Game Review: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2

September 18, 2009

The legendary superheroes from the house that Stan Lee built are back to save the world once again in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Bearing a few new tricks over its predecessor, it's got plenty of action to go around, but is its tantalizing concept crushed under the weight of some annoying bugs?

After a mission lead by Nick Fury causes an international uproar over superhero powers, the government decides to pass the Superhero Registration Act. This drastic measure triggers a conflict in the superhero world, eventually leading to an all out superhero civil war. Amidst the chaos, someone or something has decided to capitalize on the situation, threatening world destruction. It's up to the heroes of the Marvel universe to set aside their differences and unite once again before it's too late.

Right from the get-go, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 spins an action-packed tale that hardly lets up on the gas. It's everything a Marvel fanatic could ask for, but for those not up-to-speed with the lore, it can be a bit much to swallow at points. Apart from a plot twist that falls flat late in the game, though, fans of the Marvel universe will eat it up.

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There's no shortage of frantic button-mashing in this latest Marvel romp, which boasts a style that harkens back to classic action RPGs. You can play through the game's campaign with up to three friends locally or online. While your allies' AI is more than enough to get the job done, it's much more fun to play with real people. It's also incredibly simple to setup, and even with all the action going on, there's virtually no lag online.

Though it's largely structured like the previous outing, with players pummeling waves of enemies in linear levels en route to taking on various super villains, there's a new hook in the campaign that mixes things up. At certain key junctures in the story, you're given the choice to pick a side. Depending on which character you align with, the next few hours of the game will play out quite differently. Certain story elements and heroes are only accessible after you've gone through each side, so these forks in the road not only provide tension, but also some serious replay value.

There are over 20 playable characters, ranging from mainstays like Wolverine and Spider-Man, to cult favorites like Gambit and Deadpool. They all add their own unique abilities to the table, though almost any combination you can think of will get the job done in battle. And just in case any specific team members aren't pulling their weight, you have the ability to swap characters out at any time. But once they fall in battle, their spots on the team will be locked out until they're revived.

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Developing your team means spending time leveling up your heroes through combat and collecting power-ups. By leveling up a given superhero, you gain points to spend on improving their special abilities. Additionally, you can collect medals hidden throughout each level that will serve to boost your active party. If you're short on experience or missed a few medals, you always have the option to replay a specific mission back in the hub. There's also Marvel trivia that can earn you quick experience and cement your geek status all at once.

You'll easily get 10 hours out of the campaign mode, and you can tag on a few more if you wish to complete the opposite faction's missions and unlock every character. However, some nasty gameplay bugs make the tread unnecessarily vexatious, so you might not make it that far.

The combat in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is largely unchanged from the original-it's all about delivering crushing blows and unleashing some serious superhero powers. It's just too bad that some pesky bugs cast a dark shadow over what otherwise could have been a fun and rewarding experience.

As for your controlling your superhero league, each hero handles a little differently from the next, though it's relatively easy to get accustomed as the deviations aren't too drastic. It can also be a bit difficult to toggle between active party members, resulting in some excessive cycling every now and then.

While getting around should be simple enough with the overhead angle, some really poor camera work makes traversing levels quite bothersome every now and then. You're given manual control of the camera most of the time, but at certain points, it'll lock into an angle that obscures your vision of the action. In these cases, you'll be helpless until it corrects itself, which typically involves you backtracking to the right spot. As a last resort, you can blindly rush to the next area, and hope you make it through unscathed. An option to zoom in would have alleviated this problem.

Each character has a basic set of melee moves, as well as four trademark special abilities. You can get a lot of mileage out of your special moves as the meter that powers them constantly replenishes during downtime. This keeps the action fast paced and frantic, even if it's mindless at points. And though there's no lock-on mechanic, you'll rarely find yourself whiffing into dead air.

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Ultimate Alliance 2 adds a wrinkle to its combat with the fusion system, which allows two party members to team up and execute an extremely powerful attack. They come in three forms, each with its own purpose: one kind wipes out a specific area; another deals massive damage to a single target; and the last gives you a measure of control over what you want to destroy. Their effects are ultimately hit or miss, though, with some working really well at clearing out enemies, while others feeling like a waste of resources.

The combat system may sound somewhat complicated, but Ultimate Alliance 2 is as easy to pick up as any action RPG. The combat can be fun, but it all comes back to the bugs. They occur way too frequently, and they're very annoying-you'll glitch out-of-bounds in parts, or get stuck in others, ultimately requiring you to start entire sequences over. It's even worse when this happens during boss fights, especially the drawn-out, multi-phase ones.

When it's working well, Ultimate Alliance 2 is loads of fun. It's too bad that the bugs bring the experience to a screeching halt as often as they do.

The visuals in Ultimate Alliance 2 are a bit touch and go. Character models truly capture each hero's personality, and their alternate costumes look just as stylish as their primary ones. On the flip side, the enemies come in only a handful of flavors, with little variety and flair. Even some of the super-villains are hard to distinguish from the rank and file grunts. The environments don't fare much better, in particular the destructible objects, which are just a mess.

The voice work is very uneven, and the score is just as shaky, with some odd choices that don't match up well with the on-screen action. With a title like this, we were expecting a more superhuman effort.

Despite successfully improving on some of its predecessor's mechanics, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is ultimately bogged down by untimely bugs. If you can work through these issues, there's a decent action RPG hiding behind the mask. It might just be too much to ask of the average player.

Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.

Source: Activision

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