Raven’s knack for creating superpowered action with X-Men: Legends and its sequel has helped to pave the way for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, breaking away from the X-Men and bringing in all of the cosmic energy that Marvel’s roster of costumed heroes can bring to the table in one title. While it may not have all of Marvel’s best under one roof, there are still plenty to choose from in Raven’s latest pitting players against their worst nightmare in an adventure that will literally take them to Earth and beyond as they attempt to discover and foil the schemes of an alliance of evil led by one of the Marvel Universe’s most iconic villains to ever don a mask.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance attempted to foil the nefarious plans of the Masters of Evil on the 360.
The story of Alliance appears to be separate from the Marvel Universe. I’m no means an expert in the many threads that make up the Marvel Universe, but suffice it to say, players won’t have to be as much of what is going on is explained within the game. Fans of the Marvel comics may get more of a kick out of what is in there, but the game itself doesn’t make it a requirement to have registered with your local superhero agency to enjoy the action packed into its ten to fifteen hour long adventure.
Players that have watched the 2005 movie, Fantastic Four, will need to forget everything about Dr. Doom that the film tried to tell. Instead of the paltry villain that fans were given there, Alliance makes him out to be a force of galactic power that can literally spin webs of deceit, influence, and cunning genius that cuts across the very boundaries of reality in a plan that has drawn together many of the most powerful villains within the Marvel Universe to his side. When the story begins, the flying fortress that serves as the headquarters of a secret and powerful international task force known as S.H.I.E.L.D. is under attack by the Masters of Evil…Dr. Doom’s own alliance.
It isn’t clear what Dr. Doom is planning at the beginning, but it is going to take the combined talents of some of the most powerful characters to ever grace a Marvel cover to stop him since he will be surrounded by many of the worst villains to march against them. The Fantastic Four, Blade, Thor, Dr. Strange, Spider Man, Ghost Rider, and several others will battle against the Scorpion, Arcade, Loki, Mandarin, and several other unexpected guests before facing off against the good doctor in a climactic battle that will literally determine the fate of countless lives.
If you’ve played any of the X-Men: Legends titles before, you’ll be surprised at how similar Alliance plays out as it is almost as if they’ve dumped out everything and had used the same formula to create an entirely new game with more superheroes. If you’ve never played any of the Legends titles, the controls are still easy enough to manage and get used to as there are plenty of villains to fight and practice against within the game to get familiar with them. Even character development can be automated if the player so chooses, allowing them to focus on the action instead of the managing the RPG aspect of their alliance.
Veterans of Raven’s previous efforts will feel as if they’re back in familiar territory as there’s not a whole lot that they did differently from Legends other than in jazzing up the graphics for the 360 and in developing an entirely new storyline, adding a new batch of bad guys, and bringing together a collection of heroes. A few more tweaks to the gameplay formula such as adding in the ability to create your own superhero teams and in paring down the number of skills to focus on a few powerful ones add some welcome changes, but many of the older issues have also made it into the next gen. The AI can still occasionally be as dumb as a rock by running into traps and off the edges of bottomless pits, instantly dying. And the camera can still occasionally get stuck behind walls. The good news is that multiplayer is also back with co-op play available for friends to get into the game and control their own superheroes on their way through the story or in arcade mode.
Your team of four can be changed up with whoever you think would be best, or whoever you might be the bigger fan of, from a large roster of characters that span the history of Marvel. Even relatively unknown characters, like Moon Knight or Spider Woman are available and there are hidden ones that can be unlocked during the game. Favorites such as Wolverine and Storm, the Fantastic Four, and loners such as Deadpool and Thor are only a small part of those that have come together to try and stop Dr. Doom. Once you’ve chosen your team members, you can also make them into a superhero team to which they’re assigned and can share in team bonuses such as greater health or improving the amount of experience earned as they gain reputation points in addition to experience from certain side quests and in triumphing over the supervillains in their way.
One of the improvements over the Legends series for your characters in the reserved pool is that they now gain experience and points along with your own team, even if you never decide to bring them into the action. This makes it much easier to swap out characters and try new ones without having to worry about grinding them out just to bring them up to speed. Each character also has a set of costumes that they can use that can open up new bonuses for them such as improved resistances to different effects or strengthening their ability to fight with their chosen weapon of destruction. They also start out with a default costume, but as the player uses them throughout the game, more costumes can become unlocked.
