If nothing else, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 demonstrates right from the beginning how far Marvel characters have come in terms of general pop culture awareness since the first game came […]
If nothing else, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 demonstrates right from the beginning how far Marvel characters have come in terms of general pop culture awareness since the first game came out in 2006. The trailer and opening cinematic of the original game leaned heavily on Spider-Man and Wolverine, with excellent use of Captain America and Thor; this opening cutscene was hugely exciting and very impressive back then, with these characters working together in a more realistic style seeming to be the absolute pinnacle of what we comic book geeks could expect to see on screen – my little geek mind would have been completely blown if I’d realised what was pretty much imminent, movie-wise.
A further illustration of how far things have come and what has changed in terms of our perception of these characters comes with these examples: in the first game, Iron Man doesn’t even appear until the second level and Nick Fury is still an old, white, Clint Eastwood-type character. It’s hard to overstate how jarring all of this is in 2019, but just consider that Fin Fang Foom, the Kaiju-esque underwear enthusiast, shows up before Iron Man.
Despite these now-jarring elements, what was absolutely fantastic about Marvel Ultimate Alliance is that it gave players the chance to play Stan Lee with our choice of dream team-ups, allowing any four characters to be combined from a hugely impressive line-up. It was superb, too, at finding ways to reward players for certain character combinations – my chosen team of characters getting a Marvel Knights bonus was a wonderful surprise at the time, for example.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was, in some ways, even more exciting in storyline terms (even if the game itself wasn’t quite up to par). Using the then-recent Civil Way storyline as a basis for the game’s plot, it once again repeated the action RPG formula, though in my opinion – aside from pitting heroes vs heroes – didn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the first game; not only that, but having certain heroes locked off depending on which side you chose in the ‘war’, also took away one of the joys of the first game. At this stage, I can’t help but consider this: if you’d told me when this game released that we’d have had a movie version of the Civil War storyline just seven years later, I definitely wouldn’t have believed you.
Which brings us to Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. A belated sequel and Switch exclusive – which in itself seems quite bizarre, given how many formats the original games appeared on (and the fact that the Nintendo versions felt like afterthoughts at the time) – the third game is released into a world which is very much aware of, and invested in, a large number of Marvel characters that would have seemed incredibly, hopelessly obscure back when the first game was released. Case in point: the game opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Imagine that happening back in 2006 or when the second game released in 2009. No one would have had the first clue who they were, despite the modern incarnation of the Guardians first coming together in 2008 (albeit not with quite the same line up we now see in the movies).
The storyline, too, is one we’re now familiar with thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is largely concerned with Thanos collecting the Infinity Stones. Settings and story beats, for the most part, reflect those we’ve recently seen on screen too – which is both blessing and curse. It’s positive, because we’re able to play through a slightly remixed version of cinematic events with a team of our choosing – but it’s negative because these are things we’ve only just seen resolved; part of the appeal of the first game, especially, was that we were playing through an original plot that felt very deep in terms of comic book lore and references dotted throughout – and it was even more exciting because it felt as if it had generally (sporadic adaptations in animated series aside) only existed in comic book form previously.
Here, everything just comes off as a rehash – and, given the focus on cel-shaded, comic book stylings as opposed to the pseudo-realism of the previous two games, the game doesn’t benefit from comparison to the movies.
The cutscenes and voice acting are superb, however. There’s some really great work here and there are some characters included who are underrepresented or completely missing from current cinematic adaptations – Ms Marvel being a great example.
It plays not unlike the classic games – which, again, is a bit of a letdown. There’s some nice touches with upgrading your team bonuses using a grid to progress, but there’s not much advance in terms of moment to moment gameplay from the original games – the most recent of which, Ultimate Alliance 2, is now a decade old. There’s some value in playing multiplayer, as there always was, but – and again, this is a problem that’s always existed in the series – sometimes things get so hectic that it’s difficult to see what’s going on (and, to be fair, this issue can even raise its head when you’re playing alone too).
It’s telling also that just a few months after release, it seems that there’s a complete lack of buzz or discussion about the game on social media. It was released and there was brief excitement, but it’s now tailed off completely, as far as I can see (though admittedly, this just may be due to the Twitter circles that I inhabit).
It’s a shame and does feel like a missed opportunity. In my opinion, it feels almost like a game that suits – and would benefit from – a lower price point (not to mention a multi-format release, as it’s not the most technically accomplished game), but with the general higher price of Switch games and the fact that it’s exclusive to Nintendo’s console meant that this was always unlikely.
I’d say that this only for die-hard Marvel fans and fans of the original games but – given that I tick both of those boxes and even I ended up disappointed – I’d still recommend trying before you buy if you can, even if it looks like it’ll be your cup of tea. In a world where superhero team-ups are incredibly common and frequent on screen, I think there needed to be more here than there is, certainly in terms of scale. I can’t quite put my finger on where exactly they could have gone with the formula in order to make it more satisfying, but sadly more of the same doesn’t feel like enough when we’d only just seen Endgame. Ultimate Alliance 3 would have felt like a brilliant third chapter several years ago; it is, perhaps, the right game at the wrong time in many ways.
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