Dan is a contributor to ComiConverse. His interests mainly lie in video games, but he has previously written articles on film, television and other aspects of popular culture. He can be found on Twitter @dangoad
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Activision’s 2006 Marvel based action role-playing game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance was re-released on current generation consoles and PC this year. But is the game worth going back to?
Game Review: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
2006 was a long time ago. Ten years to be precise. In the world of Marvel a lot has changed. 2006 was two years before Iron Man was in cinemas, a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was simply a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. It was also a very different time in gaming. Couch co-op was still a thing, quick-time events were all the rage and video games weren’t the home of some of the best narratives in popular culture.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is an isometric action RPG where players choose four characters from a sizeable roster to wander around hitting things and solving simple puzzles. The player can control any of the four at one time and switch between them as needed. Four player couch or online co-op play is also possible on systems that will allow it. Bonuses are available for choosing comic book teams, such as the Fantastic Four or the West Coast Avengers. Each character has various powers in addition to their basic attacks, with further attacks unlocked by collecting experience and “Shield Tokens” dropped by defeated enemies. Experience is shared, so all of the characters level up together. There are also “Xtreme” powers, which charge up as you make kills. If you activate your extreme power, any AI characters in your team with their Xtreme charged will activate theirs as well, providing a neat shortcut to doing some real damage.
The game doesn’t feature the most memorable narrative: something about Doctor Doom and friends getting hold of a macguffin to take over the world. It’s all just an excuse to bring together as many heroes as possible to battle virtually every villain in the Marvel universe – the group of villains includes everyone from Galactus, Ultron and Loki down to Grey Gargoyle and Crimson Dynamo. Similarly the roster of playable heroes is diverse, with a core group of 23 appearing on every platform. Of these most are available from the start, including the bigger names like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man etc. There are a few left-field choices in the full list, such as Blade (although perhaps not as surprising an inclusion in 2006). An additional 12 characters are available depending on the platform and version (the re-release on the current generation has every available character). Some of these are non-playable heroes and villains featured in the story of the game, such as Jean Grey, Namor and Doctor Doom, but some are completely new, such as Hulk and Moon Knight. The characters all have unlockable costumes which give minor bonuses, and in some cases give them the appearance of other characters e.g. Iron Man as War Machine and Captain America as US Agent. For the original 23 characters two costumes are unlocked by getting 30 and 150 kills respectively and the third by completing character specific “simulation disc” missions. The additional characters have to get 250 kills to unlock all of their costumes.
The simulation discs are collected throughout the story mode and allow you to play an additional mission based around a single character. I expected a retelling of a famous comic storyline for these and instead received a grind through one of the story mode locations, very little backstory and a mid-tier boss fight. Generally the boss is appropriate to the character – Captain America faces Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange faces Baron Mordo etc. But the end-level bosses aren’t used, so instead of Mr Fantastic fighting Doctor Doom, he gets Bulldozer. And some characters don’t have an appropriate villain at all, so Blade ends up fighting “Dark Spider-Man”. These extra missions aren’t really worth it unless you want to unlock the costumes or grind out kills.
The character roster is wildly unbalanced, with heroes varying in quality in a big way. Most enemies can’t hit a character in the air, so flying heroes such as Iron Man, Thor and Human Torch dominate everything. At the other end of the scale are characters like Storm and Doctor Strange, who are virtually useless. The nature of the game is that you will quickly settle on a set of characters you like and will use them for the whole game. It doesn’t give you any reason to select different characters in different situations. I ended up primarily playing with Human Torch, supported by Iron Man, Deadpool and Wolverine. Human Torch is ridiculously overpowered and can essentially solo the game himself. Because of this things quickly become repetitive, spamming particular moves against waves of identical enemies. The repetitive nature of the game isn’t helped by quick-time events for boss battles. These aren’t always a bad thing, but Ultimate Alliance chooses to have you perform the same controls with the same animation 4 or 5 times in succession to defeat a boss.
The AI is also severely lacking: I lost count of the number of times my allies walked off cliffs. Many of the puzzles consist of having two characters stand on buttons at once, but AI characters won’t do this automatically and often don’t stay where you place them. This was at its worst in a boss fight that requires you to lure explosive spiders into some teleporters (it sort of makes sense in context). After five minutes of the AI heroes hurling themselves at the spiders before they could reach the teleporters I ended up getting them all killed and doing it on my own. Enemy AI is not as bad, though they tend to only attack the player character. This is especially annoying during boss battles, as I found myself doing nothing but blocking while I waited for my companions to wear down the enemy.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the game is that it is only partially voiced. All the cutscenes are, but often voiced conversations mid-level or in hub areas will only happen if you put the right two heroes together. If you haven’t got the right characters the conversations happen in text. There are also easter egg conversations that occur when certain characters interact, but the game gives you no indication of who will trigger these. Some of these are obvious from comic-book relationships, Wolverine and Jean Grey, Captain America and Winter Soldier, others you wouldn’t know to look for, like Deadpool and Black Bolt. The voice acting overall is good, with a strong cast of vocal talent who are widely recognisable from games and animation.
So, should you be looking to play this if you haven’t already? Honestly I wouldn’t bother paying full price for the re-release on current gen consoles or PC, which are pretty much a ploy by Activision to take advantage of Marvel’s current popularity. To their credit they do seem to have fixed a lot of the bugs that were reported on the game’s release, but it’s not a proper remaster so the graphical improvement just isn’t worth it given the cartoony style. You certainly won’t mistake this for a modern game. I can’t imagine sales being that high, so wait for it to go on sale or get it on an older console. It’s available on PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii and PSP for a fraction of the price. The PC version also has mod support, including some new characters. If you do try it out you will probably have some fun with it, it’s nice the see all the characters together and some of the scripting is surprisingly funny – particularly the end credits, which I won’t spoil here. Local co-op is also something very welcome in today’s market, so if you’re looking for something to play with friends then you can definitely have a good time with it.
Overall don’t expect it to be anything more than an enjoyable diversion.
Daniel Goad is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow us on Twitter: @ComiConverse
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance’s re-release is not worth paying full price for, but pick it up on sale or on an older console for a fun distraction, especially for coach co-op.