Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action RPG
Release: 09/15/2009

There is no truer fact in comic books than returning to life. Heroes, villains, and lost loves, you can pretty much guarantee that the graveyards have a revolving door. In a similar fashion, anything that the video game industry profits from is sure to return in a sequel. To that end, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 has ripped its way free of the mylar sheath that kept it in mint condition, and retconned itself into my Xbox. Before we dip it in adamantium to see if it really is indestructible, let’s make sure we aren’t dealing with something better left to the Great Lakes Avengers. Shall we?

1. Story
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 kicks off with a retelling of the events of the modern Secret War storyline. In brief, Nick Fury realizes that all those techno criminals that inhabit New York City can’t possibly be making enough money off of the occasional bank robbery to maintain a personal suit of armor that shoots fire. When the money is traced to Latveria, former home of Dr. Doom, Fury recruits a group of heroes for an off-the-record assassination of the Latverian leader. A year later, that blows up (literally) in New York’s face, and Fury is forced into retirement/exile. Meanwhile, tensions regarding the super powered populace mount, culminating in the Civil War storyline. Again, in brief, a group of idiot super-heroes who have sold themselves out as a reality TV show attack a group of villains in a densely populated neighborhood. The resulting battle levels a school along with the neighborhood, killing over six-hundred innocent people. In short order, super heroes are required to register their identities and powers with Federal authorities. After several missions with a full cast, you are forced to decide who’s side you are on. Align yourself with Tony Stark/Iron Man and the pro-registration, reformed S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Hazard Intervention and Espionage Division-I’ve always wanted to write that!) or throw in your lot with Steve Rogers/Captain America and go underground, fighting against an unjust law.
Marvel one
That twist occurs in the first quarter of the game, and you are even prompted you to save before you continue. This is because Vicarious Visions did their homework and restricts your team options to either pro-registration or anti-registration for much of the rest of the game. There are a few characters that go both ways. From there, your missions will either involve striking back at the government lackeys that used to be your friends; or hunting down the law-breaking scum that also used to be your friends. The game follows the story in the comics rather faithfully, although it does omit a few key scenes such as the death of Bill Foster/Goliath. The writing/voice acting is very solid from start to finish, and it is a solid adaptation of two of my favorite Marvel Comics stories of the recent past. Just like all the other games in this series-dating back to X-Men: Legends-you can pop in and out of local games. Xbox Live is another option if you want to partner up with friends separated by geography. Also, the trivia games and simulators are back so you can earn points without laying waste to anyone around you.

Story/Modes Rating: Great

2. Graphics
Every comic book reader knows the trepidation that comes from seeing “Introducing a new creative team!” on their favorite titles. There is often no reason to worry, but if you have gotten used to Neal Adams, the switch to Jim Lee can be a bit jarring. Well, guess what-there is a new creative team on board. Raven Software has been replaced by Vicarious Visions, and the results are very obvious. Vicarious abandoned the Ultimates-inspired, very realistic take that was on hand in the last outing. The new graphics engine looks more like it was designed to be a computer-rendered cartoon. Characters have a lot less of the sheen that they did in the first game, and in places less detail. This is especially true in the cutscenes. MUA 2 has cutscenes that appear to be just shined-up game engine footage, while the pre-rendered cutscenes from MUA were filled with detail. MUA 2 has that sometimes, but more often than not you are surprised just to be seeing something polished, instead of being constantly surprised by the level of polish.

The gameplay graphics are cleaner than in the first game, but they just don’t look as sharp. I think it is because of the design choice in going to a more CGI inspired look for the characters. I know that sounds weird, but if you put them side by side, the first game tops it. Lighting and shadows are noticeably better here in the sequel, but the backgrounds look very repetitive and blocky, especially in cities.. This is painfully obvious when you enter the exact same Avengers Tower hub from the first game. The character models in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 are much better than the first outing, and sometimes very nicely detailed. Luke Cage is finally the right size. He was bigger than a bulldozer in the first game, when his comic attributes are more similar to a NFL linebacker. The camera just does not work as well as they did in the first game either. Camera is always a problem in stuff like this, but it locks into position so often that you ignore trying to correct it. This means that your characters are often indistinguishable from the masses of villainous henchmen. You can usually fix this by throwing down a few super attacks, but I don’t want to have to clear room just to see what direction the Thing is facing.

