It got the entire Marvel world together. Characters from all Marvel universes amalgamated into one user-chosen team. Suddenly you could put Black Panther in a line-up with Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Thor. And change the line-up when it no longer suited your tastes. Now Spider-Man, Moon Knight, Colossus and Ice Man would be taking on the hordes of Mandarin minions.
It was this dynamic that made it so successful – and such a popular game for fans of Marvel comics. Nearly everyone had their ‘favourite character’ in there.
When I first heard there was a sequel in development, I was naturally enthused, but the sequel had a lot of work to do in order to top the original hack & slash success.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 incorporates the Secret War and Civil War story-lines, with the latter being the most predominant throughout game development. While you originally walk side-by-side with Nick Fury’s invasion of Latveria in the introduction, the rest of the game deals with the consequences of the invasion – and the Government’s push for a “Superhuman Registration Act” as a result of an explosion caused by mutants and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S civilians.
The mutant community immediately divides over the implementation of the act; Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) the face of the “Pro” registration forces and Captain America opposing registration (“Anti” reg).
The core hack & slash game play from the original MUA is maintained in the sequel. Button-mashing is the name of the game; Hammering away at your favourite Hulk-Smash move or Deadpool’s ‘Tele-Splode!’ is key, but there is also a small series of combo sequences that allow for certain types of attacks. Grabs, trips and jump attacks can all be added to your repertoire at a whim – and with a simple change of button application.
Each character has four special attacks assigned to each of the controller face buttons, all unique to each Marvel personality and part of the fun of the combat is discovering and unlocking all of them. Some of the original skills and moves return, but the addition of a load of new character means that there’s plenty of fresh moves to discover – and quickly become favourites. Penance in particular has some unbelievably good room-clearing abilities.
There is a horde of new playable characters this time around, with some of the classics from the original (eg. Ghost Rider, Blade, Moon Knight), being replaced by more, but possibly not as well know characters such as Penance, Iron Fist and Songbird now filling the ranks.
Levelling up your characters contributes to all basic statistics, such as ‘Strike’ (which improves melee damage) and ‘Focus’ (which raises your stamina and recharge rates). And the new statistic, ‘Teamwork’ raises your Fusion damage.
The new centrepiece of Ultimate Alliance 2 is the “Fusions”.
Instead of heroes having their own ‘special’ ability as with the previous iteration of the series, character now have to rely on coupling with another member of the team to execute a super damage special attack.
The basic idea is the same, defeating enemies charges a sort of XP bar, which allows you to bank up enough power to use one – or two Fusions. By simply holding L2 you can then select the other member of your alliance with whom you want to execute the attack. So Wolverine can summon Iron Man and create a huge beam of energy that Wolverine deflects off his Adamantium claws into a crowd of foes. Storm can raise a massive tornado while Human Torch fuses the winds with fire. Juggernaut tears a massive chunk of rock from the ground while Deadpool covers it in grenades, turning the rock into an immense cluster bomb.
Truly, the possibilities seem endless when you first begin partnering your team members to explore these new Fusions. There are some general themes and similarities between Fusions though (as you’d expect with well over 200 possible combinations), but they never get old mixing and matching characters for new variations.
The only downside of this new Fusion system is that once your team gets a hammering and ends up with one living team member, he or she is powerless to execute a strong attack, all super powers have to be activated with another character. Thankfully though, with the abundance of health/revival pick-ups on offer and the general strength of your team, this doesn’t happen very often.
Also part of Ultimate Alliance 2 are the ‘Boosts’. Hidden throughout levels, as well as dropped by key enemies and bosses are boost items, which basically act as stat modifiers. At any time you can run up to three Boosts in unison, but with dozens on offer, the choice can sometimes be very tough.
Some boosts have simple statistic modifiers (+4 to all stats for example), but there are also more specific boosts that relate to certain combat masteries or passive abilities. The ‘Unstoppable’ boost for example adds the benefit of +15% resistance to impact damage.
You can have these automatically assigned and for the most part, the auto choice does a good job. I’ve seen some occasional odd combinations when I would much rather have had an attribute stat take preference over a damage resistance stat for example and thankfully you can change them quickly and easily from the menu, or with a quick tap in-game.
