Review: So, what's Dr. Strange up to these days?
Gaming has been a great outlet for Marvel's finest heroes, letting the likes of Spider-Man and Wolverine star in a number of games. But while previous Marvel-based games centralized around one unique brand--X-Men or Fantastic Four, for instance--Marvel: Ultimate Alliance places characters from nearly every Marvel brand imaginable onto one complete canvas.
Ultimate Alliance isn't the first Marvel game to make its way to the 360, as the console already produced a sub-par movie adaptation with X-Men: The Official Game. Fortunately, the comparisons between these two titles are slim, since Ultimate Alliance was engineered by Raven Software, a completely different developer. The boys at Raven have taken strides with their excellent X-Men: Legends game, and with Ultimate Alliance, they manage to expand on a proven formula.
The story's kicked off with an enthralling sequence of Spidey and company stylishly ripping and slashing through enemies, effectively setting the tone for the action ahead. After the pre-rendered sequence, you are thrown into battle with the default team: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America. With your interchangeable tandem, your goal is to take down Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil. Before you reach Doom though, you'll traverse an insane amount of space, and encounter many notable villains.
The game spans five chapters, with each one containing a number of main and subsidiary missions, as well as plenty of surprises to unlock. Not every mission is mandatory, but the side missions can still influence the direction of the story. The entire campaign can run you roughly 30 hours, giving you ample time to augment your gang, both as individuals and as a team, and encounter some of the 140 licensed Marvel characters. Most are introduced as mini-bosses and bosses, while others can be unlocked to join your squad of selectable heroes. You can review all unlocked achievements from the main menu. This includes movie scenes, comic book covers, character artwork, and character-specific missions.
As for the main missions, you'll have to complete various objectives, and each semi-linear area covers a broad scope. The puzzles, while not too complicated, sometimes force players to backtrack, making the on-screen navigation map a reliable tool. Also displayed are the health and energy of each hero, in the form of red and blue meters, respectively. To replenish these meters, you'll need red and blue orbs, which are found by defeating enemies and destroying background objects (such as canisters, barrels, and boxes). The enemies come in uncountable numbers, and the environments are stockpiled with destructible objects, so needing a quick health or energy boost is never too much of a concern.
In fact, a boss fight is probably the only time you may encounter a shortage of health pickups. But even in these instances, red and blue orbs manage to appear more frequent than not. If one of your team member's health hits rock bottom, he is temporarily put into ?resting? mode. You'll then have to continue on with your smaller unit until you reach an access point, in which case you can either switch him out for another selectable hero or revive him. The whole process is fun because as you roam around with three allies, fighting off groups of soldiers is a breeze, but losing one character creates a domino effect on your team: when you lose a player, it becomes easier for the computer to take out additional allies.
Your characters will steadily gain experience as you progress, learning new superpowers and becoming stronger across a number of statistics. Upgrading your entourage is done by defeating enemies and collecting shield access coins. These coins are found in the same destructible pieces that yield orbs. Augmenting your heroes' abilities is crucial too because, while the enemy-AI is somewhat pathetic in the early stages of play, it can present some real challenges later on. The stronger enemies have a real knack for dodging and blocking attacks. Thankfully your computer-controlled allies aren't any slouches either. They normally get your back, but if you aren't satisfied with how they perform, you can issue commands such as attack and defend. As aggressive as the AI may be, it has trouble detecting barriers such as walls. As a result, you'll see opposing factions aimlessly attack walls that separate the two groups.
The enemies come in seemingly endless numbers. Their variances in size, strength, and fighting style prevent the action from becoming too redundant. Moreover, each main mission sends you on a sojourn to one of the many diverse locales. The motifs really run the gamut. At one point, you're atop a massive spacecraft in the middle of nowhere, while moments later you're submerged underwater, hovering across the ocean floor.
Between missions, you're taken to headquarters. In these temporary hub levels, you can either quickly jump into the next mission, or roam around and talk to your allies. Although most conversations act as pointless trivial information, you can pick up additional side tasks by talking to the right people. When initiating a conversation, the game allows you to choose from a set of questions, and asking one question can bring about a subset of additional questions. Unfortunately, the dialogue sequences with newly-encountered bosses don't provide that same flexibility.
