Prior to the release of the original X-Men Legends, worthy comic book video games were few and far between. Raven Software and Activision brought to the table a deep understanding of Marvelâ€™s history and eagerness to present fan service like no other. The XML series proved to be an addictive top-down Action-RPG that many people came to love. Is Raven Softwareâ€™s use of the complete Marvel Universe as finely crafted as their previous efforts?
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance begins as the SHIELD (â€śStrategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Directorateâ€ť) helicarrier is under attack by an army of Ultron drones. To counterattack the forces of evil, SHIELD has called on Earthâ€™s greatest heroes. Players begin by taking on the role of the meta-humans whoâ€™ve responded immediately to the attack - Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, and Wolverine. As the heroes advance through what is remaining of the helicarrier they soon realize that they are up against a newly formed society of super-villains, known as the Masters of Evil. Lead by Doctor Doom, the Masters of Evil have carefully planned out a way to take the power of Odin, Thorâ€™s father and rule of the gods of Asgard. With this power, Doctor Doom is free to alter the universe at will and it is up to the ultimate alliance of superheroes to stop him.
Following the helicarrier, Nick Fury escorts the meta-humans to their base at Stark Tower, which acts as one of the hubs players will encounter throughout each act. In the hubs, players can wander the building speaking to other heroes to learn about much of Marvelâ€™s history as it relates to their current missions and the heroes themselves. The amount of history Raven brings from the comics is outstanding and Ultimate Alliance serves as the ultimate fan-service to Marvel lovers. Players who are not familiar with the comic book heroes will learn more about their enemies and the locations they fight and in essence become more engaged with the story at hand. As you progress through the story, you will form your base in Stark Tower, Sanctus Sanctorum, Valhalla, and Attilan. Each hub is unique, filled with brand new trivia questions that will test your Marvel history knowledge, power-ups for your heroes to equip, training missions, and also serves as a location to start side-quests and review your game progress.
Raven Software and Activision worked closely with Marvel to cram as many possible characters from the comic book universe into the game, in some form. The game boasts 25 playable characters (2 of which are exclusive to next-gen consoles and 7 who must be unlocked over the course of the game) and over 140 cameo appearances. The playable characters are - Black Panther, Blade, Captain America, Colossus, Daredevil, Deadpool, Dr. Strange, Luke Cage, Elektra, Ghost Rider, Human Torch, Iceman, Invisible Woman, Iron Man, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Mr. Fantastic, Nick Fury, Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Storm, The Thing, Thor, and Wolverine. Many of which have hit mainstream markets with television shows and movies, a likely reason for the selections. (Moon Knight, one of the lesser known characters on the roster is actually receiving his own live-action television show as Marvel plans to take the character to a broader audience â€“ so his appearance in the game is certainly not shocking.)
As an added bonus, several characters have costumes for additional characters that share the same powers â€“ U.S. Agent (alternate of Captain America), Zarathos (alternate of Ghost Rider), War Machine (alternate of Iron Man), and so on. Every character sports 4 total costumes that can be selected and each costume has unique abilities that can be purchased to further enhance the character. A good example would be Ghost Riderâ€™s classic costume can be upgraded to include added fire damage, power damage, and defense, while his retro costume features a bonus to chain damage, a chance to resurrect allies, and defense. This upgrading system is brand new to the franchise and happens to be one of the single greatest features in the game. Not only does it add an immense amount of depth to each character but allows you to customize and tailor them to your interests. Maybe you want to make Ghost Rider a master with his hellfire by upgrading his classic attire, or better yet swap it with chain attacks to unleash fury with massive radial and range attacks using his living chains thanks to the retro costume.
