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The GoodThere have been a lot of games in the Marvel universe. According to MobyGames, eighty-nine as of this writing, seventy-eight of which predated this game. However, all the previous games had been lacking something. That something was Thor. For that matter, pretty much any character who isn't Spider-Man or one of the more prominent X-Men has been severely under represented. Thor is a constant feature of The Avengers and is hardly obscure, yet he'd never been playable before, even in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. In fact, this is the first playable appearance for six out of the basic twenty-five characters. Plus, there are well over one hundred NPCS and a dozen locations, all drawn from Marvel comics. The sheer variety is one of the game's best features.
Not only do you get twenty-five characters (thirty-three if you’ll shell out an extra 800 MS points or buy the gold edition), but each of them have four different outfits (except Silver Surfer and Moon Knight). It’s like a tour of Marvel history.
The game is also a bit long by action standards (though short by RPG standards), weighing in around ten hours. At least, that’s longish these days. That estimate is just to beat the game on normal. There's more to do after that. You'll still have costumes to unlock, a hard mode to play and lots of characters to try out in search of unique conversations.
This was a pretty decent game on PlayStation 2, but the 360 adds even more. You get four new simulator missions and two extra characters, Moon Knight and Colossus, each of whom have their own powers and unlockable costumes. This means unlike some of the other platforms, you can put together a complete team of X-Men. In addition, you can purchase some of the characters conspicuously missing from previous versions, such as Hulk, to bring the roster up to an amazing thirty-three. Nothing else in the genre can rival that number expect maybe the LEGO Star Wars games.
This isn't just filler, either. All the characters are unique. Hulk doesn't play like Thing despite their similar powers, nor are there any duds. While some characters can be a bit more useful than others (flying is really handy), all of them get the job done once you learn what their powers do.
This is all put to good use. There are four characters out at any given time, with the AI filling in for any missing humans. When one of your party members knows an NPC they run into, there is generally a unique conversation with full voice-over. Some of these are rather humorous. I particularly like Dr. Doom's showdown with himself at the end of the game. You can also join characters up into teams, which get various bonuses. For instance, if you select all four members of the Fantastic Four, you get a 20 health per KO bonus. You don't have to choose an established Marvel team, though. Picking all women will get you Femme Fatale for a 5% damage bonus. There are more than thirty teams to find.
After selecting your team, you fight. You wander through 3D environments and punch and kick hordes of enemies. You also can hold down a modifier button to use your superpowers. Some of these are buffs and some are attacks and they are all unique to each character. Storm has weather-based attacks, Nick Fury has guns, Human Torch has fire attacks and so on. Since this is an RPG, as you defeat enemies (and do other things to get bonus xp) you level up, which gets you points to spend on improving your powers. Since this is a very simplified RPG, the game will assign points for you if you like and you can rearrange them at any time.
Standard attacks build a meter that, when full, can be used for a special extreme attack. Each character has a unique and visually flashy attack that does considerable damage. If more than one character has their meter filled, they all use their attack. This great for killing bosses and crowds and the meter fills quickly enough that you aren't afraid to use it when the opportunity strikes.
Each character (except Moon Knight) has four costumes. The second and third are unlocked by defeating enemies. The fourth is generally unlocked by beating a special side mission. The discs can be found lying around the levels. The costumes pull from all over Marvel history and chances are any you wanted are here. Each costume can be upgraded with cash that is acquired by defeating enemies and smashing barrels. It will have defense and two other attributes you can spend on.
Sound is cool. There's plenty of voice acting, which is mostly good, and the sound effects, while they seem to come from popular libraries, get the job done.
The BadThere's so much in this game that you start commenting about what got left out. Where's Punisher? It's good to have Hulk added, but where is his rogues gallery? Where's She-Hulk, for that matter? Why don't you go to the Savage Land?
A wise man once said "punch, kick: it's all in the mind." That's also a good summary of MUA's gameplay. Most of the game is spent walking around hitting ABA, AAB and similar combinations. The powers are cool, but there is very little depth. So far, I haven't had to develop any more advanced tactics and I'm well into hard mode.
The game's main selling point seems to be excess. There are loads of characters, costumes and everything you could want. Unfortunately, the mechanics discourage you from using them. You have to form a team of four characters and your team can gain experience for fighting together which gets you team bonuses. What's the point of having thirty-three characters if you're supposed to pick four and stick with them and lose bonuses for not using your team and are penalized for changing its roster? (Though, to be fair, you can have more than four team members, but you are still penalized if you don't pick a small subset.) The costumes are fairly expensive to upgrade at high levels, and the cash is spent permanently, so again you are given lots of options, but not really allowed to explore them.
The four-costume concept doesn't really work for all the characters, anyway. Any of the X-Men have changed costumes so many times you'll have to leave half of them out (no Weapon X for Wolverine, for instance). Iron Man is the same way. Spider-Man's costume has been the same since introduction, but he's had lots of one-shot variants. On the other hand, the less marquee characters show serious signs of padding. Spider-Woman uses alternate characters who don't even have the same powers in the comics for two of her unlocks and a couple of Daredevil's are all but identical.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance's second selling point is four-player co-op. It is a major improvement in implementation over the X-Men Legends series, but does have some serious implementation problems. Most of these come down to that you are always essentially tagging along in one player's game. When playing single-player, one player logs in under their profile. Other players can't join in with their own profiles, meaning no achievements for them. You also can't take two players on a single Xbox 360 online. In the online games, everyone is playing the host's game. They can use characters and costumes they unlocked, but nothing else of your individual work is carried over. I can understand how the game requires level parity among characters, but there had to be a better way to handle this and the profile issues were entirely doable. The result is 80% of online games never get out of the second level.
Also, when online, all characters must stay on the same screen. That is, all players are seeing the same thing. Essentially, it's just like if you were all using the same TV, only you aren't. I can understand the need for a mechanic that keeps players from splitting up, but this method means that you may find yourself stuck behind stairs unable to go around because the end is off the screen. This happened to me fighting MODOK once and the rest of my team died because they didn't have Hulk to help them. Then, Hulk really couldn't manage by himself, either.
Some conversation situations aren't handled properly. Just in the first act, Hank Pym was referring to Captain America in the third person despite the fact he was talking to Captain America, ditto Black Widow and Mr. Fantastic. Colossus and Moon Knight don't have any unique conversations, which was disappointing. While all the basic characters and normal unlocks fit into the story of the game several of the purchased characters and special unlocks will meet themselves or otherwise not make sense in context. In itself, this isn't a problem. It's dealt with brilliantly in the case of Doctor Doom. However, you also have Hulk meeting Bruce Banner and saying nothing, Nick Fury staring himself down eye-patch to eyeball numerous times without blinking and Nightcrawler not noticing the difficult choice of saving his other self or someone else.
The AI can be a bit dodgy at times. While it can keep itself alive in combat, it isn't as good at avoiding environmental hazards. I had several teammates who died because they couldn't run from a crushing wall fast enough and also occasionally had them get caught in spinning blade traps or jump into the abyss.
There are a few bugs here and there. For instance, if you call for a portal while standing next to a barrier, it may appear on the other side. Then, you have to walk all the way back to an access point or wait for the timer to run out so you can use the portal again. You also have the all-too-common problem of characters who get stuck in scenery.