[18 October 2009]
When making Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, developer Vicarious Visions seemed to have the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in mind. However, they probably should have considered another: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
The sequel to Raven Software’s 2006 action role-playing game is so slavishly devoted to keeping things pretty much the same that its sequel borders on expansion pack material or, at the very least, resembles something like an update similar to what EA does every year with the Madden and Tiger Woods franchises. Luckily for them, it’s really hard to mess up a game that features four-player co-op and the ability to use a couple dozen different Marvel superheroes.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: there is a threat to the world and Iron Man (now a veritable Marvel A-Lister thanks to the movie), Wolverine (clinging desperately to A-list status after a crappy summer movie), Captain America, Spider Man, Wolverine, and gang must team up and stop it. You and your chosen quartet of heroes slash, bash, and power your way through hordes of faceless henchmen, evil robots, and finally through supervillain bosses on the way to victory.
Also like the first game, you are able to swap out rosters of a sizable number of superheroes and villains that include several members of the Avengers and X-Men (including more obscure characters like Bishop and Cable), the Fantastic Four, and random leftovers like Ms. Marvel, Songbird, and Iron Fist. It’s fun to be able to experiment with all of these characters but the flimsy way in which the story pulls them together often feels like the writers just tossed darts at names on a Marvel roster and haphazardly forced them into illogical situations.
However, it’s entirely plausible that the collection of heroes were chosen largely for the possibilities that they inspired for the showy in-game powers called fusion attacks, something similar to team-up attacks in the original Ultimate Alliance. As you beat up on baddies, you fill up a fusion meter until you can initiate a two person fusion. There are several different types, depending on the two heroes involved. Guided attacks, like the hybrid fire and laser beam created by the Human Torch and Iron-Man allow you to maneuver said beam around the screen, damaging all enemies caught in the stream. Clearing attacks are like they sound. They hit in a large area of effect radius such as a fusion where Spider-Man rapidly collects enemies around him in a ball of web and Wolverine claws at a group for a moderate amount of damage.
To its credit and despite its seemingly initially rather banal premise, the overarching story in Ultimate Alliance 2 is fairly interesting. It basically borrows the plots of two large crossover comic book series, Secret War and Civil War. The Secret War inspired plot points follows Nick Fury as he leads a special unauthorized taskforce of superheroes into the fictional country (and homeland of Doctor Doom) of Latveria to confront a new prime minister about plans to attack America. If it sounds a lot like a metaphor for a certain real life American war that involved a specious argument for invading a sovereign nation overseas, well, it probably is.
The story then morphs into something resembling the plot of Cvil War after the US government decides to attempt to force heroes into legally registering with them because the general public has become squeamish about them. You are eventually forced into a decision that temporarily divides your hero roster (and then the entire game) into two separate story experiences. It’s a welcome experience that contrasts with most decisions in games today that often boil down to simplistic (ironically, often “comic bookish”) choices concerning good versus evil. Both the pro-registration and anti-registration camps have valid points that perhaps reflect the complexities of civil liberties.
Unfortunately, however, the game does very little to make you care about the outcome. Most of the story is told through very rushed cinemas shown on computer displays and there are so many characters introduced and discarded that there is little time for plot or character development before battle begins anew.
There are plenty of other nagging problems with this iteration of Ultimate Alliance. The camera is schizophrenic and sometimes shows your group in a tighter, more intimate way but will then suddenly switch to a bird-eye view, leaving you in a position where you can hardly tell where you’re at. There are other times when the camera would rather focus on a random staircase than your character. It also doesn’t help when there’s so much chaos onscreen—when you’re trying to watch four heroes take on multiple baddies while each are using giant blizzard powers or missile launchers or laser cannons, your eyes begin begging for mercy.
Also, remember that this Marvel series was supposed to be an action roleplayer? Try 98 percent action and two percent RPG. The character building elements have been so dumbed down that it’s almost not even worth bothering with. You’re almost better off keeping your characters on autospend. The equipment that you once gave your heroes in the first game has been blandly streamlined so that you have three slots for your entire team for boosts.
The puzzles are also laughably easy. I couldn’t help but notice that one puzzle in which you must fit four different shaped blocks in four identically shaped holes in order to open a door was eerily similar to a Fisher-Price puzzle that I once solved at age four.
But in the end, if you can look past the flaws and the fact that Batman: Arkham Asylum has made the superhero gameplay in Ultimate Alliance feel positively creaky, the lets-beat-the-living-daylights-out-of-everything-that-moves-with-punches-lasers-and-bombs can be enjoyable, especially if you have a few friends with you to join the fray.