Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance (XB360)


Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Raven Software
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 10/24/06

Small note before we begin: I appreciate the idea of “guest reviewers” and such, but I’ve learned the craft, as it were, in a more “straight man” fashion. In other words, we’re going to opt out from such an approach in this review, and instead focus on the title, without any sort of outside assistance from those in the 616. I hope you won’t be too disappointed.

Besides, no one would return my calls. Not even Slapstick. Not like he’s doing anything important. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since been informed that Spalstick was, in fact, participating in Civil War to a not insignificant extent, among other things, so we officially apologize to Steve Harmon for insinuating he’s a lazy ass. Now stop calling me.)

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Marvel comics for a good long time. Hell, my first review for Inside Pulse was Marvel Nemesis (ugh). I’ve been playing comic book video games for about as long as I’ve been reading comic books, and while most of them have been pretty disappointing, as time has gone on, they’ve progressively been improving. From the ever so marvelous Capcom fighting games and the above-average to good Spider-Man titles coming from Activision, to the Punisher title from THQ and The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction from Sierra, it’s been more and more satisfying to be a fan of Marvel if you’re a gamer. (DC Games are largely beyond the scope of this review, but for the record, aside from Justice League Heroes… well, “satisfying” isn’t the right word… more like, “disappointing”.)

One of the franchises residing squarely in that bubble of good has been the X-Men Legends franchise. It’s a pretty simple concept, actually: take Baldur’s Gate, stick some Marvel characters into it, and go wild. The first two games received plenty of retail and critical success, so it’s not surprising that Activision and Raven would expand their horizons a bit and put together a product that includes a lot more of the Marvel Universe… like, as much of it as can fit in one game. That game is, obviously, Marvel Ultimate Alliance. MUA carries over a lot of the same gameplay as it’s predecessors, but features a much broader roster of heroes and villains, as well as a broader storyline. The question is, is it any good, or is it the same game you’ve already played with a fresh coat of paint? Let’s tear into it and find out.


1. STORY


The story in MUA is pretty cut-and-dry for a modern Marvel tale; Dr. Doom attacks Nick Fury as part of his plot to do a bunch of nefarious stuff (inclusive of building a new Masters of Evil super-villain group), so Fury makes a call to all meta-humans to aid SHIELD in fighting against Doom and company. Even though the story has a distinct “comic-book” deja-vu to it, it’s surprisingly solid; the game not only features multiple endings based on your actions in the game, and offers all sorts of plot twists and suspicion-building foreshadowing, it also features all sorts of neat little interactions between familiar heroes and villains. If a member of your team is a rival of the villain you’re facing, the two will engage in a little bit of back-and-forth banter many times, which is a nice acknowledgement I wasn’t expecting.

I wasn’t expecting this, mind you, because the rest of the story is pretty generic, character-wise. The game makes the assumption that you’ll play with whoever you damn well please, and the dialogue ends up being mostly generic as a result. With such a large volume of characters to play as, this is largely understandable, but it still hurts the presentation a bit when Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Thor are all working with the same generic conversation material.

Also, for the record: continuity purists will, upon playing MUA, suffer a massive apoplexy. The game is quite obviously not taking place in Marvel 616 or Ultimate continuity, and even taking into consideration that it’s obviously pre-Civil War, saying that the continuity is dramatically different from that of the comics isn’t exactly a Kreskin-like observation. Still, it’s a solid (if unremarkable) story that will carry you through to the endgame without any real dead spots, and while it ain’t the greatest storytelling around, it’s good enough to get by.

Story Rating: 6/10


2. GRAPHICS


On the 360, MUA looks quite nice overall. Characters animate fluidly and are rendered well, and the enemies match up acceptably in quality to the more important characters. The various environments also look quite nice and match up well to what you would expect. The “important” characters look great, and their various different costumes all look spot-on to their comic book counterparts. In Hi-Def the game looks better, but not significantly so; you can play MUA on a normal TV and still get some very solid visuals from it. The only complaints I can bring against the game, truthfully, are that the enemy models tend to repeat a whole hell of a lot, which is noticeable, and when there a lot of enemies on-screen, the visuals become very busy, which can make them hard to follow. That aside, MUA is a great looking game, and really looks like the developers put in extra effort to make the game look as good as possible for the next-generation experience. It’s no Oblivion, mind you, but it’s still quite good looking.