Legends veterans will notice that although the roster of heroes is pretty extensive, each hero doesn’t have as many skills to develop as they might remember from working with the X-Men. This doesn’t mean that the characters are any less powerful, just that the powers and abilities that they now have to work with are more focused into specific roles. As they earn experience and levels, they also earn points that can either be automatically distributed to these skills or be manually added to focus on specific ones that the player might want to concentrate on in order to build their wonder team.
In addition to experience, the “tech bits” that were used as a sort of currency from the Legends series has been replaced with S.H.I.E.L.D. credits that allow the player to purchase improvements for their characters if no points are available. It’s kind of an oddball system where most every mob will drop these credits even though they won’t use them for themselves, but it fits in with the arcade feel of the gameplay. Gear has also been severely reduced from Legends which was actually a nice change from having to wade through a vast collection of stuff to decide what to keep or throw away. Gear can be found in weapon caches or dropped by the many supervillains that the player’s team will run into and the best part is that Raven has dropped the level requirements for these, removing the need to rationalize why numbers should prevent a hero from wearing a belt to keep his tights on. There’s even the occasional melee weapon that the player can pick up to deal out punishing damage against anything that they hit, although these wear down with use with few exceptions and prevent the hero from using their powers as long as they have this in their hands.
Healing has also been changed. Instead of lugging around healing and focus “potions” for health and superpower energy, respectively, enemies will also release colored balls of light that will automatically hover over to the hero that needs the most of whatever they might be with extra energy converted into experience. The most hurt hero will receive health, and the heroes that have used up their focus by laying down a blanket of superpowered destruction will get focus energy. It’s one less thing to really think about cluttering the inventory of the party, but just like S.H.I.E.L.D. credits, it’s just strange to see this kind of energy burst from defeated foes. Aesthetics aside, it works and keeps the player in the game much like what the regenerating health trend is doing for the Call of Duty series and Gears of War, keeping the fun focused on the mayhem instead of on what’s in the party’s inventory.
Special skills and powers aren’t the only things that that each hero is capable of dishing out. They can also save their focus energy to punch, kick, and throw their way through their foes instead. Some enemies can only be taken out with a combination of punches and kicks and a small code will pop up on the HUD to let you know what to do. This was in Legends II and wasn’t so bad then, but it can often feel like a cheap gimmick in having to combo mash out a move to defeat a peon that is somehow invincible to everything other than these moves.
Alliance also takes a page from God of War in certain boss battles and special circumstances where the right combination of buttons pressed at the right moment may spell the difference between heroic victory or painful defeat. Fighting one of the larger supervillains may begin a sequence of moves that flash onscreen leaving the player with a limited amount of time to press the button indicated as they come up. Fail, and the attack may result in serious pain. Succeed, and the player may just defeat their enemy without having to fire a shot. There’s also the occasional gadget that might need a special combo to either disarm, or disable. Other puzzles in the game may require the player to figure out how to use the environment to their advantage, especially in the case of some of the more dramatic supervillain battles or timed sequences where taking too long can easily end the fight before the player even knows what has happened.
Saves are handled at special points called “S.H.I.E.L.D. Access Points” where the player can also change their team, costumes, or extract themselves to other locations. A Portal option is also added allowing the player to zap themselves back to headquarters without having to use one of these Access Points, although it can’t be used everywhere and has to cool down before it can be used again. It’s still a handy way to get back to HQ and the access point there in a pinch and then get back again.
There’s also a training simulator for players to take their heroes into, either through group missions or solo jobs against specific foes. It’s a great way to get into some of the backstory for each character and the villains that they had faced as well as a means to earn plenty of experience. Some of the missions even offer bonus rewards such as improved statistics or a new costume for a certain character depending on how well they do. All of these missions can be repeated, even if the player succeeds, for even more credits or experience as they hone their team into a finely tuned fighting machine.
Behind the Mask
There’s not a whole lot of graphical eye candy to really distinguish Alliance‘s overall look from that of Legends aside from several nice effects and a sharper look to everything in the game. For the most part, it can feel as if it someone had taken the old engine and had remade it into what is now being used for Alliance which isn’t a bad thing since it clearly has more life left in it, but don’t expect it to be too dramatically different from what had come before. The cell shaded look has also been dropped for a more detailed approach with each fashionably attired superhero or diabolically dressed supervillain and the levels look as dramatic as ever as the player journeys to places such as the underwater realm of Atlantis or even into space aboard a starship. The destructibility of each area is also back, with walls blowing out and equipment flying apart. It was also nice to see that none of the physics strangeness from the Legends series made it into Alliance. The cinematics that help to tell the story in between the major chapters also look fantastic as CG goodness fills in what is going on as both bad guys and heroes posture for the camera.
