Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
When X-Men Legends was first released, all Marvel fans rejoiced and became delirious with pale-spotty-geek-glee. X-Men Legends II followed rapidly after the original due to its success and popularity. However (there is always a however and you will realise why when you read the rest of this sentence), Marvel fans are never satisfied. They demand perfection. The Legends series was only accepted by the masses, not the purists.
Why? Various reasons have been voiced such as the cartoonish character models, the lack of specific characters or a too complicated - or too simple - attributes system. Despite the faults, everyone expected a third instalment. However, (there it is again) in comes Marvel: Ultimate Alliance; a new name, on a new console (in terms of the Xbox 360) and with a new storyline. This is exactly what Marvel fans young and old have been waiting for, it makes all of the wrongs right and contains over 150 characters and 30 locations. Gone are the cartoonish character models, confusing attribute systems and in are over 20 playable characters and improved gameplay. Put in layman's terms: It is the badger's nadgers.
In Ultimate Alliance, Doctor Doom takes the helm as the head super-villain. Recruiting a band of familiar villains he launches an attack on the SHIELD Helicarrier, captained by none other than Nick Fury. Nick is in need of assistance and sends out a distress call to all heroes. How has Doctor Doom managed to get all of the other villains under his control? Why is he attacking the indestructible SHIELD Helicarrier? He is up to something.
Doctor Doom wants to gain power from iconic Marvel artefacts to shape the universe under his rule. It is up to you, and your team of heroes, to chase after him through locations across the entire Marvel universe in order to stop him. Once the initial missions on the SHIELD Helicarrier have been completed you will progress onto other headquarters such as Iron Man's Stark Tower and Doctor Strange's Mansion. From this point you will be able to teleport to the different locations. You will have to dive into Atlantis, fight with the Gods in Asgard and even fight Mephisto in the depths of the realms of hell.
Through the game (including unlockable faces) you will be bale to choose between 25 Marvel characters. The team you start off with automatically are Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor and Wolverine but when you get to any SHIELD access point you will be able to change them. The other characters available are rather... random. You have those seen in recent films such as all of the Fantastic Four, Elektra, Blade and X-Men characters such as Ice-Man and Colossus, and also familiar faces from the Legends series such as Deadpool. However there might be a few that you do not recognise; Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, Black Panther and Doctor Strange are some of the, well... stranger characters.
Each of the characters have varying strengths and weaknesses but some of them are considerably weak compared to others. In fact, it is the obscure characters that are next to useless, deeming them even more undesirable to have in your team. However, fear not, there is a solid core of excellent characters that are more than enough to create a successful and powerful, four-man team.
You are also able to customise each of these characters to a reasonable level. Each one has at least three alternate costumes - some even having five - that can be unlocked the more you play through the game with that certain character. Although some of them are debatable, most of them are true to their origins, giving a wide range from classic to ultimate styles. Unfortunately with some of the characters their costumes do not vary a great deal; Thor for one has very little changes in armour, Colossus adopts the same metal sheen and the Thing is just an orange rock no matter what he is wearing. They are fun to toy around with and to many the look of your heroes and team will be extremely important.
Each of the costumes also comes with three upgradeable attributes that have different effects on your heroes' abilities. Some costumes increase your strength and defence, whilst others still increase your health and agility. There are even some that strengthen specific character's special moves and also up the amount of experience points gained from defeating enemies. However, these are more of a bonus than a necessity and the look of your character is more important than few raised attributes.
You can also customise specific teams. After choosing your four favourite super heroes you can give them a logo and a team name. Throughout the game, keeping at least three characters from your original team in your current team will increase their reputation and overall performance. Sadly, if you break the team up then everything they have earned will be lost. This is a shame and means that you will have to choose your permanent team right from the start.