Graphics Rating: 7/10


3. SOUND

The music is your standard heroic fare; heavily orchestrated, powerful, and perfectly fitting for a game that follows the exploits of a bunch of characters who are just SCREAMING for an Elfman soundtrack. Nothing stands out as being better than anything else, but overall the music works quite nicely. Oh, and as standard, custom soundtrack support is in full effect, so if you want to destroy the forces of evil to your own tunes, rock on.

The voice acting is also really good… in fact, scratch that: it’s absolutely awesome. Lucard already offered up some voice actors as examples, but I’d like to throw out a few more, if I may, as they put out quality performances. Spider-Man’s voice acting is spot-on perfect for the character thanks to Quinton Flynn, who all you gamers out there should recognize as Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2 (yes, him). Wolverine sounds appropriately badass thanks to the work of Steve Blum (Vincent Valentine in Dirge of Cerberus… yes, I know, but in this case, sounding like Solid Snake is appropriate). For the short time he’s running about, Nightcrawler comes off nicely, due to one Dee Bradley Baker (AKA Mr. Viewtiful Joe himself). The list of voice actors (and there a lot of them, believe me) is a literal list of almost pure talent (save for the voices of Bruce Banner and Namor; while these voice actors are quite good, they are both winners of voice acting contests hosted via the MUA website), period.

Oh, and the sound effects, from gunfire to explosions to the sound of the old punchy-punchy, all sound top notch and crystal clear. In short, MUA is a top-shelf aural experience, and any fan of quality audio in their games will love this one, no doubt.

Sound Rating: 9/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


I’m going to work off of the assumption that there’s someone out there who has somehow managed to avoid dungeon hacks in the past four or five years and start from the basics. If you’ve played Dark Alliance, Hunter: The Reckoning, Champions of Norrath, or any one of the other billion games like this, feel free to skim the following paragraph. If you’ve played X-Men Legends at all, you can skip it entirely.

Control in MUA is incredibly simple: you move around with the analog stick smack the crap out of enemies with one of the two attack buttons on the controller face (one handles weak attacks, one strong, and they can be combined for combos). The right stick turns the camera as needed, and works reasonably well for the most part. You’re also provided a jump button and an action button on the face, and their uses should be fairly self-explanatory. Double-tapping the jump button initiates a character-specific action, usually either flight or a double-jump, though certain characters do other stuff (Deadpool, for instance, teleports, while Spider-Man swings around on a web if you hold the button down). The left trigger lets you issue commands to your teammates, the left bumper lets you block, and the right trigger lets you use character specific special attacks (more on them in a bit). Also, since you have four team members, the D-Pad is set up to allow you to change members with a simple direction press for on-the-fly changes. The control scheme isn’t wholly intuitive, button layout-wise… it’s not BAD or anything… just not mapped in a fashion that one could intuitively figure it out. It’s easy enough to work with, though.

Experienced players, welcome back! The game plays more or less identically to what you’ve played before, so let’s get down to the more significant details. Each of your characters, as noted, has special powers that in in-character with the hero in question; by holding down the right trigger and pressing one of three face buttons, you unleash the attack requested. The fourth button is reserved for a character’s “Xtreme” attack, which is basically a super-powerful attack that can be performed after you fill the character’s Momentum Meter, and tends to inflict major damage. As your characters level up, they learn new abilities dependant on which character you’re dealing with, though you can only equip three at a time. The absurdity of someone like Captain America leveling up notwithstanding, it’s a solid system that works well enough, though the recently released Justice League Heroes does this in a more interesting fashion; in JLH you can place various different effects onto the superpowers, ALA City of Heroes, to make the skill stronger, while in MUA all you can do is level the powers up. Still, it’s a reasonable mechanic that works well enough.


Your characters can be boosted in other fashions as well, though. Aside from their standard leveling up and such, as you progress through the game you find Marvel coins which can be dumped into increasing your characters stats. Not only can you increase the power of your special attacks in this fashion, you can also upgrade your character’s costume specific abilities. Yes, you read that right. Basically, as you play as a character, they unlock costumes as you beat enemies. Each character has four costumes, and each costume has three costume specific abilities, each of which can be leveled up with your Marvel coins. As each costume is largely different in what it offers to the character wearing it, you might find a costume you really like, or you might alternate or whatever. This also encourages you to actively USE all of your characters in battle, so as to unlock their various costumes, which is a good idea. In addition, bosses and the occasional item container hold equipable items which boost a character’s stats, and you can also find stat boosters lying around which will permanently increase a stat for the character who picks it up. In theory, it’s entirely possible to use one character from the beginning to the end of the game and bulk them up seriously, but in practice, it’s more pragmatic to boost all of your teammates up as best you can to maximize damage and performance potential.

