After looking forward to Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom for the PS3 and then being left sorely disappointed, I looked for solace from Activision's offerings in Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The soul successor to the X-Men Legends series, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is an action-RPG that would be any Marvel fan's wet-dream. The hack 'n slash formula has continued to prove that it's not going to fade away anytime soon. When Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance launched on the PS2 years back, the gamers were in love. Dark Alliance quickly amassed a following, as word of mouth and critical praise lauded the game. A sequel would soon follow and continued to garner that very same reception as the first one did.
Snowblind would then develop two Sony exclusive games based on the Everquest world this time around: Champions of Norrath and Champions: Return to Arms. Again, Snowblind found themselves with critical praise as hack and slash fans ate this up; plus the fact that both games featured kick ass online modes helped. Soon after, the PSP would see two Untold Legends games, continuing the trend of traditional medieval-esque hack and slash titles. But unlike the titles mentioned above, Marvel Ultimate Alliance ultimately (yes, pun intended) doesn't deliver the same caliber experience. It's riddled with a number of issues that prevent it from being enjoyable.
Admittedly, I never played an X-Men Legends, so I go into playing Ultimate Alliance with no formed biases or expectations. So after spending time with MUA, I must say that I hope the two X-Men Legends weren't as broken as Marvel is. My biggest gripe with the game is that it has an absolutely terrible flow. Every few steps a little cut-scene is triggered and I have to endure reading or listening to some of the poorest dialogue I've seen to date. And by poorest I mean poorly written. Every time a cut-scene is triggered and words are exchanged between the super heroes and super villains, the super heroes come off like whining, insecure babies. They question the motives of the villains as if it were some sort of shock to them. The questioning is endless and it sucks the bad-assery (sic) out of the personalities of each hero. Quite frankly, within the first 15 minutes, this game successfully makes Captain America sound like a whiner, more than anything else. The exchanges are just so bland. The pre-boss fight dialogue wears so thin, that by the third boss encounter you'll find yourself skipping through the entire conversation. Thankfully, the constant dialogue interruptions become less frequent in the latter levels.
But I think despite all of that, what I really didn't like about MUA is that it managed to quickly bore me. The level design comes off uninspired and the gameplay couldn't hold my attention for more than thirty minutes. I thought perhaps it was just the early phase of the game that was like this; but as I progressed, things didn't change much. There are some nice little things like upgrading your characters with the coins that you collect, and of course being able to play as one of 25 Marvel characters is some great fan-service. Right? Ehh…it'd be great fan-service if the game was any fun.
Ultimate Alliance is just too redundant (even by hack and slash standards) to be considered fun or enjoyable. The objectives seem to repeat themselves – help this guy, prevent this from happening, go get this and bring it back. Off the bat the game's objectives are tedious and hardly inspiring. The action is standard stuff, but with little variation thrown-in. Heroes can use power up moves that they'll gain throughout the course of the game, in addition to putting together combos with the X and O button. Six Axis implementation, especially during a boss fight, isn't fun. It's annoying having to constantly shake the controller when you're trying to remove the shield off of 50 enemies — and you can't defeat an enemy easily when he/she's using a shield. Likewise it's even more annoying when you're forced to utilize the Six Axis in a boss fight by dodging the boss' attacks — if you get hit, your hero is knocked out; get hit 4 times and you'll have to restart. I'd much rather use the analog sticks to pull off these evasive maneuvers — a regular fight is one thing, but to punish me during a boss fight is another.
The biggest downfall of Ultimate Alliance is that it's linear. Way too linear. Level design is confined to "corridors" and "doors", if you will, so there is very little room for exploration. I just don't feel like the Marvel universe should be played with such limitations. It'd have been much better if the game was 3rd person, as opposed to top-down, and had a broader scope, because I just don't think these limitations work well for the game (think: Kingdom Hearts II, but with Marvel characters). The game does allow up to four-players to participate, be it co-op or online co-op. You can invite a friend to play co-op anytime you wish during the progress of your game. Likewise, you can do the same online. If you host a game, you have the ability to load your saved game and have an online co-op crew run with you.