Following the tradition of Legends, the voice acting is also top notch as has come to be expected with Raven’s superhero action RPG series. Thor heroically dedicates his defeated foes to Odin in a booming voice filled with bombastic pride, Wolverine still growls that he’s the best at what he does, Tony Stark’s battle cry echoes through Iron Man’s mask, and Dr. Doom’s ruthless mockery of his enemies demonstrates his contempt for their foolish attempts at stopping his plans. It all sounds pretty good even though Patrick Stewart isn’t around to voice Professor X this time around. The music is also typical superhero fare as every stage is filled with its own unique sound from Arcade’s insane carnival of lethal fun to the climactic confrontation.
The Book of Doom
Raven’s comic book style storytelling hasn’t really changed all that much from its Legends series leaving players to button mash through the dialog as usual once they’ve read it. The story in Alliance will still send the player’s team to the furthest ends of the universe in order to stop Dr. Doom. But while it wins points for the way that it brings everyone together on both sides of the cosmic dividing line between good and evil and in explaining the arcing storyline, the interaction with the player might as well have been an afterthought thanks to the fact that the narrative doesn’t lend itself to many changes depending on who is doing the talking. Having Dr. Strange, for example, talk to people within his own house created the unintentionally funny scenes where he would talk about himself in the third person or ask about things that he invented as if to stroke his ego by hearing it from someone else. This is common. The only times that certain heroes are recognized is in the greetings that they sometimes share with certain characters, but that’s pretty much it.
Players don’t have a say in how the story turns out, although acting on certain side-quests or opportunities in the game will alter what they might see as part of the ending in a surprising twist on final reward that was definitely worth the trip to get there. Much of the dialog, however, merely requires the player to push the “A” button to get ahead. There are no real choices to make, other than in helping certain characters with their small requests. The main ending itself, outside of that small part that the player can add to, won’t change. Dialog options for one or two of the small side quests in the game also have a tendency to remain as choices despite having finished them, and the narrative often forgets to update itself at all whenever certain milestones are reached. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of action here to really get into as story still does a decent job in setting up up the many dramatic scenarios that the player’s heroes will encounter. Just don’t expect much else.
The game is also filled with hidden bonuses that cater directly to the comic book fans that it is aimed at. Hidden sketch books that can unlock art in the game for viewing as well as simulation disks that the heroes can use in the training simulator back at HQ are scattered everywhere. There are also small figurines of certain characters that can be uncovered and collected. Much of the dialog that is there is also filled with references to the characters’ backgrounds and their history. Fans will likely enjoy many of these little extras and newcomers to the series won’t feel left out since there’s still quite a bit for them to get into here to give them an idea of who is who and what is going on.
While the story may not win too many points for giving the player more freedom to explore side quests deeper than the fetch ones that they will often perform, Alliance‘s gameplay is filled with quite a few improvements over its predecessors. But it still shares some of the things that had been around since the last generation.
Alliance is still very much a linear experience which has pretty much become a staple of the series. It still throws a lot at the player to keep things interesting and allows them to “extract” themselves to any of the previous levels through the S.H.I.E.L.D. Access Points in case they want to grind through more bad guys or if they think they’ve missed something. There are also quite a few side quests that can be completed during the course of each mission for added reputation or experience. This part of the formula hasn’t changed and is still plenty of fun. Just don’t expect to be able to wander the world in search of other adventures outside of the simulation training exercises.
There’s also no real way to actually separate any one hero from the pack so that the rest can stay behind other than in certain, specified instances where two have to work together to open a door or activate a machine. Teammates will also occasionally stand still as they take a beating before deciding to actually fight or cluster around the player as they follow them around, trapping them in corners or against walls until the player selects one of the other heroes just to keep moving.
The Doctor Is In
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is an action packed extravaganza pitting the some of the best that the Marvel Universe has to offer against a cabal of evil led by one of its greatest supvervillains. Marvel fans and veterans of the Legends series have plenty to look forward to here with familiar gameplay and characters that quip their lines as if they had come straight out from the inked pages that they are pulled from. Newcomers looking for a title filled with plenty of superpowered excitement even if they’re not a fan of the comics can also experience much of the fun thanks to a streamlined upgrade system and simple controls that make it easier to focus on the smashing and bashing as opposed to managing a miniature store in the party’s pockets. Although it can feel like a Legends redux with only a facelift and a new roster with a feeling of deja vu, it’s still the best at what it does providing plenty of world shattering adventure as the players and the teams that they build attempt to save not only the Earth, but the universe from extinction.
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