Unfortunately all this action is occasionally bugged with some technical errors. As you hard-reset your PS3 from yet another system freeze, you can’t help but think MUA2 has been rushed out the door a little. There are times when event triggers won’t work as well – I was fighting a battle in the Palace with waves of tribal enemies dropping in. It seemed odd that they kept coming – 10 minutes later still coming. I played on for another 5 minutes or so before resigning to the fact that something had gone wrong. Reloaded my last checkpoint and arrived at the same place, where Venom dropped in almost immediately after defeating the first wave of enemies. Less than a minute after getting into the same area. I’ve experienced a few examples of event triggers failing to initialise. While they’re not entirely game-breaking, they are annoying and force you to reload your last save.
As soon as you start Ultimate Alliance 2, its clear to see there has been a definite improvement in the graphics department. Character models in particular have been given a lot more detail and the environments have a far greater feeling of scale and intricacy. As a result, there’s much less of a restricted feeling, less of that linear ‘corridor’ style that became a little monotonous in the original MUA.
There are some impressive sequences in Africa, with jungle backdrops, thick foliage and scrub, then leading into places like Wakanda Palace for example, with huge expanses of open-plan combat areas and ultra-modern architectural surrounds. It all looks great, detail is well-done on everything from destructible crates, to scenic backdrops.
Factories and facilities are impressively detailed and there’s more destruction this time around, with most objects allowing you to pummel, explode and disintegrate them to mere wreckage (and then to use the pieces as throwing objects).
Its all animated very well, characters move and fight with plenty of variation, the effects of some of the attacks are brilliant. Watching Juggernaut charge around the room at double-speed, absolutely annihilating everything in his path, throwing enemies into the air, smashing boxes and cars to smithereens is magnificently rewarding.
Environmental powers possessed by your team are also very convincing. Throwing balls of fire around the battlefield and raising huge spikes of ice from the earth has a wonderful visual style. Summoning a wild Tornado with Storm, then using Deadpool to hurl grenades into it (the “Grenado”) looks just fantastic. Making all of these powers believable is a huge challenge, but its something Vicarious Visions have developed in stunning fashion.
Audio in Ultimate Alliance 2 seems to have been put on the back-burner however. There are entire SFX elements that never occur. Breaking a box sometimes makes no sound at all. Juggernaut can pick up a car, throw it – and it makes this measly peep like someone’s thrown a rubber ball at a brick wall. There are fantastic sequences roaming through Wakanda Palace where you walk under, or beside waterfalls – but there’s no sound effects whatsoever, let alone the roar of the giant cascading waterfall you’re six inches away from.
There’s some snappy dialogue, especially for characters like Deadpool with witty lines and sarcasm-charged quips. The voice talent is quite good for a Marvel game, but oddly, some of the cut-scenes seem to have missed out on a vital stage of mixing and suffer with significant changes of pitch or background noise that seems totally out of place.
Text only, a muted Wolverine
Dialogue sections also suffer due to a complete lack of audio. During the sections where you can choose your passive, defensive or aggressive responses, your character just stands there unresponsive. Then the screen flicks back to the other person in the conversation, reacting verbally to the option you’ve picked. Sure, it may have been a massive undertaking to include every dialogue option voiced for every character, but its a real disconnect from the story when your chosen hero remains silent for most of the story progression.
Occasionally you get audio ‘pops’ as well, most regular in transitions between loading screens or after in-game sound-fx dialogues.
For a game of this caliber with so many fan favourite characters though, its disappointing.
With the exception of a new selection of characters and the new Fusion combo attacks, there’s not a whole lot of innovation in MUA2.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however – the original Ultimate Alliance was a gem of a game. It nailed the hack & slash/Marvel RPG genre perfectly and was an immensely satisfying experience. While that has been maintained in Ultimate Alliance 2 – and the style and fun is most definitely still there, it all seems a little too unpolished for a title that is seemingly just building upon the same foundations of its predecessor.
With both a Pro- and Anti-registration story line to follow, the old Simulator making a return (offering challenges and the option of replaying missions) and the Trivia sub-game also returning, there’s plenty to do in MUA2 and loads of replayability. My first run through as Pro-registration took about 10 hours, basically touching none of the simulation/challenges and missing loads of collectibles.