Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance

So you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site.  Either way, you come across Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (here we’re going to mainly focus on the PS2 and X-Box versions, though it came out on nearly every system imaginable), and you’re pondering picking it up.  Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new—but what was funky fresh then may be stale tripe now.  So how’s one to know?  That’s what I’m here for.

Ultimate Alliance was published in late ‘Oh-Six by Activision and developed by Raven Software.  Raven Software had quite a few titles under their belts, the most relevant being the first two X-Men Legends games.  That’s actually the most important piece of information to put forth.  If you’ve played the Legends games, well—I’ll be honest.  You don’t need to read this review.  If you’ve played either of those you have all the information you need to decide whether or not to purchase Alliance.

The story is different, of course, but nearly everything else is the same.  Most of the differences are cosmetic, or simply a changed name.  Tech Bits were money before, and they’re money here, only called S.H.I.E.L.D. Credits now.  They still function the same, and they’re obtained the same.  X-traction Points are now S.H.I.E.L.D. Access Points, which function exactly the same as before.

All of that said, I have to break one of my informal rules.  Normally I’d wait to put forth my opinion toward the end of the review, or at the least near the end of the game play section, but I have to mention it up front, here—it’s boring.  The game as a whole is boring.

Run up to an enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.  Boss fight mini game, act ends.  New act.  Run up to an enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.  Run up to the next enemy, mash buttons.

That’s a good portion of the game, right there.  After a while, yes, you get additional powers and such, and they do help out, but you don’t really need many of them.  For Spider-Man I only really use one—he covers an enemy in webbing, and the enemy is helpless for as long as you want him to be, allowing your team mates to go up and smack him.  You can yank him and do some decent damage, too.  Sure, Spidey has other powers, but they aren’t quite as useful.

Same goes for the others.  Most of them have one attack that’s the most useful, and that’s what you’ll use.  The story is somewhat interesting, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the game itself is boring.  It can’t.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with the rest of the review.

Game Play
When you start up a new game you’re treated to a full-motion video (F.M.V.) sequence of an airship being attacked.  It belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D. which, in the mainstream continuity of comics, stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.  Nick Fury is on the bridge, barking orders to his crew (and no, it’s not the Samuel L. Jackson version from the Ultimate comics or recent Marvel movies) as the bridge fills with smoke and sparks fly.

Doctor Doom appears on the screens and basically says that unless Fury surrenders the airship, it will be destroyed.  As should be expected, Fury isn’t having any part of that.  So he sends out a distress call, the first four heroes the player controls show up, and they get started on cleaning house.

If you’ve played either of the X-Men Legends games, you know what to expect.  You control up to four characters and can switch between them with the D-pad.  The ones you aren’t controlling can be given simple “mentalities”: Aggressive, Passive, and such.

Frankly, the artificial intelligence scripting behind your allies should have been retooled a good bit.  Your allies are pretty stupid and don’t really ever get any better.  After I got the relevant power, as Spider-Man I could be webbing up enemies—thus incapacitating them—to let my allies go to town on them, but they’d end up just standing around said enemy like moronic mannequins hardly ever so much as throwing a light punch.  I’m a pretty shoddy game-player in general, I admit this, but even I can mash buttons quicker than that.

Thinking about mashing buttons, that’s how you get through enemies in each “act”, and at the end of each act is a boss.  Most require some silly mini-game to beat, though the first is more waiting for the boss to fly off then scurrying over and taking over a massive cannon.  Wait for the boss to zoom by, then let loose with everything you have.

The second boss is the start of the mini-game nonsense, a guy in a giant mechanical suit.  You have to race around, avoiding his attacks and taking out random mooks while trying to dive into holes that periodically open up in the floor.  Do so and you get dumped into a large cannon, where you get launched hopefully onto the mech’s head.  I say “hopefully” because it requires the mech to be more or less in the center of the level, and he just loves to chase whichever character you’re controlling around.  It’s not an overly large level, but it’s not all that easy to keep him in the middle, either.  Land successfully on his head and you get to play a button-mashing mini-game that hopefully ends with the mech smacking its own head.

