Fights, Camera, Action!
Ever since X-Men Legends, the isometric hack and slash model has identified itself well within the Marvel Universe. From its sequel; Rise of Apocalypse, and of course the first two entries into the Ultimate Alliance franchise, not to mention the short-lived Marvel Heroes: Omega, we have seen several titles allowing you to cut loose with a wide variety of its iconic heroes. For years, fans of Ultimate Alliance wondered if we would see yet another entry in the beloved series. When it was announced that this long-awaited next entry would be a Nintendo Switch exclusive, many were disappointed. This exclusivity was due to Nintendo being the publisher on the title, being responsible for bringing the series back. That said, while the portable nature of taking the game on the go is very appealing, the overall experience is decent at best, provided you can come to grips with the title’s many failings.
During the rise of the MCU, it was very common to only see the film adapted characters featured prominently on boxes of cereal, birthday supplies, t-shirts, and of course, other Marvel licensed games. Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite was the nail in the coffin when it came to how Marvel was treating characters such as the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, characters they didn’t have access to at the time for their movies. Even some mobile games were leaving several characters out, due to the fact they wanted their MCU cast front and center. With Marvel now having access to nearly every character they own, Ultimate Alliance 3 had the chance to fix this representation issue, and it does, for the most part.
Clearly inspired by the Infinity Stone saga told throughout the MCU series of films, we finally get to see such popular characters like Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, and Star Lord, interacting with a variety of the X-Men, and the Defenders; Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. While we’ve seen that several times over in the comic books and mobile games, it feels like forever since Marvel has allowed the use of such characters in the console space. Sadly, Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, are sitting this one out until they are added into the game as DLC in the fall. While the cast that does reside in the game is impressive, many choices here are relatively safe ones, with only one significant deep cut in the wise-cracking monster hunter, Elsa Bloodstone.
Again, being a title meant to capitalize on the popularity of the MCU, you’ll have the following characters in Black Widow, Black Panther, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Drax, Falcon, Gamora, Groot and Rocket Raccoon, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Star Lord, Thor, and the Wasp. Also, you’ll have characters from outside the MCU in Crystal from the Inhumans, Daredevil, Deadpool, Elsa Bloodstone, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Nightcrawler, Psylocke, Spider-Gwen, Storm, Venom, and Wolverine. I’ve also neglected to mention a few other playable characters that you can unlock, given you put enough time and effort into the game. Lastly, characters such as Cyclops, Colossus, Blade, Morbius, Moon Knight, and Punisher, will join the Fantastic Four as DLC to be added in later on. There are also several characters that will join alongside you that are not playable as of yet. These include Valkyrie, Jessica Jones, Beast, Winter Solider, Vision, and many more.
The narrative here is centered around the Black Order hunting down the Infinity stones for their master, Thanos. What I found actually surprising is that they included a member of the Black Order that wasn’t featured in either Infinity War or Endgame; Supergiant. This telepathic woman, alongside her compatriots, will stop at nothing to retrieve the stones for Thanos, and it’s up to the Marvel heroes to ensure their safekeeping. The story here is slightly below average, and is something that feels like a greatest hits fan-fic of the Marvel Universe instead of a well-written narrative. There are no direct surprises or events that you won’t see coming, and you’ll visit all the standard places that certain faction of characters would call home, or famous locations that have seen their fair share of iconic battles. Characters are used in ways you’d expect, with largely predictable dialogue that feels ridiculous at times, bordering on cringe. There are a few moments where several heroes will make out of character remarks, like Captain America referring to Bucky as the Winter Solider in a tense moment, or that most characters feel like they are written based solely around one of their many character traits, like how Deadpool is introduced here.
Each stage you’ll visit will cap off with the use of numerous villains, some of which will be extra superpowered thanks to the use of the Infinity Stones. You’ll encounter such iconic threats as the Green Goblin, Bullseye, Magneto, Klaw, Sandman, and many more. The game is quite loaded with boss encounters, which can all be revisited in numerous ways thanks in part to a challenge mode called “Infinity Rifts”. Several of these boss encounters will often allow that character to join your team, however; in the case of Magneto, and a few others, you’ll need to unlock them through these challenges in order to have them playable on your team. These challenges are more than just replaying the fights as they will have certain victory conditions and aspects to the fight that make them feel almost entirely new again. Each challenge is rated with three stars, with each star being attributed to a specific objective like defeating it in a certain time limit or reaching a certain score on a single attack. While this mode can feel a bit grindy after a while, you’ll unlock new color variants for your characters through this method as well as additional currency you’ll need to upgrade your roster apart from what you earn during standard play. Lastly, when you discover these Rifts during gameplay, tackling them will result in the game saving and exiting to the main menu once you’ve completed or left the trial. It’s a bizarre design choice that is just added to the pile of additional others that just feels like an odd choice.