The gameplay of Ultimate Alliance is just as simple as it was in X-Men Legends but easier to play which makes the game a little more more fun overall. You will follow the storyline through a number of linear levels, defeating hordes of evil enemies until you reach the level boss, or in some case, bosses. Simple, as said, but there have been important changes to the gameplay that make this title a totally different experience. Each of the characters superhero powers are the first things that have been changed. This time round you get to physically perform your powers, each move having different interactivity, instead of simply watching an animation sequence. For example, when Ice-Man fires ice shards at an enemy, instead of pressing a button and then watching him unleash a flurry of shards, you physically have to fire them yourself but tapping button. You might worry that it turns the game into even more of a button-masher but it has the complete opposite effect and adds a commendable degree of variety.
If basic brawling and superhero moves are not enough for you then you can also pick up items and weapons that can be used to batter, slice, chop and club your enemy. You can even pull weapons right out of an enemy's hands to use it against them. Most weapons cause devastating damage but will break after a few hits. Another thankful change is the AI of your team mates. X-Men Legends would be continually frustrating and difficult because they would simply stand and watch as you got pummelled to death by hordes of enemies. In Ultimate Alliance they become a lot more involved. Naturally enemies will attack whichever character you are in control of but if two or more of your team mates corner an enemy they will be forced to attack them and not you. Your team mates will also begin to attack an enemy or target that you have selected, putting a lot more of the "team" aspect into the gameplay. Finally, you also have different commands such as 'aggressive' and 'defensive', that you can give your team so they perform effectively.
Thankfully, gaining life and superpowers has been made much easier than in Legends due to the fact that all enemies will drop plenty of health and superpower orbs that draw towards you. This works a lot better than having to collect the different vials and worrying about whether your team mates are using them all behind your back, leaving you with nothing to heal yourself. The enemy AI has also improved and is a lot more varied and intelligent, attacking different characters and using a variation of different moves. Bosses also act in different ways to you, rushing in when you have run out of superpower and also running away when you begin to use a super move.
The end of level bosses cannot be beaten with the normal attacks you have available compared to the other sub-villains throughout. To defeat these you will have to discover the bosses' weakness - usually in the form of something around you in the environment - that you can engage with via a series of button combination presses to activate a sequence that will damage the boss. Confusing? A little. For example, in Atlantis you will fight a huge sea monster. In order to hurt him you have to attack his huge fists so they hit into the bases of columns around him. Once he has destroyed the bases you can jump inside. When inside, you then have to perform a series of button presses to dodge the sea monster's fists. His last blow will completely destroy the base of the column causing it to fall on top of him and causing massive damage.
There are puzzles to be had within the game but the design of them is still rather obvious. They mostly consist of smashing things and moving things. There are a couple that would even rival the puzzles in Resident Evil but the clues are too easily given as to the answers. Because of this lack of mental challenge, such levels can prove dull, and the button mashing is only interrupted for a few seconds rather than sufficient diversion to pace things out.
In terms of graphical quality, Ultimate Alliance has jumped leaps and bounds. As said, the cartoonish characters have been done with and replaced with highly detailed models that are near exact replicas of our true heroes. The environments too are extremely rich and varied. I could not see a rough edge in sight. I am far from a graphics junky, but it really does look fantastic. Far superior to both the Legends titles, even the PlayStation 2 version of Ultimate Alliance. The CGI cut-scenes are also out of this world, especially the opening sequence that sees Thor fly right through an enemy ship, obliterating it into a million tiny pieces.
The soundtrack has taken an epic tone, and is wonderfully selected to fit the different themes of every Marvel location. And each location is not just limited to one single soundtrack; they have ones for all of the different situations such as fighting, exploring and solving puzzles. The voice acting is also excellent, especially within the CGI cut-scenes. Even in the game itself you get all the favourite phrases from the usual characters.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is exactly what X-Men Legends I and II were aiming to be. More over, most Marvel fans will be satisfied with this thoughtfully crafted title. It sets the foundation and future for the franchise on the next-generation. However, if Ultimate Alliance had better playable characters, improved customization and a little more of a challenge in places it would indeed be perfect.
However (the last one I promise), being just off from perfect gives us all a little humbleness. If you love brawlers, if you love superheroes, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a must have for now and this holiday season.