One problem with the mini-game aspect as a whole is that it isn’t consistent.  Say what you will about Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend and its “interactive cut-scenes”, but the buttons made sense, they were consistent with their uses out of the cut-scenes.  Such is not the case, here.  Even when you’re doing the same act numerous times, you’ll have to mash different buttons each time.  That smells to me as somewhere between unnecessary challenge and full-blown fake difficulty.

An interesting mechanic is that you get bonuses based on the characters in your party.  For example, have four women in your party and you get the Femme Fatale bonus, which adds five percent to your damage.  If you have Blade, Elektra, Wolverine, and Deadpool, you get the Assassins bonus, which adds sixty percent to the credit drops.

On top of that, you can actually form your own team and gain bonuses for it.  You can pick any four members you want, assign them an icon and a name, none of which can later be changed.  As such, you might want to wait to form them for a while, until you get characters you know you’ll play most often.  Then again, as mentioned in the Replayability section you can play through the game again with whatever characters you unlock, so you might not want to wait and be more choosy the next time around.

Once you’ve built your team you start earning Reputation Points, and every hundred points nets you an additional level for your team as a whole.  With each level comes a point you can spend on one of six things: Team Vitality, which boosts the team’s maximum health; Team Synergy, which boosts the team’s maximum Energy; Team Force, which increases the damage done by your team; Team Focus, which increases experience points you gain; Team Tactics, which increases the rate at which you gain Momentum (more on that in a moment); and Team Bench, which increases how many “slots” you can have on your team (perfect for rearranging the team after unlocking more playable characters).  It’s actually a pretty good system; not too complex, but rather strategic in implementation.

Momentum is a mechanic which you use to pull off “extreme powers”, which are basically Limit Breaks.  Each character has one, each suitable for somewhat different situations.  Some are great against few but powerful enemies, others are great for a lot of weak enemies, and of course others cover the rest of the spectrum.

You gain Momentum by using “finisher” moves on enemies, which are basically melee combo attacks.  The Momentum gauge encircles the portrait of the character as a pale yellow-ish line.

Thinking about the character portrait, similar to the two Legends games before it, in the lower left-hand corner are the portraits, in a diamond configuration, with each portrait signifying which direction to press on the D-pad to take control of them.  The portrait of the character you currently control is a bit larger than the rest.

Health and Energy are also near their portraits, in red and blue meters that go from each side of the portrait and meet in the middle.  E.G., for the top portrait, they start at the left and right sides and meet in the center over their heads.  For the right-hand portrait, they start at the top and bottom and meet in the middle on the right.  It’s not a perfect system, but it works well enough.

As for the levels themselves, they’re all box-like, rooms built on squares like a home-brew level editor would do it.  Invisible walls abound, making sure the characters who can take to the air are pretty much useless.  There’s no way to cut across levels even if it would make sense.  Further, the walls are all more or less the same height, so you can see into the next room—but it won’t help you much.

Visually-speaking, the game doesn’t create the enemies until you’re in the same room with them.  Thing is, in reality, all it does is refrain from loading their visuals.  A few times, with an ability like Storm’s lightning-everywhere power, I managed to hit enemies on the other side of a wall even though I couldn’t see them.

All in all, the simplistic game play isn’t a terrible thing, really.  It makes the game more accessible to younger gamers, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a bit on the hard side, though the difficulty curve is much more shallow, which means younger gamers’ parents would want to play with them, or at least help them not give up.

The game is broken up here and there by more obnoxious mini-games.  Not the same as the boss fights, but—for example, in Murderworld, you have to save Jean Grey by playing a version of Pitfall!, of all things.  Everything you ever hated (or loved) about that game is there, right down to the simplistic graphics and sounds.  The only thing that’d different is that you control your team leader, which is somewhat disconcerting to see.  Your fully-rendered character in such a low-resolution setting.  Myself, I hated that game and despised the fact that I had to play through this version of it, but of course on this your mileage may vary.  There are a few more instances of such a thing, though they’re few and far between.