Environments will have some small puzzle solving, but frankly, these don’t require really any thought at all. Most puzzles consist of moving a colored platform to their neighboring slot, or flicking switches to unlock laser-grid doors. As you battle your way through these locations, you’ll also encounter shielded boxes or walls that contain bonus xp items, ISO crystals, which I’ll talk about shortly, or other currency used to upgrade your heroes. These shields can be destroyed by performing joined attacks with your companions. In Co-op, you’ll merely have to unleash the attacks requested of that puzzle, performing the move in tandem with your friend. In single play, you’ll have to complete these attacks on your own with your collection of AI companions.
Combat has always been the draw to these games, as it will be what you’re performing for over a dozen hours of a single playthrough. Each character has a standard and heavy attack, as well as four abilities that you’ll have access to by pressing the top R button and then the corresponding face button assigned to it. You’ll start with one single ability for that character and then unlock more as you level up. You’ll earn upgrade token that you can put into each ability to make them stronger as you continue to use that character.
Several bad guys, as well as each of the bosses, will have a stun meter that must be exhausted in order to dish out any damage. While I can understand their use for the bosses, to make them seem all-powerful, it’s seeing characters like The Hulk or Captain Marvel struggle with a human prisoner that is mind boggling. While I understand that this is to keep the game challenging, it makes absolutely no sense on a narrative level when Captain America is being trounced by some random dude who has no super powers. Other games have solved this by simply making those types of enemies mere fodder and flooding the screen with them. The problem with having very few enemies that seem way to strong here is that your super heroes simply don’t feel powerful at all, which is a very big problem in a game about super powered heroes.
While I touched upon it with discussing the shields you’ll need to break in order to collect some much needed items, the combined strikes here are called Synergy attacks, replacing the Fusion attacks from Ultimate Alliance 2. These are when two characters use their special attacks together to deal out bonus additional damage that will also have their effects and range boosted. Unfortunately, unlike the Fusion attacks, these are no special animations like Magneto rolling Hulk around in a metal ball, or Iron Man using Captain America’s shield to bounce his repulsor beams off, but rather just the same attacks you’ll be doing independent of your companions, but at a reduced energy cost. Now, these aren’t the only attacks you can perform alongside your companions as each character has what is called an Extreme attack. These are your character’s biggest and most powerful strikes, usually able to screen clear most of the nearby threats. These attacks are built up as you continue to fill a yellow meter that exists within your health meter. When additional characters have it available, you can press the L and R buttons to add more fighters to the chaos you’re about to unleash. These attacks are fun to use, but if a villain instantly teleports away or your hero isn’t facing the right direction, they can feel wasteful as you’ll sit through the animation of them missing every single attack.
While you can over-level your character for a location, making them feel appropriately powerful, or close to it, you’ll need to grind a considerable amount to do so, and this is another aspect of the game that can become frustrating and limits the cast of characters to those not looking to sink dozens upon dozens of hours into the game. As you use characters, they will level up, but those in your reserve will not. Meaning, let’s say through the entire experience you chose not to use Thor, or Crystal and your current group of characters are level 34. Thor and Crystal will still be the level they were at the start, making them almost useless at the current stage of the game. Sure, you can spend XP crystals you find, or push through old chapters, but it provides a needless amount of grinding for a massive amount of characters. Because of this, I only really used less than half the roster and because of how low level the remaining cast was, I doubt very much i’ll sink the required amount of time I need to get them to the point of being effective in the Infinity Rifts. It’s a shame they didn’t earn a portion of xp so that the grind wasn’t so apparent, but here we are. Had xp crystals been purchasable with your in-game credits, then it would have easily added in some variety into my late-game roster.
