The game’s been out for a couple of weeks now, but what the hey – I’ve played my way through it, and I want to discuss it, so please bear with me.
Ultimate Alliance 2 is the latest game in a series that began with X-Men Legends, through X-Men Legends 2 and Ultimate Alliance. Like its predecessors, the game sees you placed in charge of a group of four Marvel Heroes of your choice, each with unique powers and abilities, who then battle their way through numerous levels gaining experience and becoming more powerful. Along the way, you collect hidden items, unlock new costumes and characters, and generally have a fun time feeling like part of the Marvel Universe.
In MUA2, the story is based around the plots of Secret War and Civil War – indeed, the middle act of the game allows you to actually pick a side of the conflict, before you’re finally re-united with the opposing heroes to take down a common foe. Your choices change what characters are available to you, as well as altering the levels and locations, and ultimately the game’s ending. It sounds quite good, doesn’t it?
However, to be frank – it’s a major step backwards for the series. MUA2 is the first one to be developed by Vicarious Visions, who ported previous versions to other consoles – it was actually Raven who developed the earlier games. VV have overhauled not just the engine, but a large amount of the gameplay mechanics too. The changes are universally disappointing. The number of powers each character can display has been dropped to 4, all of which fall into one of 6 or so categories, making all of the characters feel very similar to play. The number of unlockable costumes has been reduced to one per character, down from 4 in the previous games, and in this one, the new skins don’t have any associated stat changes. Individual character equipment has been removed altogether, replaced with a not-nearly-as-satisfying “medal” system which affects the entire team.
Overall, the game feels dumbed down – but the worst part of it is that the sense of fun and exploration has been lost. The first Ultimate Alliance had you visiting many recognisable Marvel locations, from Atlantis to Asgard – MUA2 sends you through generic streets, warehouses and factories – only the Wakanda level truly stands out, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, the in-jokes and continuity references that made the previous games so much fun for comics fans have been all but forgotten. The game might look better, but it isn’t richer by any measurement. It’s true that Ultimate Alliance was a bit of a “kitchen sink” affair, but VV have made the mistake of thinking that a more cohesive plot will automatically translate to a more entertaining one. Perhaps it would have, if they had stuck to the comics instead of coming up with an excruciating final act based around newly-invented nanite-based villains “The Fold”.
Ultimately, the proof of the game’s quality, for me, lies in how it left me feeling. The recent Batman game, Arkham Asylum, was so good that it left me ready to seek out Batman stories that would expand and explore the world of the game – as did Ultimate Alliance 1, and Ultimate Spider-Man game. That, for me, is the hallmark of a comics-license well-made. Ultimate Alliance 2, however, leaves me retreating back into the comics in the hope that I can use them to glean some vicarious entertainment value out of the game. I really wanted to love it – not least because Songbird is a playable character – but the truth is, no matter how forgiving I try to be, Ultimate Alliance 2 still comes up short.