played the PSP version, and now it’s time to play the home console versions and see how that experience differs from playing on the go. Although there’s no number on the end of its title, MUA is essentially the third game in the X-Men Legends series from Raven Software. In this game, they tried to improve on XML2, they took a few chances, and for the most part, they came out ahead. They also went through considerable trouble to make the PSP version as sellable as its home console counterparts. I’ll call out the differences between the versions throughout this review, but to kill the suspense right now: I prefer MUA on the PSP because of its exclusive gameplay modes and the ability it gives you to suspend the game and make your sessions as long or as short as you want.
In Marvel Ultimate Alliance, the team roster grows to include heroes from throughout the Marvel universe, rather than just the X-Men. The number of locations is also expanded, and players find themselves up against a team of villains who are being lead by Dr. Doom to acquire enough power to do literally anything they want. Along the way are a large number of optional side quests that affect the game’s ending. Many are simple fetch quests where players need to keep their eyes out for something as they progress through a level, but others will actually require some extra effort.
Whether players choose to complete the optional quests or not, they’ll find that the story is consistently good from start to finish, and provides a good level of detail for both those who aren’t familiar with the Marvel universe and those with a PhD in Marvel-ology. There is quite a bit of fan service and fun interactions between specific player characters and NPCs who have a history in the comics (when using Daredevil or Elektra in a battle against Bullseye, for example), but the regular interactions are written well enough that, except in a few cases where an NPC specifically mentions missing someone, Marvel amateurs won’t even know they missed anything. As you’d expect, the story remains identical regardless of which version you play.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is an action RPG, but the balance between action and RPG is skewed more towards action. The game has players controlling a team of four characters, one of whom is under the player’s direct control, and the other three of whom can be set to follow one of a few different AI models (aggressive, defensive, etc.). The player can change which of the four characters they are controlling at any time, and can switch the characters that are active on the team at any save point. Any character that loses all of his/her HP can be brought back to life at no cost after waiting a few minutes (an improvement over XML’s system of charging players in-game cash based on the KO’d character’s level).
The roster of characters is even larger than it was X-Men Legends II, although it is also less balanced. There are a number of characters who are weaker than the others to the point that they will only appeal to their die-hard fans. This is true across all platforms, although each version has its own exclusive characters. With the sheer volume of characters to choose from, most players won’t miss the weak ones – they just make the roster feel a bit artificially padded. All characters have multiple costumes, each of which affects their stats and skills in different ways, and some of which change them (technically) into a different character, like Iron Man’s War Machine costume. As in XML2, when sets of characters with logical connections are used as a team, bonuses are granted (like the Fantastic Four, which grants a bonus of 20 HP per KO). New to MUA, though, is the ability to create a custom team that levels up as the player completes missions and grants bonuses set by the player that increase as the team levels up. This is a very nice addition to the team mechanic, as it allows players more freedom to play as the characters they like regardless of whether that group will grant them a team bonus as delivered by the developers.
As mentioned above, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is not as heavy on the RPG elements as its predecessors. There is still gear to equip, but each character can only wear one item at a time, which makes it a good thing that only bosses drop equipment. Character stats are automatically updated when they level up, without the possibility of player intervention. The game seems to do a good job of updating the stats in ways that play to each character’s strengths, but some players will miss that control over their characters’ development. The skills are still in place, though, and are better than before. Unlike in XML2, characters who should be able to fly can do so from the beginning (rather than requiring an investment of skill points), and flying does not cost any energy (MUA’s equivalent of mana). However, when a character is flying, they do not regain energy, so if they want to keep using their skills, they’ll have to land at some point. Also nice is skill point reallocation; players have the freedom to take back skill points whenever they want in order to put them into other skills. If that’s not enough, the game also allows players to spend cash to buy skill levels. The only bad thing about this is that the same button is used to put points into a skill as is used to buy the skill levels, and no player confirmation is required to buy levels, so most players will end up accidentally buying a level or two as they play. It’s not a huge problem, but it may require a reload from time to time.
