I like to watch movies with Christopher Walken. I'd never run out to see one based on him alone, but when I realize he's in something, it generally gives me more incentive to see and enjoy it. I know he'll play the same character with the same speech pattern, but I like it and it entertains me. Marvel Ultimate Alliance is, for all intent and purpose a little like that. It's really a carbon copy of what we've already seen in X-Men Legends and X-Men Legends 2 with a larger collection of heroes, better graphics and an online mode that's not bad at all. The point is simply that if you've played either of the previous games, you've essentially played Marvel Ultimate Alliance (MUA) as well. If you're really into beat 'em ups, dungeon crawlers or a die-hard comic fan though, you've found your game of choice.
Again developed by Raven and published by Activision, MUA again weaves a corny disjointed plot together to give levels a semblance of a flow. This time around, MUA's bad-guy du jour is Dr. Doom and his Masters of Evil. To combat this treat to the univese, Colonel Fury puts together, you guessed it, an Ultimate Alliance made up of Marvel superheroes. The plot is forgettable, the dialog a little corny (although some characters have better lines than others) and the missions a little eye-rolling since we've seen this same formula twice before. And therein lies MUA's only real fault: it doesn't feel new in any way shape or form. The mission structure, the different acts, the central meeting hub, the character switching, the power-ups, the leveling, the one-liners, the level design itself and so much more are all things we've seen before. Yes, the graphics are amazing, but unless you were completely in love with X-Men Legends and X-Men Legends's gameplay, levels and storytelling, you may find yourself a little bored early on.
Played from a quasi-top-down view (with an adjustable/zoomable camera), MAU lets you control a team of four Marvel superheroes (one under your control and three controlled by the A.I. which can be switched to on the fly with a press of the D-pad) as you make your way through level after level, solving a few fetch quests, button press instances and generally culminating into an entertaining boss fight (these are varied and always fun). Along the way, you unlock other superheroes, gain currency to purchase powers and unlockables, level up your team members and delve further into the game's story. An odd choice was made to let the A.I. level up and equip all your characters for you by default, but this can easily be turned off (unfortunately for each character separately) in the options.
While the game does feel identical to its predecessors, there are a few differences that should be noted: we've moved on from the X-Men/mutant universe into the full-on Marvel world. Yes, the X-Men are still present, but you'll now have access to other noteworthy characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, Electra and Thor. While the varied selection of characters is largely MUA's appeal, it's disheartening to note that while Dr. Banner is in the game, The Hulk is nowhere to be found. Another major departure from Legends 2 is the removal of branching dialog trees which felt out of place anyways. One of the best additions to MUA is that of comic books strewn about levels. When you find one, always pertaining to one specific hero, you'll get the option to play a level as that hero in a moment defining in that character's life. When you're done, you'll simply find the game exactly where you'd left it off. This is fun and some of these can be particularly challenging, so you may want to simply collect them and play them from the central hub later when you've leveled up your characters a bit more. MUA also features tons of non-playable hero appearances, a plethora of unlockables and secrets and a very lengthy story-mode.
At heart, MUA is a beat 'em up in the same vein as the Baldur's Gate series on console was. You'll spend most of your time mashing the same two buttons (light attack and heavy attack) while occasionally pressing the triggers for alternate powers and to give your AI teammates specific assignments. The controls are elegant, but in certain instances, mostly due to slowdowns in the game, they aren't always as responsive as one could hope. You teammates, for their part, are helpful as fodder, but you'll generally have to dispatch most of the enemies yourself (which isn't too hard since the enemy AI is low in the "I" department. It would have also been nice if teammates could take time to break open crates and boxes as well as collect currency once it's dropped. Maybe next time around.
Luckily, the best part of Marvel Ultimate Alliance still remains its multiplayer aspect. As experienced previously in Legends 2, friends can easily take control of AI characters and run through a level with you. And now, you can run through the campaign with players online as well. This is truly the best and most fun way to play MUA and is sure to please any fan of beat 'em ups. Unfortunately, playing online currently is plague with frequent lag and slowdowns. Hopefully this can be addressed and a patch can be released. But still, playing with friends in your living room (where you can instantly throw pillows at them of trash talk to your heart's content) is really the best way to experience MUA.
Graphically, Legends 2 sported a very cartoony look for its characters and environments. MUA features characters that look a million times better and animate just as well. From the jaw dropping opening cinematic (which I guarantee you'll watch a few extra times), the characters (when zoomed in on) are amazingly detailed and for the most part, perfect replicas of what we've imagined in our heads for years. Of particular note, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man look breathtaking. From then on, most of the cinemas are rendered with an in-game engine that only shows off the character textures even more. The only downside, graphically, to MUA is the level design and the texture repetition found in most levels. While the levels are generally big, they are also darkly shadowed and feel more like dungeon corridors than open levels. This is unfortunate since the levels themselves are varied (you'll be particularly pleased with the underwater gameplay), but still give off the impression that you're being herded from point A to point B without too many options in between. The levels are also too long in some cases, or at least feel that way, since you'll see the same sights over and over and over again.
In the audio department, MUA features some nice themes and compositions as well as a mixed bag with regards to the voice work. If a class had to be given on over-the-top line delivery, MUA would be mandatory course material. This is unfortunate since some voices are great, with pitch perfect delivery and playful lines, but others are simply too grating to hear over and over. This is not really during cinemas, where the stronger voice actors seem to be used, but during levels when an enemy is dispatched or a character levels up. Hearing certain lines over and over gets old fast.
In the end, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is really a better version of the X-Men Legends game with better graphics, a longer story, bigger levels, more powers, more unlockables, more characters and an even better co-op mode. Unfortunately, this is also a game that you may have already played twice before. As a fan of the series, I really appreciated the familiarity of the game and its idiosyncrasies. As a consumer who's already purchased and played through two X-Men Legends game, I was expecting a bit more of a departure from the safe, established franchise however. Fans of previous outings wanting more of the same, fans of great multiplayer games and Marvel aficionados will love this new version. Others may want to rent first to see if this is really what they expected.