There’s not really a whole lot more to say about the game, which, given my usual loquacity, may well come as a shock.  It’s not a very deep game; by and large, what you’re doing when the game first hands you control is what you’ll be doing at the end.

The game’s story isn’t told all that well.  By and large, you only hear the person you’re talking to instead of the person you’re controlling.  E.G., when talking to Nick Fury on the bridge of his airship, you’ll hear his side of the conversation, but not yours.  That’s a little off-putting, really.  The problem is that it isn’t consistent.  Sometimes you’ll hear your character talk, and sometimes you won’t.  I think they should have made it consistent in that if you hear one, you should hear both.  That would mean it wouldn’t be too frequent, but it’s rather jarring to listen to only one half of a conversation.

The story is told through text in boxes at the bottom of the screen, and there is usually only one way for you to respond.  The problem with that is that it’s worded without regard to how your character normally talks.  Storm tends to be a bit more “regal” in her verbiage where Spider-Man tends to be flippant, but no matter who you’re controlling it stays the same.  That’s also a bit jarring.

It makes sense from a coding and disc-space perspective why they wouldn’t have every possible reaction voiced by the voice-over artists, but it’s a little harder to swallow in raw text.  Surely one can write a reaction that would, say, work for both Doctor Strange and Thor, since both speak a good bit more eloquently in the game.  Then you have something more vernacular-enthused for characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine, say.  It wouldn’t be too taxing on the system.

Anyway, as for the story itself, Doctor Doom has formed a boy-band of villains laughably named the Masters of Evil (you can almost hear the mustache-twirling and the maniacal “MUAHAHAHAHAHA” that would accompany such a name, can’t you?).  Fury sends a general distress signal for any more-than-humans around, and four—Spidey, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine—answer the call.  They trounce the baddies, send Fin Fang Foom (seriously?  This guy was the best idea for a boss?) packing, and become part of the task force Fury sets up to find out what Doom is up to and how to stop him.

Along the way they pick up more heroes, visit exotic locales including but not limited to Atlantis, Murderworld, and The Valley of Spirits (hey, I didn’t name these places, people), and meet more of Marvel’s third-rate heroes than most players even knew existed.  It’s actually a surprise that Spot doesn’t show up.

They fight across the world and beyond it, and as you know if you watch the scene that plays at the starting menu, you can guess that Galactus is behind it all.  Seriously, it’s not exactly a “big reveal” when the purple giant was displayed so prominently, so early.  It’s not really something you can easily miss, either, since, again, he appears in the scene that plays behind the main menu.

Anyway, being Galactus, his entire motivation is that he wants to devour the Earth, and this is just some convoluted ploy to attempt to do just that.  The main story isn’t all that deep, but it’s actually pretty good by Marvel standards.  If you enjoy Marvel comics you should enjoy the story.

There’s also a “B plot” of sorts.  Black Widow, former lover of Daredevil and former enemy to S.H.I.E.L.D., is Fury’s right-hand woman (don’t ask), and she apparently has been trying to work with Doctor Doom—giving him secrets under the table, secret communiqués, that sort of thing.  The player works with a hacker to try and figure out what’s going on.

As anyone could see coming a mile away, she’s actually innocent and was secretly working to try get secret plans that Doom had stolen (again, don’t ask).  It’s standard fare for Marvel, so once more if you like the comics you should like the B plot of the game as well as the A plot.

I don’t normally give so much away of a game’s plot, but—come on.  Galactus was revealed so freaking early, and the player would have to be an idiot to not figure out he played prominently in the story.  Anyone with an ounce of Marvel knowledge would know he isn’t about to be working for anyone, and thus must himself be the ultimate baddie.  The B plot is simplistic without much in the way of a big reveal; the player should easily guess the outcome the moment the sub-plot comes up.  The two plots aren’t quite insults to player intelligence, but they’re not exactly anything all that deep, either.