As I mentioned, the different versions of MUA each have their own exclusive features. The Xbox 360 version clearly comes out ahead in terms of exclusive characters, some of whom are very desirable. Although these characters were originally available only through paying a few dollars for a download, they were later added to the core game, so if you’re buying a later copy, you’ve got them. On the other hand, I feel that the PSP version just as clearly comes out ahead in terms of gameplay. It features online play, seven exclusive missions, and, after beating the game on normal difficulty, three exclusive gameplay modes are unlocked. With all there is to do and how much fun MUA’s gameplay is, I played through the game on the PSP from start to finish three times – at least two more times than I usually complete games. Add on playing it at home, and I’ve officially played this game way too much. Given the choice, I would only choose the PS3 version if I did not have a 360 or a PSP.
MUA’s graphics on a nice big TV really impressed me. The characters and enemies are all well-animated, some of the effects like Johnny Storm’s flames are particularly nice, and the game pulls them all off without any framerate issues. The environments are also extremely detailed. In fact, I was actually overwhelmed by the details during the first few minutes that I played this version. The game’s story is sometimes advanced using pre-rendered cutscenes, which look amazing in HD. However, the other story scenes are shown using zoomed-in versions of the regular in-game graphics, and they look terrible because the models aren’t really intended to be seen from that close. While the loading screens are static, they feature very nice drawings of individual characters from the game, and they can be viewed at will from a computer at the characters’ home base. By default, the camera follows the characters around fairly well, and if things get in the way, they go nicely transparent. Nevertheless, the right analog stick moves the camera, so players have complete control over what they see if they’re unhappy with the default movement.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance features a lot of great voiceover work for the characters, their enemies, NPCs, and even some funny lines from an unseen receptionist at Tony Stark’s place. I personally enjoyed Deadpool’s voice and crazy lines so much that I sometimes kept him on the team just to hear them. The only problem with the voiceovers is that when leaving the team management screen, one of your characters will say a line, and that line frequently gets cut off before it’s over.
MUA’s music is great. It is both written and performed well, fits in with the game, and the songs switch to be more aggressive when enemies are present. This helps keep things feeling intense, which is exactly what the music should do, in my opinion. The developers give players the option of eliminating the combat music, which is nice, because enemies are very frequently present. Although I love music in general, I do not pay a great deal of attention to it while I’m playing a game; I have to stop and specifically listen to the music when I’m planning to write a review. Given that caveat, I didn’t feel that the switching was annoying. However, I can understand how some players would, if the music is more of an integral part of the gaming experience for them than it is for me.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance’s control scheme is easy to pick up and remember, and I was happy to find that the extra buttons on the console controllers cleared up some of the clunkiness that was present on the PSP. In a nice change from XML2, MUA does away with health and energy potions by having enemies drop red and blue orbs that restore HP and energy points. This and a few other changes simplify the controls by removing the need for certain commands. Since those controls aren’t needed, certain commands that were more obscure in XML2 can fill in the easier-to-use slots.
Combat requires a bit more complexity than some other action RPGs, which can often leave players just mashing a single button over and over. MUA has two different attack buttons, and hitting them in certain orders creates combos with effects like tripping or stunning enemies. Some enemies actually require players to execute one of these combos before they can be damaged, and in these cases, the game helpfully shows the button presses necessary to complete the combo. Enemies can also be grabbed and thrown, punched, or slammed into the ground, which can really hurt them in addition to being just plain fun. I particularly like the fact that different characters slam enemies in different ways: for example, Colossus picks them up and uses them like a human club, Captain America does a sort of judo throw and then drives his shield into their neck, and Mr. Fantastic does a crazy, stretchy handspring with them. Between all of these options, combat stays entertaining and non-repetitive throughout the game. There are a few God of War-style minigames requiring timed button presses, but they are not so frequent as to get annoying.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is the result of two games’ worth of experience on Raven Software’s part, and it shows. Even the first game was good, and MUA is great. Every piece of the game is well-executed. The exclusive characters in the Xbox 360 version of the game make it the best of the non-portable versions, so although the decreased emphasis on RPG elements will sadden some fans, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is such a fun game that even they should think hard before they decide to pass on it.