Also new to the series is the team reputation system. Once you reach Atlantis, MUA allows you to select one of the default Marvel teams (ie. X-Men and Fantastic Four) or create a brand new one to gain reputation as the greatest Marvel superhero team. By completing important objectives and defeating major villains, your team will gain reputation points building up your teamâ€™s level. Each level you are given a point that can be used to upgrade your teamâ€™s roster; whether it is by adding more to their overall health, energy, damage, combos, momentum, leveling rate, or adding a new member slot to your team. This system combined with the heavy amount of customization given to you by the costumes and ability upgrading features allows you to tailor not only each individual hero but the group as a whole. The only issue I could find with this system was the inability to change the name and logo of the team once you had already created it â€“ which certainly doesnâ€™t affect the gameplay at all.
As the game is an action RPG you can expect a ton of customization fun, or if youâ€™re not into all of that maintenance the game offers you an auto-spending feature that will upgrade your abilities and equip gear for you immediately upon leveling. If you do decide to set it to manual spending, you will find that you can upgrade and assign powers of your choice to your attack buttons and create some powerful combinations. Remember, thereâ€™s a lot of power attacks at your disposal but no more than 3 (and the Xtreme power) can be mapped to the power buttons. No two players will have identical characters with the added depth of ability, costume, and team upgrades. Sadly there is one omission that might disappoint some players â€“ the ability to select where points are added to for each character at each level-up like in previous entries (Body, Focus, or Strike). This decision may have been made to streamline the system so that MUA could be enjoyed by players not familiar with the characters and which stat would be more beneficial to each of them. It may seem like an annoying omission but you will barely notice it is gone and have the luxury of bulking up some stats using the upgrade power-ups littered throughout the missions.
When it came to the gameplay of earlier entries in the series, it was well known that Raven had concocted an addicting formula that players came to love. The great news is that most of the gameplay remains the same from X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse with a few additions to spice it up. The standard and power attacks are mapped to the A and B buttons, power attacks can be charged for more damage and knock-back by holding down the button for a second or two and by stringing the two attacks in sequence you can land many different combos to take down your foes. The throw attack (X) has been changed to now allow you to grapple the enemy opening up for some variation in your moves. After grappling, X will throw them, A will punch them, and B will do a unique stronger throw move (example being Spider-Man webbing an enemy to the ceiling like a punching bag). These new attacks work well to break up the button-mashing that players have come to expect from the series. Some enemies carry riot shields or weapons so using the grapple system you will be able to take down their defenses or even steal their weapons to use against them. MUAâ€™s fighting engine is easily a step ahead of XMLII as it brings a lot more variety to your battles. Gamers will have a lot of fun seeing all the unique attacks each character possesses â€“ especially Colossusâ€™ grapple (I wonâ€™t spoil that for you).
The new, improved fighting system gets put to use in battles across Marvelâ€™s biggest locations including Atlantis, Mandarinâ€™s Palace, Mephistoâ€™s Realm, Asgard, the Skrull Homeworld, Latveria, and more. These environments play host to plenty of puzzles and boss battles, each act ending in epic boss battles that prove to be very memorable sequences. Throughout the story mode I found myself having flashbacks to classic Marvel comic scenes fighting the likes of Galactus, Arcade, Mandarin, and other big name Marvel villains. My actions altered the outcome of the story and at the end of the game I was treated with Uatu the Watcherâ€™s presentation of what had resulted from everything I had changed. As a Watcher for the Universe, Uatu knows a whole lot and Iâ€™m sure heâ€™d agree that MUAâ€™s entertaining, frenetic battles and engaging story mode result in an excellent gaming experience that Marvel and Action-RPG fans would enjoy.
Ultimate Alliance is a blast to play with others, taking your favorite Marvel hero alongside your friends cooperatively is one of the gameâ€™s biggest draws. Luckily, online play returns and with a few extra features. Like X-Men Legends II, the host will load the game from his saved story mode progress, allowing the other players to take control of the hostâ€™s beefed up heroes. While the characters use the abilities from the hostâ€™s save file, players who have unlocked more heroes and costumes will be allowed to make use of them. For instance, I was able to take control of Ghost Rider during the Atlantis act on a friendâ€™s game save.
