Once upon a time, there was a game called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The idea was simple: players took control of a robust roster of heroes to travel the Marvel universe and fight every villain ever, with Doctor Doom being the big bad, of course. The comics references ran deep, and the gameplay was a nice blend of brawler and RPG elements. The game was universal enough to release on PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii, with a PSP port as well. What it did, it did well, earning it a place in the hearts and minds of Marvel fans.
These fans asked for more for years (ignoring a Civil War-based sequel that many call inferior), and now in 2019, we're getting it. It's still simple: players control a lot of heroes and fight a catalog of villains in iconic Marvel locales. But a lot has changed. Doctor Doom can't be the big bad now that Thanos is a movie star. Obscure characters from the comics appear, but they share the spotlight with MCU-inspired versions of our favorites. The brawler and RPG elements return, and there's a new mechanic inspired by mobile games. Exclusive games hold more sway these days, so we're only getting this new game on Nintendo Switch.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order still fulfills the fan dream of a thrill ride through a universe we know and love. It's just a different universe, one that's gotten so big the game had to be streamlined to make everything fit.
Stop Me If You've Heard This One
A guy, a raccoon, a tree, an alien assassin, and an angry knife man walk into a Kree ship. There they find the Infinity Stones. Thanos' minions, the titular Black Order, come for the stones. During the chaotic battle, Star Lord grabs the Space Stone and uses it to teleport him and the stones away. They all land on Earth, the villains of Earth race to grab them, and Nick Fury assembles an alliance of ultimate proportions to get the stones first. All the while, the threat of Thanos coming for the stones looms ominously.
It's Avengers: Infinity War, albeit a very condensed version. It also takes place in a universe where Infinity Stone shenanigans have happened before, and some heroes wearily reminisce on that fact. In that way, it's more like the comics. The game waves this mix of influences proudly like a flag. Rocket's voice has an unmistakeable Bradley Cooper vibe, but Spider-Man sounds more drawn from his recent game appearances. Daredevil makes a reference to fighting in hallways (RIP Netflix Daredevil). Only comics fans will recognize Elsa Bloodstone. Also, mutants are there, looking and sounding the way the 90s X-Men cartoon told us they should.
Since it's drawn from so many sources, the story is the most generic thing ever. Bad guys keep appearing, more good guys appear to help stop them, you get a stone, and then you do it again until you have all six. Environments, too, are basically "here's a jungle" and "here's a futuristic city." That actually helps, however, because it lets us focus on why we're here: the characters. The classic banter is there, both the smart-alecky MCU stuff and the cheesy comics stuff. Every unlocked character also gets a kick-ass introduction. It became sort of like a Smash Bros. trailer game for me, guessing who was coming next. "Lightning! Oh, it's Storm!"
With Great Franchise Rights Comes Great Responsibility
It's all about the characters, which makes me wonder why there are glaring omissions when it comes to them. The biggest disappointment is the costumes. You unlock costumes by playing Infinity Trials. These are repeats of story levels with new objectives like, "Defeat 200 Enemies," or, "This Type Of Attack Does More Damage." I fondly remember a side mission from the first Ultimate Alliance that focused on Deadpool fighting Arcade. Arcade! They made a one-shot story for an obscure comic book villains. There's no such context to Infinity Trials, they just exist to be extra content. When you do complete them, you can get costumes that are equally stale. Watch the video below, and you'll see that everyone but Deadpool gets one "costume" that's just a palette swap of their regular outfit.
Another thing I miss from the old game is Ultimate Alliance 2's combo attacks. These powerful finishing moves were available to certain characters, for instance, Cap and Iron Man. Cap would throw up his shield and Iron man would shoot a laser at it, and the two would hold this reflected beam and move around, sweeping enemies up in its fury. The replacement for this in UA3 is synergy attacks. Powers have certain properties now, like bullet or slam, and combining certain kinds produces a powerful effect that can stun enemies. It's a neat mechanic that inspires you to put thought into your team comps. Unfortunately, it doesn't look nearly as cool. The Iron Man and Cap combo from UA2 felt like a crafted homage to the characters. I don't know why Spider-Man's webs and Rocket's grenades go together in UA3, and there's not a unique animation to sell the idea.
You Wanted More?
It was a particularly stressful week for me, and every night I immediately wanted to jump into Ultimate Alliance 3. Not just because I needed to finish this review, but because I was really enjoying the game. There's something cathartic about the basic story and simple mechanics. As a brawler, it speaks for itself. Hit the enemies and be careful around the bosses. The RPG mechanics are also streamlined, giving each hero four powers you can level up as you choose. It didn't require much thought (although the unlocked higher difficulties do require more strategic team choices). I just got to be my favorite heroes for a while.
As I write this, however, there's the lingering question that always comes with game reviews. Do I keep playing now that I'm not obligated to? For now, the answer is yes. I still want to experiment with some of the characters unlocked late game. Although I really don't want to grind through Infinity Trials for lame costumes. Will that equal enough content to live up to the memory of the original Ultimate Alliance? Not really. We'll have to buy DLC for that. It is 2019, after all.
4 Out Of 5 Stars
A copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order was purchased by TheGamer for this review. It's available now on Nintendo Switch.