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Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2
By Nick Stewart
Oct 19, 2009,
7 :07 am
Although superhero-themed games seem to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, truly excellent licensed crimefighter titles tend to be few and far between. The shock surrounding how excellent the most recent Dark Knight title turned out is a testament to this phenomenon, and it's precisely why Marvel: Ultimate Alliance stood out when it was released in 2006. Great use of the license, loads of unlockables and a treasure chest of Marvel crewmembers combined with great action to make for a memorable experience. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 mostly sticks with what worked and tweaks what didn't, making for what mostly stands as an improvement on the original.
Borrowing loosely from the Secret Wars and Civil War series, UA2 traipses through such locales as Latveria, Washington and Wakanda as it explores the absence of Dr. Doom following the events of the first UA. Events which will not be spoiled here lead the government to begin enforcing the use of superpowers -- not quite the mutant registration act, but close enough as those who fail to comply find themselves tossed into a superpowered clink. The move severely divides the superhero community, with a faction led by Iron Man allying themselves with the pro-registration forces, while the anti-reg crew is headed up by none other than Captain America. This family feud is a powerfully violent one as each side seeks to all but eliminate the other in what amounts to all-out war.
This narrative split forces the player to choose a side, which affects the run of missions and bases for a time: picking anti-reg will find Cap and crew duking it out to protect friendly bases from pro-reg forces, for instance. Aside from a very small few core characters, however, all playable types are available regardless of what you pick, and regardless which side their unlockables indicate they're on. Some might see this as a negative point, limiting the real impact of your choices, but itís arguably the right move. Rather than placing artificial restrictions on the availability of characters, this means it's up to the player whether or not they want to force themselves to stick to a slate of side-specific individuals. No penalty if you don't, and if you do, you'll manage a couple small achievements. Some may complain it minimizes the importance of the playerís role in the story, but it's still likely the best way the developers could have gone, leaving it to players whether or not they want to enforce that rule themselves.
If you've played UA1 or the X-Men Legends on which UA is based, you'll note that the core gameplay remains the same. It's still a basic button-mashing brawler, with players using a combination of simple attack / heavy attack / jump buttons to effect a number of different moves. What returning players will also notice is that the exhaustive list of powers available to each character in the first title has been all but eliminated, having been whittled down to three apiece -- one for each of the main attack-related face buttons. It's a move that initially seems jarring, until you realize that you're no longer spending half your time juggling between a half-dozen different abilities. Indeed, this more focused approach is a big help and helps to streamline play, not unlike the one-button, in-game menu option to distribute your skill points earned from the many beatings you administer. This praise may seem hypocritical, given the positivity lavished on the freedom of choice earlier; however, it should be noted that UA1 had many abilities which were often made almost instantly useless with the introduction of new powers, or introduced new powers which were themselves quite useless. As such, this streamlining is actually quite refreshing, if not slightly jarring at first when you realize you canít customize your power list as much as youíd like.
Still, if itís customization youíre after, thereís some to be had here, as the RPG-style experience distribution system has returned once again. Dump your hard-earned points into your skills to make them more lethal and effective, and now you neednít hop out of the game screen into the pause menu to do so. A new on-the-fly system has been implemented to allow you to handle point boosting from within the confines of gameplay. The stripping down of the power list doesnít reduce the amount of opportunities for improving your characters, mind you, as each one has been given additional avenues for passive improvements. Whatís more, your choice of anti- or pro-reg will also open or close what you can and canít improve. What is tough to defend, however, is the reduction of alternative costumes down to one per character. What was an entertaining diversion in the first UA is cut drastically short here, and is considerably quicker to achieve. Why this was trimmed is uncertain, and a disappointment. Still, the stat boosts that were associated with those outfits have been replaced with a long series of medals, three of which can be active at any one time and affect all members of your team. These can provide basic bumps to statistics, damage types or health recovery, and countless other effects.
What's most changed among the core gameplay features, however, is the introduction of fusions. While the first UA featured spiffy names and a minute damage boost every time two characters were lucky enough to land a power-based move on the same enemy at the same time, UA2 mixes things up. Now, players can periodically trigger specific moves with one of the three other characters in your crew, and their combined talents will decide what that fusion will achieve: area effect damage, specific focus damage, or a directed path of damage. The appearance and caliber of the fusion move will depend on the characters you choose, and are considerably more strategic and satisfying to pull off than UA1ís Xtreme Power moves, which took a great deal of time to build up.
The game has also tweaked the conversation system, where you can select the tone of your responses with other NPCs, and the style of your speech will generally reflect the character youíve selected at the time. Chatting with someone while controlling Gambit will plainly display his Cajun roots, while the smart-aleck tone snaps through anytime you chat at someone using Spidey.
In all, UA2 features a great many other changes which are likely worth mentioning, some good, some bad. The camera no longer offers zoom control -- not an overly big deal, though at times you'll find things too distant or too claustrophobic, depending on the environment in which youíre blasting through. Itís also worth mentioning that there are some irritating intermittent bugs where NPC event triggers fail to kick in, forcing several lengthy area restarts. The feel of the game is also drastically different from UA1, particularly in the area of the storyline, in which the vast majority of your boss fights tend to be against other superheroes. This feel even comes through the basic menu system, where character profiles (another great addition, reminiscent of what was offered in the recent Batman title) are presented from Nick Furyís point of view, while an extremely exhaustive tutorial menu system is offered in character from Deadpool. With this and the many Civil War thematic touches throughout the presentation, itís enough of a switch to maintain the interest of those who plunked endless hours into UA1.
With the exact same combo brawler at its core, Ultimate Alliance 2 should feel like a retread of its predecessor. Instead, it features a long series of small but worthwhile tweaks that help to keep things fresh while remaining accessible to those who didnít bother with the first game. The graphics are better, the controls leaner, and the options beefier, and while that might not be enough to convert anyone who isnít already a fan of the genre, itís certainly enough to keep the interest of even any passing fan. The plot borrows just enough from the Civil War comic book run to make for an interesting if not completely fulfilling storyline, and there are more than enough unlockables and scavenger hunts to keep players coming back for more. The lack of any really meaty ďbad guyĒ fights is a real disappointment, of course, but then a game built around violent disagreements between superheroes isnít about that, in the end. If youíve ever wanted to see Spidey and Deadpool team up to try and take down Captain America and/or Iron Man, this is your game.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)
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