Regarding the actual gameplay, it’s a pretty simple design: go from one end of the level to the other, obliterating everything you see, fight a boss (or that video game cover band), repeat. That’s not quite ALL there is to do, however; Raven has gone out of their way to add variety to what would otherwise be a repetitive experience. At various points, you’ll be tasked to undertake mini-games of various types, ranging from crane games to trivia games to a Pitfall knockoff to rhythm games. The various mini-games are implemented quite well and contribute nicely to reducing the monotony of doing the EXACT SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN for multiple hours. Also, if you get bored with your present team, switching is a snap; just go to a save point and change up right from the menu. You can even build your OWN super-team, which confers status boosts and such as the team itself levels. Building existing super-teams also does this, but come on, who wouldn’t want to build their own team? You can also find various “scenario” discs, which have nothing to do with the story, but allow you to not only level up in-between missions, but also to play through some more notable chapters of the Marvel universe. Oh, and if you’re playing and a friend wants to jump in, or a friend wants to jump out if they’re playing, switching from a one player to a multi-player game is a snap and can be done in seconds. You can also team up with friends (or strangers, if this amuses you) online via Xbox Live and play as normal, which is pretty cool. That’s all you can do online, though, but it’s not like they could’ve done much else… what were they going to do, a versus mode? No thanks.


As expected, however, MUA isn’t without its flaws. The computer AI ranges between being mildly competent and being stone dumb. Characters will run off to go fight off-screen enemies instead of fighting the guy in front of you, and watching characters get stuck on walls and such is an entirely too common occurrence. One can work around it easily enough, but this may result in a character you wanted to use for something ending up a ways off by accident, which is annoying. The enemy AI suffers the same fate, sadly, which would allow you to exploit such problems (if you’re that sort of person). A Character Creation option would also have been wonderful, seeing as how so many of these games have that sort of thing and, more importantly, the story generally doesn’t give a crap who you use at any point (I mean, who WOULDN’T want to crack skulls as Spider Jerusalem?) But perhaps the most depressing issue with the game is that, even with the little mini-games, customization, special outfits, and so forth, it’s really just a dumbed-down dungeon hack, with all of the eventual boredom and limitations such a game carries with it.

That all said, MUA is still quite a solid piece of game. It plays about as well as can be expected, and while it’s ultimately an exercise in button spamming, it’s a well designed exercise in button spamming. The multiplayer component is all sorts of awesome, and with the option to play online, you’ll never be short people to play with. The positives outweigh the negatives, and while it’s not the best game in the genre, it still remains as a fun and interesting experience, for a while anyway.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

MUA features multiple endings, a lot of playable characters, concept art to find, extra missions to play, and a functional online component, all of which will keep you coming back for a while. There’s a lot to do, folks. On the other hand… spamming the attack button gets boring after a while, so once you’ve unlocked everything (or, at least, everything you feel the need to unlock), this will most likely go back onto the shelf, at least until friends come over. Four-player MUA is fun as all hell, and will most likely bring you back LONG after you get tired of playing the game solo.

Replayability Rating: 8/10


6. BALANCE

Before we begin: one of the single greatest things MUA has to offer in its 360 variant is that the use of cheat codes invalidates your earning of Achievements. In other words, unless the only codes you use are the ones to unlock the Silver Surfer or Daredevil, you aren’t getting any Achievements, because you haven’t ACHIEVED anything. This is a superb idea, and I’m glad more people are picking up on this.

Outside of that, MUA offers multiple difficulty levels for you to choose from, which is good for those who aren’t acclimated to dungeon hack-esque games. By and large, the characters are pretty much all useful, so if you want to play with certain characters on your team, you need not feel as though they will be inadequate (though characters with ranged attacks are, generally speaking, more useful than those without). Characters that aren’t in use will also level up identically as your in-use characters do, so if for some reason you decide in Chapter 3 that you’d really like to start using Ms. Marvel for the first time, you can feel confident that she’ll be useful. On the other hand, some of the boss battles feel inappropriately challenging as compared to others; fighting the Gray Gargoyle, for instance, is more challenging than the fight with Mandarin that follows it. Also, the AI tends to be… um, stupid a lot of the time, both in and against your favor, so many times you’ll feel like you’re single-handedly fighting an army of morons while your allies run off-screen to go fight… I don’t know, something else. Overall, though, MUA feels solidly balanced enough that you won’t be throwing down the controller and screaming “CHEAP!” at the screen, and you won’t feel as though you shouldn’t use your favorite characters because they suck.