Characters will range from being effective in close quarters combat, mid-range strikes, or damage dealers from afar. Some characters will have a nice mix, like Deadpool, whereas a character like Hawkeye is perfect for those wanting to keep their distance at all times. Making sure you have a solid balance of close and far range characters can really help depending on the challenge that awaits you. The mixture of your team will also dictate what bonuses you have as making a team out of just Spider-Man based characters or the X-Man roster will each come with their own mixture of bonus strength, health, or other varying factors. It’s a fun system that does reward experimentation given again, you have characters that are appropriately leveled. That said, if you choose to push through the game as a solo player, the AI given to your companions can fluctuate between helpful and brain dead. I’ve had characters simply stand still, thus taking attacks, or fighting pockets of air when everyone else is focused on the boss. While I understand the appeal of the title is to play with friends, those looking for a solo experience, or those who lack a social circle, will simply have to contend with piss poor AI help.
Apart from individual character progression, you have two other ways to boost your teams effectiveness. Alliance Enhancement is a skill tree system where you’ll work around a multi-part grid colored in the same hues as the stones themselves. This system allows you to boost your overall teams health, strength, durability, and far more. It’s a decent short gap to help with having low-level characters fight alongside you, but doesn’t quit fix that problem entirely. You’ll use a variety of currency here, but only players that put a significant amount of play into the game will look to explore vast sections of the entire board. Elsewhere, you have ISO crystals that give individual boosts to the characters to which you equip them too. These colored crystals help with boosting damage output at low health, increasing stats like strength or vitality, or other effects that may be powerful, but also have a downside to them too, like boosting defense, but lowering damage. These crystals can be upgraded and dismantled and use a ISO currency you’ll find pretty much everywhere.
For those subscribing to Nintendo Switch’s affordable online service, you can join alongside friends in 4 player online co-op. Sadly, there is no random matchmaking, but there are various outlets and forums for finding a group of like-minded players. Now, that said, co-op, in all its forms, has issues, mainly with the camera. The camera is more of less garbage in single player or local co-op as it will get hung up on walls, doors, and often block the view of several players. While there are different camera settings, you either have the camera far away and have it get caught on everything, or zoomed in and therefore lacking in your environmental awareness and start getting hit by enemies you cannot see. Online co-op does allow each player to have their own camera, but some of the problems with it still exist here, but its is far less annoying when taking the action online.
Ultimate Alliance 3 can, and often is, a very decent looking game for the Nintendo Switch. Characters during the cutscenes are stunning, but certainly drop in detail during gameplay. That said, playing portable sees a significant drop in resolution and is very pixelated because of it. Playing docked is my preferred method of play as the game can often look gorgeous and highly detailed, given the style and presentation the game offers. Now, praise aside, some animations feel very minimalistic, and leave a lot to be desired. The game does run fairly smooth, but does take a frame-rate hit when the action gets incredibly intense and you have four Extreme attacks being pulled off in unison. While I’ve seen people complain about the visuals, I still think the game looks rather sharp and falls in line with what I’ve come to expect with the recent Marvel titles.
Voice acting is a mixed bag here as while some characters are voiced to near perfection, like seeing Steve Bloom back as Wolverine, or Nolan North returning to voice Deadpool, many voices are either drastically lacking, or its the same voice actor voicing almost a dozen characters. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if they were changing the tone or pitch of their voice, but several actors are just using the same voice across all their characters. This is rather confusing when you have Nightcrawler and Doctor Strange on a team and then take the fight to the Red Skull, all voiced by Liam O’Brien, who, despite the accents, still has the same overall tone and delivery.
Being a massive Marvel fan-boy, I just expected a more polished and narratively competent title. The combat can be enjoyable, seeing the super powered chaos all around you, but you sadly never feel powerful when you have insanely strong heroes riding the struggle bus against some joe-blow humans. The story itself is decent but feels like a fan fiction greatest hits of the Marvel Universe than a grand sweeping epic like most of the Marvel crossover events offer. Marvel has crafted fairly mature stories in their movies and Insomniac’s Spider-Man has shown us how it should be done. Ultimate Alliance 3 is not a bad game, nor a mediocre one, it’s just a slightly better than average attempt at capturing the magic and fun of the previous entries. There is fun to be had here, sure, but your mileage may vary on the game depending on what you’re willing to put up with, or maybe many of these problems won’t exist for you. I did enjoy much of what the title has offered, and will keep working on leveling up my favorites, but each of the previous efforts were simply just better games, and given the quality of what Marvel has been putting out, this title just simply deserved better.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance - The Black Order was purchased by the reviewer and played on an Nintendo Switch.
All screenshots were taken on an Nintendo Switch.