Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Developer: Raven Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Reviewed on XBox 360; also available for PC and most consoles
Superheroes have been around for a long, long time. Think Gilgamesh..or Jason...or Arjuna: the idea of a human with extraordinary powers and unique abilities is one of our most enduring (and endearing) literary and mythological constructs, because let's face it, compared to the forces of nature or the face of evil, our little, frail bodies can feel pretty insignificant.
The modern comic book hero--Superman--was, of course, born out of our American need to reign supreme over Nazi Germany, delivered in a mostly pictorial format that even the least educated could enjoy. The "man of steel," fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way" was a huge popular success, and the floodgate opened. Over the next several decades, superheroes of all sizes, types, and abilities, from Captain America to Spiderman, to The Thing, dominated the pre-videogame generation's imagination. Marvel Comics was at the head of the pack.
Um, excuse me, Professor? The review?
Right. Marvel Ultimate Alliance is a comic fanboy's dream come true, as you control a squad of A-list superheroes (Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, et al), as well as some understudies (Spiderwoman, Elektra)--dozens in all--in a fight against Dr. Doom. Except for The Hulk, most all of the biggies are here, and anyone who is even marginally into comics will have a great time mixing and matching a perfect superteam in both the traditional groupings (worth some extra points) and new ones.
Developed by Raven (creator of the X-Men Legends games), Marvel Ultimate Alliance is a 3D, top down, isometric action game in which the player picks a super-squad and pretty much jumps directly into battle against the Doctor Doom and the Forces of Evil. I have to admit that I haven't paid much attention to the story. I've skipped through most of the dialogue because 1) it didn't seem to impact the direction of the game or the mission assignments and 2) it lacks, shall we say, the ability to engage the player--or at least me. On my next play-through, I'll spend some time with the story. I promise.
Each superhero, of course, has a unique and generally well-known set of strengths, skills, and abilities to start with and as the game progresses, new skills and powers are unlocked. The player can change members of the team at save points, which occur at the end of a level or just before a major battle. In theory, this is a great idea--it's like picking the perfect weapon before a fight. In practice, though, once your team starts to level up you won't want to bring in the second string unless one of the team goes down and can't be revived. Some of the superheroes--like Spiderman--seem a little underpowered.
So far in my time spent with the game, there hasn't been a ton of variety in the battles--wave upon wave of weaker enemies followed at intervals by a puzzle or two, then more enemies, then a boss--but the action is fast-paced and since you can switch control between heroes at will there's always something new to try. Boss battles--not unlike God of War--force the player to find the flaw in the otherwise unstoppable figure; but this is often very obvious. The combat never gets boring, but the rhythm of it stays pretty much the same throughout. Missions are clear and the path towards goals are visible on the mini-map; additionally, objects that are critical often glow or have big arrows marking their importance. There are puzzles of a sort ("move the busted generator out of the way, slide in a new one") but these are simple. Occasionally, the player may need the ability of a specific hero to solve a puzzle or exploit a particular enemy's weakness, but this is rare.
OK...but wait. Let's talk about the story again.
One of the most common criticisms of videogames is that they lack maturity when it comes to the story--not of content, but of technique. It's hard to argue against this a lot of times. FPS and action games often have the most rudimentary set up of a story and then the shootin' starts. It seems to me that a game that focuses on many, many superheroes and their unique strengths (and weaknesses?) should first and foremost weave a tale that engages the player...well, I think this should be the goal of nearly all games. The fact that the player can safely skip the dialogue throughout the game and be none the poorer for it speaks volumes about the importance of the story.
Graphics, art direction, and sound
Anyone who sets out to create a superhero game has to balance the need to please the comic superfans, who want accuracy in costumes, weapons, and effects, and the rest of us, who aren't nearly as obsessed with detail. Marvel Ultimate Alliance pays a lot of attention to getting the look of the dozens of Marvel characters just right, and overall the game has a nicely detailed, unified look with a great deal of variety in the environments. Many of the superheroes can be outfitted with unlockable alternative liveries; they're not purely cosmetic tweaks (some of them include minor stat bonuses) and they're very cool.
There are a lot of destructible elements in the game, and the lighting is very pretty. Explosions and effects are well done, and the camera control almost never puts the player at a disadvantage in controlling the battle. I really wanted to zoom in a lot closer on the action, however, and feel like my character was in the thick of things. Sometimes, the camera distance made it hard to see just who was doing what to whom, and took away from what could have been a more visceral experience.
Ambient sounds and weapon effects are well done and not too repetitive, and the voice acting throughout was passable. In this type of game and setting, the ham-fisted overacting style that can ruin games is appropriate and really can't be too over the top. Each hero--and many of the villains--has an amusing catchphrase. The downside? Hearing that once amusing catchphrase ad naseum.
Musically, Marvel Ultimate Alliance has moments of symphonic grandeur and drama (for instance, in the CG cutscenes) but most often plays a pretty subtle backing role, although each level and area has a unique theme and feel.
Multiplayer modes can be a lot of fun, as you can play through levels (based on the host player's save game) with a group (each controlling a member of the team) cooperatively, or you can form a team and square off against other human-controlled players; AI heroes will fill in the empty slots. I sampled a little of both modes and I look forward to spending a bit more time with them.
I'm not a huge--or even casual--comic book fan, but I've had a lot of fun with Marvel Ultimate Alliance. It's a bright shiny toy of a game and so many of the heroes are familiar to even the least comic book savvy, that one can't help but enjoy mixing and matching teams and playing with special powers and cool abilities. The boss battles and the level design are derivative of titles we've seen before, and the camera never really pulls us into the action, but my hours spent with the game so far have been button mashing heaven.
Music and Sound...8