Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Job description: superhero needed for fighting evil. Hours flexible, but must be punctual—super-speed or time-shifting skills allowed. Flying, typing skills a plus. Familiarity with death-ray computers and hyper/mega/ultra technology is strongly preferred. Attire is business super-casual: tights and capes mandatory. Muscular physique preferred unless female, in which case breast-size must be too enormous to adequately perform mammalian function. Must be good, or have professional experience in the fields of goodness.
In recruiting talent for its latest orgiastic superhero game, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Activision must have published a pretty stellar job description, because it seems like everyone jumped on board. Unless, they could fly, in which case they just landed.
In what might have been just another X-Men Legends game, Activision opened up the country club doors to welcome a virtual cornucopia of superheroing talent. Although the game remains true to its dated Raven engine, Ultimate Alliance’s massive roster of good and bad guys and its thorough commitment to variety in gameplay lays a resounding super-smack on the recent crippled DC venture, Justice League Heroes.
The alliance is formed when mainstay bad guy Dr. Doom begins stealing super technology in a nefarious plan to rule the world. Your crew of four superheroes visits different lands, worlds, and the ubiquitous infernal dimensions to defeat Doom and his minions. The story won’t win any awards for originality, but it does give a pretty fair shake of the Marvel Universe, visiting many heroes’ homelands/homeworlds/home dimensions and rewarding you with unique dialogue when those heroes are in your party.
And it is on the heroes that Marvel’s gem of a game clearly shines its white-hot beam of attention. There are over twenty playable characters, nearly a third of which are unlocked through gaining achievements in the game. The sheer number of the heroes is staggering, including everyone from the Fantastic Four to Elektra to Moon Knight to Blade. But it is the unique feel of each of the characters that makes their variety so, dare I say, fantastic.
Spider-Woman and Spider-Man, for example, would seem to be nearly identical characters. Not so. Spider-Man swings on his web with a repeated button press, Spider-Woman just flies. Spider-Man shoots tiny web snotballs like a machine gun. Spider-Woman charges up shots of venom that pierce multiple enemies. Spider-Man can take a lot of damage and hit hard; Spider-Woman can throw ensnaring webs that immobilize opponents and cast mild healing spells. They may both be arachnids, but that’s where the similarity ends.
And so it goes through every character, the special moves for Mister Fantastic are sweet, e.g. when he rolls himself into a ball and pinball charges opponents or stretches out to land a huge fifteen-foot uppercut. Thor’s hammer throw stuns opponents and can hit them both coming and going like a boomerang. And Captain America sports a remote-controlled shield that careens around the screen madly. Each character’s powers are distinct, and as each levels up, those customized differences emerge with more clarity.
But when your hero dies, he’s dead for at least five minutes. Your party does not immediately respawn at save points, so if you lose a team member, you’ll have to replace him with a new hero for a short time. It’s a good system for getting benchwarmers some playing time, even if they’re continually hobbled by not leveling up quite as fast as your starters.
Skill points are meted out by level, and it is impossible to gain as many skill points as there are slots in each of the many unique superpowers. Decisions are made early as to whether you will power up Thing’s defensive “iron skin” or his offensive uppercut. While the default setting for the game is to auto-distribute the skill points, most gamers will want to assign all of the skill points to the skill that they use most often. If there’s one thing superheroes aren’t, it’s mediocre and balanced.
But they are as cliquish as high school girls named Heather. One new feature of this game is the ability to create your own super-team. You choose four heroes from the massive superhero palate to stick together for the rest of the game. As your party’s reputation increases, you can add “team boosts” that only affect your cliquish little team of do-gooders. It’s a smart feature, since it rewards team loyalty and gives a decent reason why not to fuss around with all twenty superheroes incessantly.
Each hero not only plays differently, but also has a distinct personal history. Whereas Justice League Heroes played like a quick-and-dirty gauntlet clone, Marvel’s game pays the real justice to the heroes’ back stories. Each character is given his or her own unlockable single-player mission which flashes back to actual Marvel comic-book battles. Don’t know who Ms. Marvel is? (She once gave birth to her own lover - Ed.) Neither did I until I played through her single-player mission.
If the good guys are many, deep, and unique, the bad guys are just as fortunate. Doctor Doom is the centerpiece here, but crazy nemeses like Galactus and Loki and Arcade and MODOK (the killer Commodore 64) all get their fifteen minutes. Boss fights are usually challenging, many requiring much more than just punching and kicking to win.
Unlike other games in the genre, Ultimate Alliance de-emphasizes hacking and slashing, making this more of a superhero game and less of a dungeon crawler. For instance, by the end, you will hardly use anything besides your superpowers, since most of the rank and file bad guys will overwhelm the surprisingly ineffective button-mashing tactic.
The levels also manage to keep the fighting from becoming stale by peppering the game generously with mini-games. Many of these are of the God of War button prompt reflex games, but others, like reprises of Pitfall and Breakout are built into the story (both of those occur in Arcade’s evil “Murderworld” theme park) and give each level needed character.
Unfortunately, all this personality disappears in the online game, where cooperative play means simply playing through the single-player campaign either cooperatively or competitively. This is fine, but the downer is that you cannot bring your leveled-up, totally unique superhero from the single-player campaign to the fight. Lag times also are less than super.
Of the three console versions, the PS2 version fares the worst; the PS2 framerate is choppier than a Ginsu commerical. Both the Xbox and the 360 look much smoother, and the 360 version sports two new characters and a couple of new optional levels. The game’s old engine performs, but is only mediocre graphically, across all the consoles. Unsurprisingly, the 360 version runs the best.
Although Marvel: Ultimate Alliance does not change the superhero formula set by X-Men Legends, it does capitalize on it—really working to instill personality in every aspect of the game, from the superheroes’ biographies, to their powers, to the teams, to the neat and varied boss battles. A must for Marvel fans, a good buy for everyone else, Ultimate Alliance is an epic in an old package, kind of like those massy boxes of comics you have hidden away in your attic, gathering ebay value like dust.