This can add some decent value to the game if you do end up liking it. Arcade co-op play has you and your friends essentially competing against each other while making way through the game. At the end of a mission, your stats will be counted up, and the one with the highest rankings will be the Most Valuable Hero. Still, not even multiplayer could save Marvel Ultimate Alliance for me. In fact, looking around the online lobby right now, I'm not even seeing a single hosted session. I had to create one, and it took 10 minutes for someone to join it — shortly after, that person left. So the online world is pretty much dead for the PS3 version.
Visually…where do I start? First thing's first, it must be noted that Ultimate Alliance is not a next-generation title. The visuals are boosted for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, but everything else is practically straight out of the PS2. The character detail is downright poor, even by last-gen standards. Our heroes, and villains alike, exhibit an abundance of blocky appendages and an overall lack of polygons per body. While some characters like Captain America and The Thing demonstrate a bit of bump-mapping use, it still doesn't cover up the fact that the characters are not next-gen material.
The environments have been touched up for the next-gen versions, as they feature excessive use of bump-mapping and a lot of enhanced lighting details. Though on the other hand, textures are extremely repetitive, and a lot of the environments don't seem to have been enhanced and look dated. Things only get worse, as the game's frame rate is crippling at certain points.
Again, right off the bat, it has to be said that Ultimate Alliance is unplayable in 1080p or 1080i. Do not even bother. The framerate has the game running at no more than 10-15 frames per second; the game literally feels like it's running in slow-motion. Panning the camera around in either 1080 resolution makes the plaguing framerate that more apparent. It's pretty abysmal (and embarrassing for Raven Software) that a game as poor looking as Marvel Ultimate Alliance couldn't be optimized to run smoothly on a console as powerful as the PS3. Even in 720p MUA still suffers from a slacking frame rate that usually hovers below a steady 30 frames — so not even in 720p will you get a smooth moving picture.
You'll have to settle for 480p in order to have the game run at the most optimal frame rate…but that would then make purchasing this game completely pointless. If you're going to run MUA at such a low resolution, you might as well save yourself the $20 and purchase one of the last-gen versions, instead. In fact, you may even benefit from that decision, because you'd probably end up with a better online community than the PS3 version. I also cannot forget the poorly done FMV cut-scenes, as they come complete with image artifacting and compression issues. Coincidentally, the PSOne-like, poorly compressed intro video for developer Raven Software seems to be a proper indication of the rest of the game's visual quality.
Moving on to the audio… If constant one-liners and wise-cracks aren't your thing, then you may not be too keen on Ultimate Alliance. The voice acting is often hit or miss. Some of the heroes and villains deliver their lines well, while the rest just don't. As mentioned before, it also doesn't help that the game's dialogue just isn't very good. The soundtrack is forgettable, and is made up of ambient-like arrangements when not in combat. Though the music tenses up when you engage in battle.
But the soundtrack is poorly implemented; instead of a song seamlessly playing, you'll hear it stop and restart from the beginning after a 3-4 second pause. That's just something I haven't heard in a game since the original PlayStation days, probably. The sound effects are ho-hum, and won't really take advantage of a nice audio setup, if you have one.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is probably a good pick for those who really enjoyed the X-Men Legends games. But I found the game far too redundant in action and limited in structure. The linear level design greatly detracts from the game, as the game mostly consists of you walking through corridors and entering doors. Six Axis implementation shouldn't have been exclusively substituted for the ability of using the analog sticks to make use of certain situations. Online could also end up being fun, but the lobby for the PS3 version is absolutely empty. The audio isn't up to par, as voice acting is hit or miss and the soundtrack is the standard stuff we're used to hearing from Marvel games. And lastly the game is pretty poor, visually. The character detail is lackluster and the environments are so-so. But that framerate is truly disastrous — making a PS3 purchase of the game pretty much pointless.
If you're looking for a deep hack and slash title along the lines of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, look elsewhere. Marvel Ultimate Alliance is an over simplified attempt at a genre that begs for more. This just isn't hack and slash done right — it feels more like an arcade game than anything else. And it certainly isn't worth the $60 price of admission. Perhaps a PlayStation Store download worth $20 would've suited this game better.