Activision’s X-Men Legends was proof that multiplayer comic book games could be a touch more sophisticated than the button-mashing beat-‘em-ups of yore. Players were no longer a group of superheroes coincidently working together, but a powerful fighting team that fought better together than alone. With Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the formula for success is unchanged, running on an improved Legends engine to produce a fun-filled four-person brawler.
The story of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is that Dr. Doom has cooked up a masterful evil plan to conquer the world (again). His plan is to infiltrate the Nordic heavens of Asgard along with his band of minions, kidnap the god Odin, and steal his powers. To counter this eminent threat facing mankind and the entire universe, the counter-terrorism unit S.H.I.E.L.D. has recruited the Avengers (your team). Through the course of the game, players will meet up with such classic supervillians as Shocker, Scorpion, M.O.D.O.K, and even the mighty Galactus, while joining forces with heroes like Dr. Strange, The Silver Surfer, and Uatu the Watcher. The dialogue is often cheesy, over-the-top, and mostly uninteresting, but it’s versatile in that different information is revealed at encounters depending on which heroes are in your party. For example, if you have Thor in your party when fighting Radioactive Man, the supervillian will taunt Thor by alluding to their history together.
Gameplay hasn’t changed much from X-Men Legends. Players still have the standard attack and bash moves, as well as their unique special Powers. When two players perform a Power simultaneously, combo damage is dealt, although the animation still shows the heroes using their separate attacks and only two players can perform a combo at once. With at least 16 characters, each having seven powers, the amount of combinations possible is enormous.
Up to seventeen additional characters can be acquired depending on what platform you’re playing on, and in the Xbox 360’s case, whether you’re willing to shell out some extra cash on the Xbox Live Marketplace. A welcome addition to the Legends engine is health and energy orbs obtained through knocked-out enemies will automatically float to the hero that needs it most. Also, heroes that traditionally have the ability to fly will be able to levitate through the levels without an energy cost. While this doesn’t give any real advantage in combat, it enables one to move through levels quicker and just plain makes heroes look cooler.
Despite all the combinations, combat itself isn’t very notable. Team strategy only goes as far as ensuring the team has a ‘tank’ or two to absorb damage, while another hero, like Spider-Man or Iceman, traps or freezes enemies in place, allowing the rest of the team to pound on them. Otherwise, teamwork mostly consists of keeping teammates moving together so a stray member doesn’t get teleported off the level to their sudden death. Regardless, competing with friends is still plenty of fun, attempting to get the last hit on an enemy, and debating whom should get which item. While the game follows the same fight, collect money; level up, buy outfit upgrades formula for its entirety, the humdrum is broken up by Xtreme powers. After players unlock it at around level 10, they can opt to purchase their Xtreme power in a one-time point investment. While they’re bashing foes over the head with melee attacks, a hero’s momentum meter will start to fill. Once full, a tap of the button activates their most powerful attack. When one team member activates their Xtreme Power, all other team members whose momentum meters are full will also launch their Xtreme Powers, leading to a possible four-person deathtrap that can leave a boss with half their health.
The gameplay visuals are far from remarkable. While passable on last-generation consoles, the graphics are sorely lacking on a console as powerful as the Xbox 360. The textures are bland; character models are expressionless; outdoor environments are static; and there is a lack of diversity in both appearance and capability of the enemies encountered in each area. Another complaint with the visuals, albeit a small one, is that during heated fights where large radial attacks are being used it’s too easy to lose your character amidst the sea of colors. Perhaps an arrow over character’s heads during fights would’ve remedied this. The best graphics in the game are the animations for Powers, especially the particle effects. Environments have many destructible components, and you’ll often find yourself destroying stuff even though there are no coins nestled inside. Many cut scenes are pre-rendered, and while they may not accurately depict your current party, some of them are gorgeous and even near-movie quality. Look for the scene where Nightcrawler unleashes hell on a handful of Doom bots.
The music appropriately sets the tone of the game, with rich percussion and brass creating an epic setting for battles between the most powerful forces in the universe. Each level has its own musical theme, with harsh industrial music in Omega Base and watery ethereal music for the underwater fantasy city of Atlantis. The general music for each level nicely transitions into the battles, usually with the addition of heavy guitar riffs. Music plays a large part in the excitement of the fights, as the occasional musical cutout we experienced left battles with a dull, uninteresting taste in our mouths. Each power has its own distinct sound, and you’ll soon be able to pick out which attack your allies are using by sound alone. If your heroes are low on health they’ll cry for help, and alternatively brag when they vanquish a foe or level up.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is certainly worth picking up. With an adequate campaign and more playable comic book characters than you can shake a stick at, plus bonus side missions for all of them, you’re definitely getting more than what you paid for. Along with well-executed team play and a campy-yet-passable story, you’ll really feel like you and your friends have control of all your favorite heroes.