Review: A 20-hour action-RPG quest with 20 playable comic book characters
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance enhances and expands the X-Men Legends formula just in time for the PS3 launch, making it the system's first role-playing game to greet fans of the genre that the PlayStation name has dominated for so long. Since it's an action RPG and not a traditional turn-based title, some fans may not count it as the system's first. Technicalities aside, Ultimate Alliance is a reminiscent superhero thrill ride compared to Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom, Sony's own lackluster hack & slash launch RPG.
Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, Human Torch and Thor are some of the 20 playable comic book characters brought together for the game's storyline. The plot puts the superhero alliance led by S.H.E.I.L.D. Colonel Nick Fury against Dr. Doom's own band of insidious villains. The extensive character roster of superheroes and supervillains is the most appealing aspect of Ultimate Alliance, just like X-Men Legends of X-Men Legends II: Rise of the Apocalypse before it. In total, 140 familiar faces and even rarely seen characters turn up in this action-packed quest when you count all of the non-playable character appearances. By far, it's the most impressive Marvel character lineup to grace video game consoles to date.
Playing as this variety of superheroes in Diablo-style gameplay is satisfying, but the overhead perspective of such a game doesn't necessarily showcase the stunning multi-angle graphics that have become the norm of the next-generation. Upon closer inspection, however, this first-generation title boasts a lot of animation and detail to do the PlayStation 3 some justice. Environments, large and full of breakable objects, often take on vivid comic book colors, most notably in carnival-themed Murderworld. The Atlantis level also demonstrates variety in having the four characters that make up a player's customizable team swim through the environment. How Human Torch is able to stay lit and performs moves like fire fist here is one of the comic books.
As soon as players configure their four-hero team, most will stick to that assembly in an effort to build each character's stats and move list. Switching between characters is a worthwhile opportunity for anyone with a little courage since it gives players a chance to see the wide spectrum of uniquely animated moves from each superhero. For example, if you simply stay with Wolverine, Iron Man, Spidey and Human Torch, you'll never see Captain America's dazzling shield throw. The special moves of each character, executed by hitting the R2 and one of the four face buttons, brings a lot of frantic action to the screen. And, when multiplied by four, with three allies controlled by the computer or friends, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance becomes a frenzied affair.
Even when Thor's hammer is flying, Captain America's Shield is being tossed, Spider-Man's webs are being spun and Human Torch's fire fist is blazing across the screen, the frame rate keeps up with all of the commotion. The game is able to handle wave after wave of enemies being knocked down by constant button mashing as more and more bad guys show up for the same treatment. While the frame rate doesn't skip a beat, the controls on PlayStation 3 have a few hiccups in attempting to incorporate the SixAxis motion control. Sometimes it works well; pressing the square button in front of a shielded enemy enables characters to latch on to the shield and strip it by shaking the controller up and down. There's little precision required and the motion is rather intuitive for anyone that really gets into their games. Other times, however, it's more problematic; flicking the controller in a random sequence of up, down, left and right to diffuse a bomb or dance around a boss doesn't always work. After a few frustrating deaths, players will want to opt out of these unreliable tilting controls in the options menu in favor of last generation's random face button sequences. Motion control is just not ready for prime time game players in this case.
Since the tilt option can be turned off, the controls aren't an enjoyment threat. But no matter how this option is set up, the computer-controlled allies don't do any of the tilt-related or face button sequence work. That means they lack the intelligence to strip shields, diffuse bombs or help defeat bosses. While players probably want to handle the bombs and bosses themselves, it'd be nice to have some help stripping and serving multiple shielded enemies. That's not how it goes, though. As you work hard to strip and serve three of these shielded troops, all three of your teammates work on one enemy because they neglect to strip the shield first. Needless to say, solo players end up doing a majority of the fighting in this game.
Going it alone isn't a requirement. Co-operative and competitive gameplay supports up to four players both locally and online. The difference between the co-operative gameplay and the competitive arcade action is that you're competing for kills in the latter method. In addition to taking on a godly Dr. Doom and his co-conspirators, side-mission simulator discs can be discovered and accessed throughout the game. These are fast-paced recreations of old comic book adventures that branch off from the main plot, but still significantly add to your experience points and money total. The problem here is that the ability to upgrade your character too quickly by going through these side-quests makes the main game too easy after a while. Eventually, it's possible to fire fist the most rabid enemies as Human Torch once all of his easily upgradeable skills are to the max.
Powering up too quickly and being nearly invincible can make the action a little lame. However, nothing's lamer than some of the lines from characters such as Spider-Man and Wolverine. Their campy voice acting is only trumped by the extremely dull lines of other expressionless superheroes, but it's really hard to tell whether campy or dull voice actors are worse. Likewise, the plot twists in this game are just as clich?d with ?unexpected? surprises. At least there are exciting cut-scenes to go along with these predictable storyline developments, such as when Loki storms Odin's castle.