The Ultimatest Of Alliances?
I like video-games; I like comic-books; I like stories.
It should come as no surprise that I’d be interested in things that bring the lot of them together, right?
Yeah, that’s a winner.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance: The Black Order got announced back at the Game Awards of 2018, a Nintendo Switch exclusive that, to me, seemed both amazing and weird. Not that I hate Nintendo (or anything like it) but the previous games in the series had been cross-platform, and I had loved them because of it.
My love of these games started way back in 2004 when X-Men Legends came out, and I vividly remember the headspace of walking into a video game shop in between college lectures and going “wait, there’s a new X-Men video game out? On a console that I actually have and use?” I can’t remember if I bought it there and then, but that game remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
That’s not to say it’s a very good game.
In retrospect, X-Men Legends was really low quality, with very little texture to anything, especially not the characters who are somewhat bland and meaningless.
Looking at screen-grabs like the below, everything about the screen just screams the 00s.
And yet, I loved it and I will fight you to protect it.
My memories of the game remain solid enough: it was a hack and slash using different mutant characters who moved and played similarly enough. Sure, the characters did play somewhat differently, bringing different elements or powers together. But those differences were mostly just in what-sort-of-stuff they would be blasting when using their power-attacks and whether they would be able to fly (or, in Nightcrawler’s sense, to teleport.)
I messed around with my characters regularly, replaying it a good few times using different teams each time. Every time I played I got excited by the promising close of the game, something between a suggestion and a promise that there would be a sequel involving X-Men villain Apocalypse, leading me to expect that this series of games could go on forever and ever and ever.
X-Men Legends II: Rise Of Apocalypse came out in 2005: again, I got excited and may have bought it in between lectures. My memories of this game aren’t quite as amazing: sure it looked and played a bit better than its predecessor, but it was also on the same consoles and from the same developers, so there wasn’t really much difference, save for a few different characters. As a matter of fact, the game’s levels and screens hit me as weaker than its predecessor: I vividly remember finishing the game only to realise that I had, somehow, skipped an entire level and boss-fight because the game started me in the centre of a level and never lead me to go in both directions.
I also have memories of having difficulty finding this game for the GameCube, a console that I adored (and still do) but that retailers seemed determined to kill before it was due to die.
The X-Men series ended with this game, but the games continued, moving politely to different consoles and different characters. Marvel Ultimate Alliance dropped in 2006, at which time the game and I alike had moved over to the Wii. The game played a little bit different with Wii controls, which proved to be a hell of a lot of fun; Thor remained on my team through various playthroughs, if just because of the fact that using his powers on the Wii controllers made me feel like a fucking god. and the inclusion of Carol Danvers (still Ms. Marvel back then) and Invisible Woman meant that I could create the team of crazily over-powered female heroes that I needed and wanted to see.
By the time Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 came out in 2008, it might’ve felt a little bit too late for me. With all the other games coming out annually, I’d given up hope for this game, and had also transitioned to an XBox 360 and the Mass Effect games.
This wasn’t the same kind of experience either; myself and my now-husband played the game cooperatively, and rather than getting to choose my own team, we divided the team in two, each of us picking two of the four characters that we would use and switch between.
Whether it was this or the game itself, MUA2 provided me with a different sort of game; there was something unwelcoming in the idea of having to choose sides and fight other heroes in doing so, as in the Civil War storyline that had been so heavy in Marvel Comics over the period. Much like the comics themselves, I found this game distanced me somewhat from the heroes I wanted to use, and the levels, somewhat like X-Men Legends II, used locations that felt somewhat repetitive and boring.
Clearly, this wasn’t just me. Despite the DLC characters that dropped for the game, things sort of died off, not just for the series, but all Marvel video games.
That’s not to say that there weren’t games: oh, there were a lot. Usually games that ties in to the latest movie release. And dear god, those games did nothing for me.