Common to each hub area is a S.H.I.E.L.D. Access Point. These circular landmarks are also scattered throughout missions. They let you save your progression, warp to other access points, and manage your team of characters. While you can interchange your characters at any point during the story, there are a few factors that will discourage you from doing such. Since your characters' superpowers, stats, and outfit attributes all have room for improvement, you'll want to stick with the same group to upgrade their strengths. This becomes more important in the latter parts of the game, when taking on drones of soldiers is hardly easy. Not only that, you can give your fabulous four an identity, complete with a custom logo, name, and reputation. Your team reputation stats increase as you play, but changing team members negatively affects your chemistry and, as a result, decreases those stats. So as nice as it is to be able to switch group members at any time, there's a couple reasons why you'd be better suited sticking with your initial tandem.
On top of the wide contrast of enemies and environments, the fighting system also helps keep things fresh. Far deeper than your basic punching and kicking, each playable superhero was created with their specific styles and traits in mind, so using Spider-Man feels much different than, say, Wolverine. They even move differently. Wolverine and the like are limited to jumps and double jumps, while heroes such as Iron Man and Storm can take flight. Regardless of which hero you control, you can block oncoming attacks, initiate airborne moves, and even make use of your surroundings by picking up and wielding all sorts of interactive pieces. These objects can be used as projectiles, or you can simply bludgeon your enemies to death. If your immediate surroundings are bare, you can always snatch the opposition's weaponry too.
Not only do the heroes have a whole set of kicks, punches, and combinations of the two, they also have a subset of superpowers. Only a few superpowers are available from the jump, but over time the heroes will regularly learn new moves and enhance the ones they already know. Effectively potent, the powers are fun to use and great to watch. Using them frequently is good strategy in the sense that the quicker you dispose enemies, the quicker you can garner blue orbs to replenish your energy. This gives players all sorts of offensive potency, which is significant considering the game's length and progressive difficulty.
The mutant-like powers are flashy, stylish, and colorful. With so many heroes fighting on screen at once, the game processes all these particle effects with virtually no interruptions in the frame-rate. Granted, the in-game graphics engine is far from some of the top visual performers on the console, but even so, the game still manages to process all sorts of lighting effects and vibrant colors simultaneously. Additionally, there's no lag to bog down the controls, which remain tight and responsive during even the most frantic situations. You'll appreciate this fluidity even more so when playing with a group of human-controlled allies, which can opt in and out of play at any time during the story, so you won't have to start to over every time a few friends want to join in on the action.
The artistic approach to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is well suited for a game geared around comic books. The cell-shaded characters exhibit good detail and fit perfectly with the comic book style. The backgrounds feature crisp textures, especially on a 1080i setup, and all look as though they were taken straight from the backdrops of your favorite Marvel comics. There were a few instances where we experienced some edge-detection issues, but nothing serious enough to hinder play.
Ultimate Alliance doesn't bear many shortcomings, but one evident problem is its ability, or lack thereof, to really immerse the player in the story. Needless to say, the game is rather long, and the story tends to bog down an otherwise fun experience. Much of this can be attributed to the simplistic movie scenes and the lack of acted-out dialogue. The opening movie is immaculately detailed and sets high visual expectations for the rest of the game. Yet, it's one of the few pre-rendered scenes found in the game, as most movies thereafter utilize the in-game graphics engine--visuals that aren't nearly as sharp or groundbreaking. Even worse is the fact that most boss confrontations are introduced with dull scripting and no lip-synching whatsoever. This not only detracts from the story-telling aspect of the game, it also leaves more to be desired, visually speaking.
That's not to say the voice acting is bad though, because it's actually quite good. It's just a shame the visuals don't do much to complement it. Be that as it may, the game still provides a well-rounded soundtrack that intensifies during confrontations, and as the environments switch from one theme to the next, the accompanying background music adjusts well to reflect the given location. You'll be forced to listen to carnival music as you travel across Arcade's Murder World, for example, and the melodies take a sharp turn as you battle Shaolin warriors inside a Chinese fortress. Amidst the music, you'll hear occasional catch phrases, especially Wolverine's use of the moniker ?bub.?
With online support, you can experience the comprehensive story alongside fellow Xbox Live subscribers. Supporting up to four players, you can begin a campaign in either cooperative or arcade mode. Unfortunately, the online mode doesn't offer much to differentiate itself from the regular offline campaign. Add that to the fact that the frame-rate and controls aren't as fluid, and you've got a feature that's easily forgotten.