The online play is split into 2 different modes, cooperative and arcade. Cooperative is your standard online campaign while arcade mode brings competitive elements into the campaign. During arcade mode, players will only be allowed to control one hero at a time to aggressively take down the Masters of Evil, proving they are the most valuable hero. At the end of each mission, a scoreboard appears to tally up statistics such as knock-outs and deaths. Many gamers will come to enjoy this mode like I did as it adds a nice twist on the frenetic battles now that you must prove your skills as a hero in the Ultimate Alliance.
Performance-wise Ultimate Alliance is no different from any game with an online component, as it can at times suffer from lag issues most of which are generated by the hostâ€™s lackluster connection. From my experience I found that hosting a 4 player game requires an excellent connection, more than what most players have at hand. Hosting games with 1 or 2 additional players is a bit more comfortable, any more it tends to tax the connection and bring down the fluidity of the game. Even the slightest bit of lag (or delay) can hinder the overall experience. Players will have to test the waters by hosting games to see what their connection is capable of. Lag-free matches are not impossible, donâ€™t get me wrong as I have had some wonderful experiences online with groups that ran like butter, but perhaps the net-code could use some work.
Comparing Ultimate Alliance to itâ€™s predecessors itâ€™s easy to see a Hulk-sized step was taken with the character models and overall presentation of the Marvel universe, clearly taking advantage of the new consoleâ€™s power. Much like itâ€™s source material, this comic book action-fest delivers chaotic battles enhanced by gorgeous lighting and particle effects. Thanks to the relatively low-poly nature of the character models, Raven has been able to meticulously detail each hero (or villain) with bump-mapping and lighting effects. This same approach has been taken to every asset of Ultimate Alliance, creating a very stylized look that fits the game. When it comes to the cinematics, Blur Studios continues their tradition of impressing me with jaw-dropping animation â€“ only making me wish that Marvel Studios had hired them to take on their line of animated feature films.
The presentation (menus, textboxes, and interface) of Ultimate Alliance remains unchanged from the X-Men Legends run and does not detract or add to the overall look. Visually, thereâ€™s very little to complain about. There are a few pre-mission briefings that appear to be lower quality than the rest, a few minor instances of slow-down due to an overload of visual effects, and a couple of nuances on some of the costumes (lines from the skinning process appearing on some faces). Other than that Ultimate Alliance is stunning. Itâ€™s difficult to see where Raven will take the series next - visually, and admittedly I canâ€™t come up with many ideas, which is a great indication of Ravenâ€™s ability.
With over 100 Marvel characters one would think Raven would have a hell of a time casting voice talent, however as luck turned out they were able to hire some of the most versatile voice actors in the industry; including the likes of Phil LaMarr, Adrienne Barbeau, Crispin Freeman, Steven Jay Blum, Michael Gough, and many more. Many of these actors took on multiple roles, such as LaMarr, who himself played Black Panther, Uatu, Colossus, and a few others. This technique works well within Ultimate Alliance, as a majority of the voices should meet the expectations of what each character should sound like - even to the most hardcore comic book fans.
Aside from the voice acting, the rest of the sound department is nothing short of immaculate. From the loud explosions to the constant punching, kicking, and slicing, nearly every sound effect is well done. The dynamic soundtrack flows very smoothly, increasing in intensity as the battles become more intense.
Thereâ€™s very little to be disappointed about Marvel: Ultimate, at least within reason. The game is not perfect, there were a few instances of glitches that occurred during my play, but ultimately nothing hindered my experience. Sure, it might not have every comic-book hero that you would like to play as, but honestly thereâ€™s no way to please millions of everyone unless the several thousand Marvel characters are all at their finger tips. Itâ€™s just not going to happen. What Raven has delivered is a very tight group of popular and unique superheroes that many players will enjoy playing as. Their struggle against the Masters of Evil plays out like a comic geekâ€™s wet dream. I must commend both Raven Software and Activision for delivering an engaging 20-30 hour action-RPG that anyone who owns an Xbox 360 should definitely check out.
Final Score - 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)