Aside from Lego Marvel Super Heroes (which I may have gotten a cheap copy of and used as a joyous distraction while having chemo), nothing else really spoke to me, and what games I played lacked any real sense of style or heart.
I guess I like my (Marvel) games in a similar way as I like my (Marvel) comics; give me multiple things and characters to play with, give me a sense of control over my team and how the game plays.
So yeah, the idea of creating my own team of heroes again? Yeah, like the old times, I totally bought Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 on release day. In a shop . And then went home to play it with my now-husband (same guy) and tried to revisit those memories.
There is good and bad to this game, and I still don’t know how I feel about either.
Let’s start with the playable characters: with a huge roster, the game should be fun to create teams, and the marketing push encouraged (potential) players to do so. My team was going to be the above, and boy was I looking for ward to it.
Except that I couldn’t unlock Psylocke until Chapter 4 (of a ten-chapter game); Magneto is an unlockable character best suited to unlock after reaching a higher level than I’m at after finishing the game’s story; Carol Danvers/now-Captain Marvel, despite featuring heavily in cut-scenes, did nothing for me in the game-play.
And for a game with so-many characters, there sure are a lot of pre-rendered cut-scenes putting a focus on characters you might want to ignore.
I consistently kept using Scarlet Witch, though, and I’m sort of happy that I stuck with her; initially with a very low level of health and power, my experience with the Scarlet Witch led me to realise and embrace a very different type of play for this game.
Because Scarlet Witch pitched to me that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 isn’t a hack-and-slash game, but one that’s pulled RPG elements through. I noticed this in some other characters too: where my experience with the previous games involved using such similar characters with only slightly different powers, Scarlet Witch (with her shitty levels of health) forced me to play a strategic game, one in which I stayed away from enemies and using powers that basically screamed at me to avoid any and all physical combat.
Eventually, Scarlet Witch, with her eventually unlocked healing powers, and her distanced attacks, became the type of gameplay I was prepared for.
Because of this, I grew to like the fact that the game provided a different type of gameplay, while still embracing the old hack-and-slash I was used to.
But this proved somewhat problematic when playing cooperatively; we managed to create a team that worked for us, making a few small changes as and when we wanted, but there still felt like there was something missing from the game that we wanted to play, a magic beat or moment that would really sell things.
The timing and pacing for playable characters was probably the biggest problem for me; for a game with ten levels, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is very slow with releasing its characters, and doesn’t give full access to its team until the middle of the eighth level (not to mention Elektra, Magneto, Loki and Thanos, who are unlocked solely through side-missions, most of which are incompletable until you have completed story-mode.)
I like that this makes the game more playable, even after finishing story-mode. But I also really wanted to play the game the way I wanted.
A few of the levels in the game also proved problematic; playing with local-co-op, the game’s camera was never entirely sure as to who and what it was focused on. While the opportunity exists to change the camera-mode in solo play, local co-operative proved problematic and frustrating.
The pacing of the game is especially frustrating, and this feeds into my thoughts on wanting to play the game my way. While previous games in the franchise featured a few unlockable characters, these were in the minority, and usually either unlocked early or involved specific tasks; instead, MUA3 keeps a good half of its roster inaccessible until a time at which you’ve already chosen your team and gotten used to how you are playing with them.
That’ll make replayability brilliant for this game, but the game doesn’t really offer a chance to learn how these new characters work; you finish the game and then replay one of the levels you’ve already played, except maybe now you might use one of these new characters who are already at the optimum level at which they were unlocked.
There may be a way around this new-game-plus issue, but I haven’t found it yet
Similarly, the games level-up systems, using pick-up tokens that you can attribute to different characters, start incredibly small, and then become massively deep, never really giving the player a chance to mess with the type of game they really want to play.
I’m very fucking happy to see a franchise like this again, and returning in such a way. But perhaps it is telling that all I want is that little something more from this game, something to really excite and impress me in the same way as those similar games of fifteen plus years ago.
I guess I just want and need something more. Which is not a bad request from your superheroes.