Reviewed: September 17, 2009
Released: September 15, 2009
While you’re at the store today picking up your copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you might want to slip over to the game aisle and check out another new superhero release that is sharing the “New Release Tuesday” spotlight. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is swinging, clawing, smashing, and flying into stores today with surprisingly little fanfare.
As a big fan of the original game, plus all the X-Men Legends and to a lesser degree, the Fantastic Four game, I’ve enjoyed these four-character, four-player button mashers ever since the days of Gauntlet, but after a few hours with this latest sequel I’m finding my tolerance for mindless button mashing has diminished in favor of the more original game styles and designs that have emerged over the past decade.
Vicarious Visions, known for their great work on the Wii and DS, have taken the helm for this new superhero romp featuring 24 of your favorite characters (and more on the way via DLC) like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man, Deadpool, and Captain America, along with fan-requested playable characters and villains, including Hulk, Venom, Green Goblin, Iron Fist and more.
Ultimate Alliance 2 is surprisingly up to date when it comes to storylines, at least if you follow the comics. Borrowing elements from Secret War and Civil War, the game kicks off with a standard tutorial chapter that has Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine being led into Latveria by Nick Fury on a covert operation that was not sanctioned by the government. When Lucia von Bardas strikes back with an attack on New York City the issue of superhero registration surfaces – much like the whole mutant registration in the last X-Men movie.
It’s about this time in the story and the game where you must choose sides. Will you register with the government, forsaking your secret identity, or will you go underground to carry on the battle more covertly. Choose wisely because your choice will dictate which characters are available to play for the rest of the game. Of course this also means you can already revisit the 12-15 hour single-player campaign and play the path not chosen, essentially double your game time. While the story is relatively unchanged, the selection of superheroes offers untapped gameplay potential.
With 24 selectable heroes going into this missions four at a time you have some pretty cool collaborative efforts and hundreds of mix-and-match formulas to play with. At its core, Ultimate Alliance 2 remains a mindless button masher, a game that you can play almost subconsciously while talking with friends or lapsing into off-topic daydreams. You punch and kick everybody and everything in the levels earning XP so you can level up and purchase new powers and upgrade old ones so you can punch and kick even better on the next level.
You have the standard command set that includes light and heavy attacks, jump, block, and grab, and you can mix these up into limited but functional combos to throw or uppercut someone into the air. Beyond melee attacks you have two superpowers very specific to each character, so Spidey can swing and web attack and Iron Man can fly and use is repulse beam. The Thing can ground stomp, the Hulk can smash and thunder clap and Captain American has his boomerang shield throw attack. It’s a great “visual variety” that helps distract you from the fact you are mashing the same buttons to achieve the same results.
Things get a bit more interesting when you start experimenting with the new Fusion Powers. This require you to interact with another member of your party, essentially combining their skills, so Iron Man can fire his beam into Wolverine’s claws, diffusing the beam into a spread of five beams for greater area affect. It’s an overwhelming collection of more than 250 unique hybrid powers since you must start with one hero then choose the second one to combine with, for interesting and satisfying results. It doesn’t take long to build up to one of these Fusion opportunities, so you have frequent and explosive breaks from the otherwise mundane button mashing.
As with previous game in this genre, you have your health and ability bars that are slowly draining as you take damage and engage your various powers, but they refill nearly as fast as you defeat enemies and collect orbs from the large and destructible environments. You’ll earn Ability Points throughout the game that you can spend in the Powers Menu to upgrade your existing powers and experiment with new ones. You can also reconfigure your points distribution, which is a great feature since powers in one part of the game might not serve you so well in another. If you prefer not to fool around with all the RPG elements of the game you can simply turn on Auto Spend and the game will handle all your upgrades behind the scenes.
In addition to managing the members of your team you also get to manage the team itself with Team Boosts; badges that you can assign to the team to modify everyone so they do more damage or take less damage or enhance their attacks. There are 200 of these modifiers to collect and mix and match, and again, if you don’t like to micromanage stats and abilities, just have them auto-assigned.
If all this sounds like too much work for one person you will certainly be glad to know the game supports drop-in/drop-out co-op play for up to four people. Now the only battle will be deciding who gets to play whom. Even better, XP earned in co-op play carries over to the solo adventure.
I suppose my only real complaint with the gameplay is that it gets really boring and really repetitive, which is surprising given the amount of potential the character roster and four-character match-ups and Fusion Power concept would seem to offer. But after only a few hours into the game two things are going to happen. You are either going to sample everybody and do and see a bit of everything and get bored, or you are going to settle on your favorite ensemble and fall into a rut.
Don’t get me wrong – Marvel fans and comic book lovers are going to go berserk over this game, but the more casual gamers are going to have their fill probably before their rental period has expired.
There is a modest attempt to flesh out the Marvel universe with some incidental elements. Between missions you hang out at Stark Tower or the SHIELD base where you can engage in conversations with other characters. This reminded me of Mass Effect with responses that fall into predefined categories such as diplomatic or aggressive, which in turn fill up a meter that will eventually earn you a specific Boost power. There are some amusing things to discover in these hub areas like news reports, snippets from a TV reality show about superheroes, or even access to a training simulator and a fantastic superhero trivia game.
As far as presentation, the game looks fantastic, both in level and character design. Each superhero has their own set of awesome moves and the level of destruction is fantastic not to mention all the flashy effects. Lighting is phenomenal along with reflections and detailed textures. The camera is pretty good about covering all the action from a good angle, but I wished it would zoom in a bit tighter to get a better look at these characters.
The music is excellent but the voice acting is pretty lame and downright awful for a few characters – Thor comes to mind. Special effects are solid, mostly smashing and breaking noises punctuated with some flashy superpower noises that sound reasonably appropriate.
Completionists will find 50 Achievements, most of which are awarded for progressing through the game, with more challenging ones based on earning medals, collecting stuff, or doing the sim and trivia challenges. It will take about two passes through the game to level up the entire roster, but by design, the game encourages you to play through a second time.
Ultimate Alliance 2 starts off slow, which isn’t good since most people make their decision to finish a game within the first one or two hours. For me, the game didn’t really take off until the whole Pro-Reg, Anti-Reg debate kicked in, but even then I kept lapsing into these daydreaming ruts of gaming. It was really hard to focus on the story or any driving force behind all the mindless button mashing.