Sometimes when developers release a game, it sells well and gets good reviews. Frequently, that leads to a sequel where the developers try to improve on the original. When Raven Software released X-Men Legends 2, that was their aim and they succeeded. Less frequently, a sequel is good enough to merit a third game where the developers try to improve on the second game and usually take a chance or two. For Raven Software, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is that third game. They tried to improve on XML2, they took a few chances, and for the most part, they came out ahead.
In Marvel Ultimate Alliance, the team roster changes to include heroes from throughout the Marvel universe, and not just the X-men. The villains and locations are also expanded and players are put against a team of villains lead by Doom to acquire power that could allow them to do anything they want. Along the way are a large number of optional side quests that affect the game’s ending. Some are simply fetch quests where players need to keep their eyes out for something as they progress through the level, and 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 (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 the NPC specifically mentions missing someone, Marvel amateurs won’t even know they missed anything.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is an action RPG, but the balance between action and RPG is skewed more towards action. Gameplay 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 in 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. 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 character will grant them a team bonus 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 the way that skill points can be reallocated. 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, with the cost increasing as the skill level does. 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 with previous games in the series, the different versions of MUA each have their own exclusive features. The Xbox 360 version clearly comes out ahead in terms of exclusive characters with 10 exclusive characters, some of whom are very desirable. However, 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. One of these is the very fun Uber Hero mode, where the character of your choice is leveled up all the way to the max (level 99), and you play as him/her all alone through the whole game. The other two modes are Hardcore and Hardcore Team, and when a character dies in either of these modes, they are gone for the rest of the game. The difference between the two is that in Hardcore Team mode, players choose a team of four characters who have to last them the whole game. With all there is to do and how much fun MUA’s gameplay is, I played through the game from start to finish three times – at least two more times than I usually complete games. It is worth noting that MUA suffers from the PSP’s constant problem – long load times – but they are not so long or so frequent that they’ll make any but the most impatient players stop playing.
MUA’s graphics are pretty impressive. 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 game’s story is advanced using pre-rendered cutscenes, which look outstanding. While the loading screens are static, they are also very nice drawings of individual characters from the game, and they can be viewed at will from a computer at the characters’ home base. It would have been really nice if using them as PSP wallpaper had been an option, but since this is not a standard option in most PSP games, it can’t really be held against MUA. By default, the camera follows the characters around fairly well, but it does get caught on a wall from time to time. When this happens, players have the ability to move the camera, but since it will probably happen during battle, it’s not likely that doing so will be a possibility.
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, a random character may say a line that gets cut off by the loading screen.
MUA’s music is great and changes when enemies are present. Since enemies are very frequently present, the developers gave players the option of eliminating the combat music. Standard options of changing the volume on both music and sound effects are also present.
As with X-Men Legends 2, Marvel Ultimate Alliance’s buttons have a lot of ground to cover, but the control scheme is easy to pick up and remember. 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 controls, and since those controls aren’t needed, certain controls that were more obscure in XML2 can fill in the easier-to-use slots.
Combat requires more complexity than many other action RPGs which can often leave players just mashing a single button over and over. MUA has a few different attack buttons, and hitting them in certain orders makes 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. Between all of these options, combat stays entertaining and non-repetitive throughout the game. There are a few God of War-style mini games requiring timed button presses, but they are not so frequent as to get annoying.
In my review of X-Men Legends 2, I commented that players needed to use a control trick to overcome the AI’s refusal to use boost skills, so I feel that I should note here that although I would have preferred still more AI use of boosts, MUA’s characters will now use their boosts on their own from time to time.
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, and given the PSP’s exclusive gameplay modes, it is easily the best version of the game for anyone who’s not going to fault the PSP’s inability to match the Xbox 360’s graphical power. 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.