Marvel 6
This isn’t to say that the graphics are bad, just that they aren’t as good in places as they should be. You can argue that there is less transition from game to cutscene, which therefore presents a much more coherent picture, but I don’t buy that. Does Iron Man look just as good flying and shooting as he does standing and talking? Sure, but that removes some of the splendor and gravity of the cutscene. I’m pretty sure I know why this decision was made, and I can understand it. First off, you tend to fight against a much larger amount of foes at any given time than you did in the first game. MUA 2 handles this without a slowdown in sight, unless it happens to auto-save right as you have a ton of bad guys getting tossed around. With the increase in moving bodies comes a decrease in graphics. Also contributing, at least I’m willing to bet, is the fact that you have two very large and detailed story modes crammed in here. It would probably be impossible to fit fully rendered graphics for both story-sides of the war. Once again, the civilians suffer while the armies fight.

Speaking of the two sides and the graphics, individual mission briefings are no longer told with the standard intro scene. Instead you see a graphical representation consisting mostly of silhouettes wearing costumes and wire-frame, cutaway schematics of where you will be fighting. These might be stripped down, but they are nearly modern-art in their execution. I don’t know how it would look still, but a poster of that stuff would be awesome.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound
When I reviewed Wolverine, I was really put off by the sound editing. Voices were very quiet, while explosions and other sound effects would deafen you. I’m more than a little upset to see that tradition continue here. Maybe this is Activision’s fault? For reference, I usually play video games at a comfortable volume level between 10 and 15 on my television. With Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, I was playing the gameplay levels at 8 and the dialogue/story sections at 25. That’s not a consistent level and makes it a pain in the ass to find a happy volume.

What you can hear is mostly good though. Characters aren’t voiced by their Hollywood counterparts, but you do get a competent voice acting crew. There are some groaners, and more than enough of the standard, “This is the most important thing we ever do…except for this!” going on. The voices on Thor and Hercules are the low point, but Deadpool is the high point. In the comics, they’ve tossed out some rationale along the lines of, “He’s crazy and thinks he is in a comic book.” Now, he’s crazy and thinks he is in a video game. You’ll want to keep him in your party just for the fourth-wall shattering one-liners. When he first shows up, you have to fight him, and he yells, “It’s boss battle time!” Later, when he kills people, he’ll shout that the corpse should have asked the designers for a better health bar. The music is almost nonexistent over the constant sounds of battle, but it pops up occasionally and is absolutely nothing special.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

4. Control/Gameplay
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 continues the proud tradition of Gauntlet, putting you in the driver’s seat for four heroes at a time. You swap between them with the D-pad, move them with the left stick, etc. etc. You should all know, pretty much intuitively, how this works by now, it’s old school. What is new are the fusions. This is the newest gameplay mechanic. Instead of each character having an ultimate move, you now work to build up a Fusion Star and then unleash it by hitting the left trigger and choosing who you want to fuse with. There are different types based on what other characters are in the game. Clearing lets you build up a large diameter of damage for everything in it. Targeted lets you put a target on an area of the ground and attack it directly. Guided lets you move your characters directly to where they can do the most damage. Pulling off your fusion of choice is as easy as hitting the left trigger and choosing which type you want to use based on the context-sensitive icons above the other heroes. A lot of press went into the fact that every character can interact with every other character to create a unique Fusion attack. While they all can team up, the actual attacks tend to repeat. There’s only so much room for combination, of course. For instance, most of your melee characters will, upon teaming up, let you run around the board together smiting people. The super-strength characters, like the Thing or the Hulk, will jump up and down pounding the ground together. They do look cool for the most part though, and seeing Wolverine reflect a blast from Iron Man through his claws all over the screen is really cool.

