In 2006, Activision and Raven Software expanded upon their successful action-RPG franchise, X-Men Legends, to encompass the entire Marvel Universe. The result was Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and while comic and action-RPG fans agreed that the overall product was enjoyable, it also suffered from balancing issues, and was riddled with technical glitches. For the sequel, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Raven was replaced by Vicarious Visions, and while they’ve managed to clean up most of the problems found in the original, sadly, there’s not all that much different this time around.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 loosely follows the recent universe-spanning storylines from Marvel Comics. Heavily altered versions of "Secret War", "Civil War", and "Secret Invasion" all appear in the game, and do a much better job of keeping players motivated to continue their quest than the previous game's paper-thin plot. It's easily the best story in the X-Men Legends/Ultimate Alliance series, and one of the best stories from any superhero game in memory. Due to higher quality voice acting, characters sound the way fans expect them to, and with a few exceptions, the script is pretty solid. Characters’ lips even match up to their spoken lines this time around, and cut-scenes, while not quite as impressive as the jaw-droppers from the first MUA, are more frequent, often taken directly from the comics, and thoroughly entertaining for fans of super-heroes and fantasy combat in general.
The roster of playable characters in this second offering isn't as robust as the last one, but it still offers 24 costumed characters, ranging from Hollywood superstars like Iron Man and Hulk, to lesser known characters like Iron Fist and Ms. Marvel, and even a few outright villains, like Green Goblin and Venom. This number is sure to be supplemented by some DLC packs, but the decrease in heroes is significant, especially considering each character has only one alternate costume instead of three.
For the most part, gameplay remains largely unchanged since 2006. Four characters traverse linear levels, fighting off hordes of nameless enemies while collecting power-ups and solving simple puzzles. Almost all the fighting controls are exactly how you remember them; A and B are attacks, X grabs, Y jumps, the left bumper blocks, and the right trigger brings up your powers, which are mapped to the four face buttons. The only new major addition to the formula is the super-powerful Fusion moves. As players deal out and take damage, a Fusion meter fills up. Once it is full, holding the left trigger and pressing one of the face buttons will cause your hero to team-up with the player assigned to that face button for a devastating attack. Each different combination of heroes produces a unique Fusion attack; Luke Cage can rip a huge chunk of stone from the floor, have it charged with energy by Gambit, then smash the charged rock on a single enemy, and Iceman can freeze Wolverine, releasing a massive ice explosion and coating Wolverine with frozen armor. There are three categories of Fusions (clearing, targeted, and guided), and while many combos are very similar, there is no shortage of spectacular Fusion attacks. Breaking up the somewhat repetitive hack-and-slash gameplay with these team-up attacks is a great move for the series, and does a good job of representing the way that superheroes usually fight in the comics.
Between missions, your team rests and recovers at one of several headquarters. Depending on which side of the Civil War you choose to fight, different HQs become available. Every hideout features the same functions as in MUA; a Marvel trivia quiz, a terminal to check your unlocked content, and a challenge room lobby. In addition, cameo characters are spread throughout the bases. These characters usually represent conversation options, and occasionally allow you to choose your responses to their statements. Answering aggressively, diplomatically, or defensively will help unlock new boosts that affect your entire team, as well as help establish your own attitude towards the events of the game. While these are a nice touch, they feel somewhat inconsequential. Hopefully, in future iterations, these will be further fleshed out.
With four heroes on screen at all times, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was made with cooperative play in mind. Up to four players can band together to fight the forces of evil. Unassigned characters are controlled by the computer AI, which is, thankfully, not quite as stupid as it was in the first game, but players can switch to these heroes at will. Whether online, in your living room with friends, or a combination of both, co-operatively is by far the best way to play. Money, used to buy passive abilities, is shared equally by all characters, so the greedy, "every-man-for-himself" angle from the first game is now limited to grabbing for individual stat boosts. This helps cut down on the constant undercutting, sabotage, and backstabbing that was so prevalent in the previous game's co-op mode, and encourages teamwork. For some, this is good news, but other players clearly enjoyed the competitive nature of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and will likely miss it in the sequel.
Behind the scenes, there are a few changes as well; but only a few. Each character now possesses only four active powers, and, unlike before, can't be mapped to different buttons. Instead of extra active powers to swap in and out, each character is also assigned six passive abilities, like damage reduction, critical hit percentage increases, team buffs, and regeneration, that help make characters more individual. In practice, the changes work, and heroes do feel more unique, but the loss of two to four powers per hero does hurt the game's versatility.
The system of powering up abilities through unlocked points returns, but in a simplified form. The new system gives you full control over every point you unlock, allowing players to fully customize their characters to play exactly how they want, unlike in the original, where unlocked powers claimed some points permanently. While this makes the RPG aspect of the game more satisfying, and helps make up for fewer attack powers, it also allows players to tweak their teams to take out bosses in extremely quick fashion. Allowing players to sink all their points into specific powers, and switch players out at any point – even during a boss fight – makes the game a bit too easy for those that choose to exploit the changes. Likewise, there are a couple of characters with abilities that seem to unbalance the game. Iron Fist, for example, has the ability to heal his teammates, which makes him an extremely valuable component to any team. With no other characters possessing a healing ability, the difference between playing with Iron Fist and without him is huge. No single character, especially one who is essentially a blonde-haired Bruce Lee, should be so impactful.
It’s not going to threaten Resident Evil 5’s or Far Cry 2’s spots as the best looking game on the Xbox 360, but Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is a very nice-looking game, and marks a huge improvement over its predecessor. Gone are the action-figure-like, bump-mapped characters of the first game, replaced with richly detailed, hi-res models that animate well, and look excellent even up close. In addition, pretty much every character’s costumes have received a slight, but noticeable makeover that makes the characters look less ridiculous and more believable. Even Wolverine, in his bright yellow outfit, looks like he could exist in the real world. While using their powers, players look even better, benefiting from impressive real-time lighting and particle effects. Playable environments are markedly improved as well, offering far better textures and destructibility than before.
With all the explosions, fires, flying bodies, and overall chaos on-screen at any given time, keeping the camera at a distance is not only necessary to keep the game running smoothly, it also makes sure the player can see what’s going on. At times, though, the camera can be too far out, making it hard to distinguish between your characters, thug characters, and boss characters. It can be disorienting, and I wish there were an option to zoom in at least some of the time, but the camera rarely loses track of the action, and a new arrow indicator that points to your next objective helps keep things moving smoothly.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 may play pretty much the same as Marvel Ultimate Alliance, but it represents huge steps forward in presentation and technical fidelity. The minor gameplay changes add a couple of new features, but take away just as many, making them essentially a wash. It’s a shame that, in the three years they had to develop this game, Vicarious Visions didn’t add anything new to the formula except for Fusions. They do, however, deserve credit for improving on Raven Software’s already solid action-RPG formula, and for crafting a superhero story that superhero fans will care about.