Marvel Ultimate Alliance - Retroview  

Match Wits with Doctor Doom
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Fine use of Marvel materials
+ Well-varied locations and opponents
+ Entertaining tale
- Bonus missions feel same-y
- Get ready for QTEs
- Cramped inventory
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   Raven Software wasn't done with Marvel properties after two X-Men Legends games, but next up was something broader in scale. Marvel Ultimate Alliance takes the mechanics of the earlier titles that focused on Charles Xavier's school and applies them to a character gallery that spans the company's whole lineup. The result is a game that betters its spiritual predecessors and demonstrates how to use a license well. Ultimate Alliance deserves a chance from anyone with even the slightest interest in its subject.

   The S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is under attack by forces owing allegiance to the Masters of Evil, an organization put together by Doctor Doom. Coming to save the day are Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor, and Wolverine, with more heroes quickly joining the cause. The Masters of Evil aren't done after this opening attack, and the assembled heroes agree with varying levels of happiness to take Colonel Nick Fury's orders until the villains are dispatched. This leads through Atlantis, Murderworld, Asgard, the Shi'ar Empire and more in a tale that eventually finds these superheroes trying to save the entire universe.

   Ultimate Alliance sports an extensive cast, and it is to the game's credit that just about every playable character has a moment or two to shine. The plot by the Masters of Evil makes pretty good sense within the Marvel universe, and its execution allows plenty of interesting sojourns to well-known destinations. A surprising number of typos crept into the text, but since almost all of it is accompanied by character vocals the effect is minimal. Raven's writers crafted a tale that will be effective even for those without much Marvel knowledge, while aficionados will glean plenty more.

   The majority of the characters available are accessible from the start, but some must be unlocked via disparate means. Getting Dr. Strange and Ghost Rider is easy since they pop up with easily-met goals in mandatory missions, but even getting the relatively challenging characters onto the team isn't too demanding for the dedicated. Other side content pops up in the form of optional goals such as rescuing a Senator and preserving a planet from the hunger of Galactus, which actually affect the ending in nifty ways.

   When the time comes to lead superheroes against the enemy masses, combat looks very much like that in X-Men Legends. A quartet of heroes engages in brawler combat against the nefarious fiends, with the player in direct control of one and either AI or friends taking hold of the others, though the AI is respectable enough most of the time that it doesn't hinder the proceedings. Simple button mashing will often get the job done, but plenty of objects can be thrown at the opposition, and each hero has unique powers and abilities with which to quickly lay low the foe. The current quartet can be altered at any save point, and certain groupings that make sense (such as the Fantastic Four) grant helpful effects.

When Doctor Doom puts an alliance of the Masters of Evil together, he doesn When Doctor Doom puts an alliance of the Masters of Evil together, he doesn't forget many!

   All of these aspects were present in X-Men Legends 2, but a few things have changed since that game. Players no longer collect health packs but rely on replenishing orbs to appear during fights, which works well during altercations with minions but can get tense for bosses without many grunts to attack. Some enemies now have weapons that can be taken to deal colossal amounts of damage until they break: while it may not make sense for characters like Iron Man to deal more damage with a seemingly-ordinary pipe than with special attacks, this does spice up the gameplay. A good variety of foes is also on offer, helping to keep the action from getting stale.

   Boss encounters in Ultimate Alliance show off an impressive variety of foes from the Marvel rogue's gallery, and often come with an interesting gimmick to ensure that the battle is not just a straightforward brawl. Apparently in an effort to make battles with such foes as Ymir and Arcade stand out, periodically a boss encounter will depend upon the player's ability to complete QTEs in order to deal damage. By the standards of QTEs these aren't terrible, being fairly generous with the time granted to make them work, but their placement in these encounters isn't very welcome.

   Raven removed any kind of store function in Ultimate Alliance, instead having only bosses drop various things that the heroes can equip. These can be sold for cash, and players will need to do this given the limited inventory space, but without a store there is no way to get them back. Other aspects of the inventory are effective though, such as the different costumes heroes gain access to with three statistics each that can be increased with an infusion of cash. Hero powers can also be augmented with some monetary aid, in addition to the natural growth they receive from leveling. The game is very precise about picking up the coins on the field, forcing players to touch them directly instead of having the money get grabbed when close, but enough funds are dropped that missing a few due to this precision isn't a problem.

   As a means of learning a little more about each character, S.H.I.E.L.D. has a computer with virtual reality missions. Some of these involve picking a team to beat up a villain but most are solo tasks in which a character must survive a gauntlet of opponents before reaching the target antagonist. Since most characters go through the same few areas in their missions against identical grunts, these become repetitive quickly. They're optional at least, and can be tackled at the player's leisure. Going through the core game will take somewhere around twenty-five hours, but the extra content adds at least five more, and offers enough rewards to make it worth investigating.

Snort - okay, sure.  Scorpion requires Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine AND Thor to take down.  Sure.  Right. Snort - okay, sure. Scorpion requires Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine AND Thor to take down. Sure. Right.

   Ultimate Alliance comes with quite a bit of voice acting, and its cast is varied and committed. Some actors have to voice more than one part, and not every character gets enough opportunities to speak for the performers to adequately differentiate their styles from others who have become identified with the part, but everyone gives it a good shot. Battle quotes are the only annoying issue, mostly due to a limited number of them that will be heard quite a bit.

   The musical accompaniment is reminiscent of film scores, and most of the compositions are stirring to hear. The game also features plenty of them, ensuring that they won't get heard too often — except during the optional missions. The visuals get the job done without pushing the hardware too much, possibly due to the multi-platform release this game received. Most of the time the camera is zoomed out too much to discern a minute level of detail, but the things players need to see are never hard to observe, and the different areas succeed in looking distinct from each other.

   Ultimate Alliance has a character roster that varies depending upon the platform, and I wouldn't recommend the PS2 version when most other systems sport a bigger cast of heroes. It's still a great experience that stays interesting from start to finish and demonstrates how to treat the Marvel universe right, one that I enjoyed throughout and will remember fondly. It's a damn shame that Raven Software's apparent plan to have Galactus headline the next game in this series never came to be, because the developer was clearly just getting into the swing of things with Marvel properties.

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