Aside from the fusions, the gameplay is identical to the first game. Combine fast attacks with strong attacks to make combos, pick up and throw enemies and objects (up to semi trucks for your super-strong heroes), and fight from one end of the map to the other. There are a few inspired boss fights, such as a throwdown with Giant Man about halfway through an early Anti-Registration mission. There are a few cosmetic changes. On the plus side, most of the quicktime event fights are gone. On the down side, if you grab an enemy and pound them, there is no longer a unique strong attack to finish them. For instance, in the first game, Thor would toss an enemy skyward before leaping up and crushing them with a hammer. Now he just pounds on them until they fall. Also missing is the team up attacks from the first game. Let’s say that Captain America and Thor hit a special attack at the same time within close proximity to each other. The screen would pop up with something like “Hammering Shield!” and convey a plus to damage or crit chance or something. That’s gone this time entirely, in favor of the Fusions. Aside from the Fusion attacks, and the occasional big brawl where they become necessary, there really isn’t anything new to the game. In fact, it is less than the first game.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Above Average

5. Replayability
Marvel 5The hallmark of this series has been the customization of your force. That carries over here. There are different teams that you can build, such as the Fantastic Four. Doing this gives you a bonus to certain stats. Playing a team of all Avengers or all X-Men does the same thing. So do certain fun teams, like Spider Man, Deadpool, Iceman, and the Human Torch. These characters are some of Marvel’s notorious pranksters, and the team name is called, “Shut Up Already!” Mixing and matching for effect is fun, and the roster of over 24 characters once everyone is unlocked gives you a good mix. Marvel fans are sure to put four favorites together and be happy. Taking the game online is also fun, and you can set the game to either pick up on one of your solo save slots, or just play from the start for collectibles. You also have both sides, Pro-Registration and Anti-Registration to play through, and multiple difficulty levels to pick from. Each mission is also full of unlockables, from concept art to audio clips to eventually characters. The trivia game is also here, and it now has a multi-player bonus aspect. You can also pick up simulator mission discs around the levels that let you play mini-versions of the normal missions.

Those are the good points, on to the bad. Remember the role of U S Agent, Vengeance, Beta Ray Bill, and Spider Girl from the first game? No? Well, they weren’t actually in the game, just alternate costumes for Captain America, Ghost Rider, Thor, and Spider Woman. In Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, the characters are stripped down to just one costume change. The attributes are identical also, so you can’t buff up your healing by switching from Classic Wolverine to Weapon X Wolverine. Also gone are the pieces of equipment you would find randomly and could attach to your characters. that is somewhat lessened by the inclusion of Boosts, of which you can equip up to three. These are global buffs for your team, so that if you equip an electrical-melee buff, everyone has electrical damage added to melee attacks. Perhaps the most insulting-by-way-of-convenience issue though is that the game is set to automatically spend upgrade points as you play. You can turn it off, but you have to turn it off on a per-character basis. This means that there is no way to decide what power you want to increase. Maybe you prefer Iron Man as a ranged DPS unit. That doesn’t really matter unless you plan for it, because the game will put a bunch of points into a radial attack and a lunge attack. Yes, you can turn that off, but it is just one more example of the interface being dumbed down in service to accessibility.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance
Health and power management has always been a sticky point in this type of game. X-Men Legends had a potion system that allowed you to level up the amount of potions you could carry. Sequels eventually turned to the now-common orbs that fall out of any destructible element or enemy like so much candy from a pinata. This is mostly fine, except when you end up in a boss fight and there’s nothing else to pop if you get low on health. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 settles that issue fairly well by having a Health-Star system. You can carry two of them at a time, and they can be used to either revive a fallen comrade or bring a wounded friend back to full health. This keeps most fights from being a rotation of near-death heroes. You are also allowed to swap characters at any time, not just at save points. This is a big help in those situations where you were playing as a few damage-centric characters and need a tank or support character. Most of the early game is a cakewalk, but the difficulty will gradually ramp up. There are a few boss fights later on that I lost half my party in less than a minute. Reed Richards is not to be trifled with.

Marvel 4
The power of the fusions tends to trump most fights. You are only allowed two at a time-unless you get special boosts for more-which keeps you from walking all over people. Most bosses, when hit with a perfect fusion, lose about a quarter of their health. However, the stream of Hydra footmen, robots, and eventually government lackeys don’t present too much of a challenge. Mostly they are there to make you look good. Some characters will look better than others. Anyone with a healing ability, like Ms. Marvel or Wolverine, get an automatic boost in their playability. And the unlockable characters, whether in game or as part of a pre-order deal, tend to put out some major damage.