The engine is starting to show its age, especially by ditching the cell-shading of the Legends games and thus letting the visual flaws show through.  Simply put, the character models look horridly simplistic.  Here’s a screen shot from the game.  Compare that to this one from Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro—from the PSOne days.  Not much of a difference, really; at the least, not as much of a difference as the years between games and the generations in hardware should mean.  They look fine from a far-away vantage, but look absolutely horrid close-up.

If you only saw them from far away it wouldn’t be such an issue, but aside from being able to set the camera very close, for many cut-scenes that use the game’s engine, the models are framed in the shot almost as one would frame a live actor in a television show or a movie, so their glaring visual faults are shoved in the viewer’s face.

That isn’t just an age thing, where you can say, “Oh, sure it looks terrible now, but it was great for its time!”  That’s not always a valid reaction, and this is just such an example.  That would be fine if you were talking about a game that looked better than its predecessors, but Ultimate Alliance doesn’t.

To momentarily digress, take Final Fantasy VII.  Whether in a battle or just running around, the game looks horrible by today’s standards—but it was arguably the best-looking title of its time, especially since it was the first three-dimensional Final Fantasy title.

As I displayed with my comparison between Ultimate Alliance and Enter Electro, the former doesn’t even look good for its time.  I’m not really too hung-up on graphics (there’s a reason it comes third in my reviews, after the game play itself and the story), but when a game looks this bad it’s hard to get past.

It lost something when the developers didn’t use cel-shading.  Whatever can be said about it in disfavor, cel-shading is easier on the processor and doesn’t usually look half-bad.  Ultimate Spider-Man used a version of it, and it looked downright good.  X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse used it, and it looked better than Ultimate Alliance does.

The cast list is impressive, featuring actors known for their skilled work in animation.  They all work decently, though even the best actors can’t deliver the cheesiest lines perfectly.

A small thing that might rankle some players is that none of the voice actors are ones from certain popular outings of said character.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, since they all sound more or less accurate for the character, but it might be something some players would miss.

The music, by Chance Thomas and Cris Velasco, is pretty good.  It’s an orchestral score that swells to dramatic overtones when appropriate, fades to a more muted serenity when appropriate.  There were a few hitches I noticed, mainly when switching tracks, but they were small enough to be ignored.

All in all, there’s not much to the music, or the voice-acting for that matter.  They’re both decent aspects of the game, but not stellar—though they may well be the best parts of the game.

There are a ton of things to unlock—concept artwork, alternate costumes, comic covers, and more.  A special mention goes to the “Simulator Disc Missions”, each of which focus on one character to play as.

You unlock everything by finding items strewn about the levels.  Collecting figurines will eventually unlock a secret character to add to your party, for example.  You can also hunt down the discs for the Simulator missions, little notebook-things for the concept art, and so on.  There really is a ton of things to unlock.

On top of all of that, you have alternate endings based on decisions you made during the game itself.  At the end, Uatu the Watcher will appear and tell you how you changed the future.  For example, if you picked up a certain item, when Mephisto rears his head years later, he’s easily defeated.  If you didn’t, the heroes have to band together again to fight him.

You can also replay the game with characters you’ve unlocked, so that’s handy.  It actually makes it a bit more fun, since you can play as your favorite characters (if they’re playable and you’ve unlocked them) from the start.

Final Recommendation
Time for a confession.  I’ve been working on this review for a little while.  I’d play the game, grow so utterly bored with it I’d stop, play another game and work on that review, then try and work on this one some more.  I would flip-flop like that for a while.

The game play is just so boring.  Attack, move on, rinse, repeat.  When you get to a boss you have to figure out a usually-obnoxious mini-game when it would make more sense to just unleash fury on the bosses themselves.  I mean, Storm, for example, can control the bloody weather, but I still have to race around like a lunatic to get the quite-squishy and susceptible-to-lightning boss to hit specific points on the ground?  Eh?