Balance Rating: 6/10


7. ORIGINALITY

This being the third iteration of the “X-Men Legends” concept, which is itself a bite-off from Baldur’s Gate, which itself is a bite-off from Diablo, which… you get the point… there’s not too much originality to tout, especially in the face of the competing Justice League Heroes, which is a very similar experience. In fairness, this is the first time THIS game has been done with THIS concept, but dumping large amounts of Marvel characters into a game (though nowhere near as large an amount as are in MUA) has been done plenty of times before. Sorry, folks, but it’s another trip to the old well for MUA, and cramming Spider-Man into X-Men Legends doesn’t make the game new and fresh.

Originality Rating: 2/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

I said it before in PSU, and I’ll say it again here: playing this with friends is an awesome and highly addictive experience that will keep the game interesting long past standard expiration. Playing it by yourself is also pretty addictive, but not nearly as much as playing it with others. The single-player experience eventually degenerates into mashing the same buttons over and over again to plow through enemies, and while that’s fun for a while, it wears on you eventually, and the story isn’t enough to really carry you to the end. If you can get a couple of like-minded friends together, though, it can be a lot of fun to destroy the forces of evil as a group, much like similar games (Champions of Norrath 2, Dark Alliance 2, etc). You won’t care about the story or the character interaction so much as you’ll be enjoying triple-teaming the hell out of everything you see. Overall, MUA is addictive no matter how you choose to play it, but multi-player is where it really shines; if you have no one else to play with, you’ll find it gets boring doing the same thing for hours sooner or later.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Lesee. The X-Men Legends franchise has spawned two games that went Greatest Hits on their respective systems. MUA features a ton of recognizable characters from all across the Marvel Universe, and several of the characters have starred in their own feature-length blockbuster films (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Daredevil, Blade) or are going to soon (Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Captain America). And in this regard, the spotty continuity works in the favor of the game; with no real ties to the comics, the game tells a clean, concise story that won’t confuse casual fans (or people who just think Spider-Man’s kinda neat and liked his movie, for that matter). MUA is a very high-appeal title that will probably sell in the millions, and no matter who you are, you should find something to love in here.

Unless, y’know, you’re a DC fan, in which case I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you should like better characters.

Close the Outlook window. I’m kidding. Jeez.

Appeal Rating: 9/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


Does it bother anyone else that your pre-order gift, the Silver Surfer, can be unlocked in thirty seconds with a cheat code in the beginning of the game? It would certainly bother me… if, y’know, I had pre-ordered it. Pre-ordering PSU netted me a soundtrack, pre-order Halo 3 and you get Master Chief’s freakin’ HELMET, but the gift here is something everyone can use, pre-order or no? That’s crap, man.

Also, for some odd reason, and I’ve no idea why, after one point of saving and loading later, while my save game had restored, my Spider-Man lost all of his unlocked costumes, which was particularly vexing, as he was WEARING the Scarlet Spider costume. Wearing a costume you can’t upgrade is a bit of a pisser. I imagine I may have neglected to log in or some such, but I’ve no idea for certain, so you may want to watch out for that.

Otherwise, I’ve nothing else to say. The game scratches the dungeon hack and the superhero game itch nicely, so horray for that. It’s not the greatest game on Earth, and I really wish more had been done with it (psst, Raven… CREATE-A-CHARACTER kthx), but as it is it’s solid. About the only thing I really DON’T like is the character roster, but that’s going to be subjective no matter who’s playing it. If Raven could possibly see fit to make additional characters downloadable at a later date, that would make the game a lot more interesting, but as it is, I can build a team of Spider-Man, Deadpool, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider, which is quite cool. I do wish characters like the Hulk and the Punisher could’ve been in the game, but as they’re licensed out to other companies, I can understand why that didn’t happen. Even so, MUA is about as comprehensive as you can be in a Marvel game (save for the coming Marvel MMORPG), and if you’re a fan of Marvel comics, as I am, it’s hard to not enjoy what MUA does at its most basic level.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Scores:
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 9/10
Control/Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 8/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 2/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal: 9/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10

Overall Score: 6.8/10
Final Score: 7.0 (GOOD).

Short Attention Span Summary
Marvel Ultimate Alliance ends up being a rather solid product, and a worthy evolution of the Legends franchise. The gameplay is becoming a little stale, but is still quite good enough to carry the game, and while the AI is a little stupid and the game a little tedious, multiplayer fun both online and off as well as a ton of stuff to do and unlock make MUA more good than bad. Definitely worth your time to check out.