Balance Rating: Enjoyable

7. Originality
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 starts out behind the 8 ball when it comes to originality. First, you have a sequel. Then, you have the fact that it is based on a comic book, and is required to follow that storyline pretty heavily. It is nice to see the Civil War plotline played out as much as it does, as I feel it is one of Marvel’s best storylines in recent history. The late-game twist that brings everyone back together isn’t really original either. With all of my friends that played the game with me, the phrase that kept popping up was, “It’s the first game!” That’s really not a good thing. Now, sequels might have that issue in spots, but for the entire game? Not good. Gears of War 2 didn’t have an excessive amount of differences from Gears of War, but I never felt like I was playing the first game all over again. Same with Halo 3 when compared to Halo 2. I’m trying to think of other sequels that I’ve played that didn’t differentiate themselves at all from their earlier installments, and I can’t come up with much. Even long-running series like Final Fantasy have something that changes up the gameplay significantly. The new element here is the fusion attacks, but they take away from individual ultimate moves. Coupling that with the fact that the fusion moves themselves repeat over and over again and you have essentially nothing new here.

Originality Rating: Poor

8. Addictiveness
Marvel 3
A funny thing happened on the way to the Civil War -I got tired of playing. Once you have the formula down pat, there’s really nothing that keeps your interest aside from the story. Fortunately, you are given back the characters that were locked away because of their registration choices about two-thirds through, and that adds a bit of spice to the proceedings. In order to unlock new costumes you have to beat a certain number of enemies with that specific character. That pretty much forces you to swap characters at random and play people you might otherwise not care about. Granted, if you don’t care about them, why are you unlocking the costume, but that’s a different discussion. If you’re played the first game, then you know what you’re getting, and you start looking for shortcuts just to see what you are missing. The interwebs are full of cheats that unlock things that you would otherwise have to play for. Typically I never condone using those when I can get something for playing for it, but in this case I was searching them out in short order. If you are a huge Marvel fan-and I am-you’ll want to keep playing just to see the story elements, but it quickly becomes a routine of, “Just get me to the cutscene already.”

Addictiveness Rating: Poor

9. Appeal Factor
I have been getting more and more excited for this game as it came closer to coming out. There are a ton of reasons to want this one, especially if you like brawlers, comic books, and action-rpg games. The question is, especially if you’ve been paying attention so far, why should you get this game instead of the first game? That is a very tough question to answer. Is it worth plunking down $60.00 for a new game when you can probably pay a third of that for the first one? I’ve got to lean towards no. Now, if you don’t have the first game and love the Civil War story, this is your game. If not, then there are other titles out there that can scratch the same itch you would want this title to. If there had been just a few more extras or a few more bits of polish, I’d be able to recommend this without question. It might be the best multi-player superhero game on the consoles so far this year, but its facing stiff competition from the holiday market and a certain single player super hero game.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous
Marvel 2I don’t know what the status on new character downloads might be with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but I’m hoping for some. I know the first game had a bit of a “dirty cash grab” associated with it for releasing both a hero pack and a villain pack, but I’d be fine with that. In fact, it would make the game a lot more fun to play. Let’s see a Pro-Registration and Anti-Registration character pack. Frankly, the characters really are what makes this game worth playing. There are a lot of heroes and villains that show up in cutscenes with their models ready to go. Let me at Cable and Bishop, Wonder Man and Firestar. Speaking of Firestar, she is given one of the best lines in the game. When asked how she feels about working with some of her old partners, she responds “What, you mean Spider Man and Ice Man? It’s great to have such amazing friends.” There is really a lot of love given over to things like that in the game. The characters all have a great amount of, well, character. While there are some issues with some of the basic elements of the game, the attention put to the characters really makes it worthwhile. Stan Lee even makes an excellent voice cameo. Excelsior!

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Good
Sound: Enjoyable
Control/Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Great
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Great

Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is more of a relaunch than a sequel. When Activision passed the reins to a new developer they took a big risk that rarely pays off. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is a solid game, but it lacks any major updates over the original to make it a must-play title. There are several extras and gameplay elements that are either left out or cut down from the first game that hurt this title. Graphics and sound are adequate, and it is a lot of fun to see some of the fusion attacks lay waste to a flock of enemies. You do get a very respectable amount of replay value, both from collectibles in the levels and the two-sided story mode, If you are a serious comic book fan than this game is likely to make you happy with many of the comic book references and story tidbits, but in the end it reminds you too much of the Clone Saga-not as good as the original, no matter how much they tried.



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