That’s my biggest complaint about the game, and one reason why the game is boring—the characters aren’t allowed to really be themselves.  You have characters who could lift mountains or rain down hell itself on enemies, but they’re not really allowed to.  I’ve seen the comics.  I’ve watched the cartoons.  I know that the Fantastic Four could pretty much rule the world—if not our galaxy—if they so chose, so why the heck should Ben Grimm have to wail on something for fifteen minutes to damage it?  He’s not exactly a weakling; he’s had tousles with the Incredible Hulk and had to call the matches draws, for crying out loud.

It’s a great game for players who just want to “collect” their favorite super heroes, who want to team up Spider-Man with Ben Grimm or whatever else.  It’s an especially good game for younger gamers, since the game play is rather simplistic and the difficulty curve is rather shallow.  For gamers looking for a game that displays heroes’ abilities, well, this isn’t the game for them.

Game Play: BAD
Meh.  Run up to an enemy, mash buttons.  Rinse and repeat enough to face a boss with an annoying mini-game, all on levels that have the same boxiness to them regardless of their supposed setting.  Invisible walls are the order of the day, making fliers and Spider-Man pretty much useless.

The world is threatened and heroes must band together to save it.  Everything else is incidental, though that said it does hold up pretty well.

Graphics: BAD
Seriously, it doesn’t look much better than a game five years its senior.  That’s a bad thing.  The models are horrifically ugly, and the levels all have the same boxy aspect to them, no matter the setting.

Sound: GOOD
The best part of the game, but that’s not saying much.  The cast list is wonderful, but the lines they had to deliver are very much on the cheesy side.  The music is enjoyable, though doesn’t really do anything unexpected, nor is it completely without the occasional hitch.

Replayability: GOOD
There is a huge number of things to unlock—costumes, characters, Simulator Missions, concept art, and much, much more.  The problem is that you have to go through the same boring game play in order to get them.

Really, it’s a game best for die-hard Marvel fans and/or gamers who really adored the two X-Men Legends games and/or younger gamers.  Other than that, the boring aspects overshadow the rest of the game.


4 Responses to “Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance

  1. Elisa Michelle Says:

    See, the repeat button mashing I can deal with if there’s a decent plot. Recently, because of all these comics turned movies, I’ve been very interested in the DC and Marvel comic universes. However, how convoluted the plots can be sort of turns me away from them, in the sense that there are other ways to have creative endings and plots and bad guys and all that other great stuff. At least I think so. Still, I’m down with a little cheesy, typical hero plots, too, especially if the gameplay is worth it. Since it’s not, I’m not even going to bother. Haha. Besides, I am more interested (at the moment, anyway, seeing as how I just watched Captain America on Friday) to see if they’ll come out with any games based off these new movies, though I know you don’t review new games (which I think is unique and cool).

    Anyway, I give you props for finished the game in order to review it. That’s more than I would’ve done.

    • They already made a Captain America game. It looked decent, but had Parkour in it. Didn’t quite get that one, myself, but whatever.

      For button-mashing, I don’t mind it to an extent, but when that is the game, I generally want to tear my hair out in boredom. 😉

      And thanks for the compliments. Full “retro” gaming (gaming back in the Atari/NES-ish days) is pretty popular, and of course truly modern game reviews are common, but I hadn’t found many people invested in “retro-ish” gaming. 🙂

      • Elisa Michelle Says:

        It seems parkour is getting more and more popular. It’s made its way into a lot of the games lately, but I’m not exactly a huge fan. Captain America never struck me as the parkour type, you know?

        Yeah, button mashing can be super tedious without a plot or anything like that to make it worthwhile.

        Well I think you pull off retro-ish gaming pretty good. =)

      • I can kind of see it, since he’s incredibly athletic, and has that whole “paragon of physical traits achievable by normal humans” going on. That said, what I saw in the teaser videos–I don’t know. I think I’d have to see more to form a better opinion.

        And as ever, I thank you for the kind words. 🙂

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