Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order (Switch)

The ultimate alliance of Marvel’s finest.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/27/2019 21:30 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Tons of heroes; great fan service with so many combinations of characters possible; gorgeous presentation; combat is fun and explosive
Poison Mushroom for...
Wonky camera; character progression can become too reliant on grinding through modes external to the campaign; soundtrack is somewhat generic and bland

At a certain point in my life, I hit a crossroads of sorts. As I looked around my humble abode, which isn’t terribly large by any stretch of the imagination, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have enough space to support all of my nerdy collecting endeavors. My exploits as a budding packrat had recently seen some of the Marvel Legends action figures make their way to my shelves. I was also avidly collecting single issues and trade paperback collections of numerous comic book series. At the same time, however, I also was amassing quite a number of video games.

Shelves were bowing, my wallet was a-trembling, and it was time to decide: comic books or video games? I chose the latter and haven’t regretted it, but I didn’t abandon comic books entirely. I scaled back what I actively collected every month but have always been a consistent reader. Still, my enthusiasm for the exploits of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four falls just shy of the excitement I feel when plugging in the latest journey to Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be pumped about a superhero video game until Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order fell into my lap.

Prior to the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series was Activision’s X-Men Legends games. The titles featured a collective of dozens of Marvel’s merry mutants mixed into an engrossing, top-down action-RPG experience. When the Ultimate Alliance series arrived, Activision took the same basic formula of X-Men Legends and expanded it to cover the entirety of the Marvel Universe, not just its mutant population. The last entry in that franchise was Ultimate Alliance 2 back in 2006 and, after so much time since then, many a fan felt that the door was shut for good. Turn the calendar to 2019, however, and suddenly the world has been gifted Ultimate Alliance 3 out of the blue.

Developed by Koei Tecmo, I was fascinated to learn how the studio responsible for solo-brawlers like Ninja Gaiden would handle the multi-opponent action of Ultimate Alliance. Koei Tecmo acts as publisher for more comparable titles like Dynasty Warriors, of course, but in terms of developing those games, that honor goes to studios like Omega Force. How would Koei Tecmo take over for developers Raven and Vicarious Visions, the original stewards of Ultimate Alliance? After playing the E3 demo and now final build of Ultimate Alliance 3, I’m quite pleased to say that Koei Tecmo not only nailed the feel of the originals, but the studio has also evolved it and provided its own unique flavor.

Ultimate Alliance 3 begins in space with the Guardians of the Galaxy investigating a seemingly abandoned vessel. The team quickly comes to find that the ship is far from uninhabited and takes on squad-mate Gamora’s sister Nebula before coming face-to-face with one of the massively powerful Infinity Stones (Infinity Gems for longtime Marvel fans). From there, the Guardians end up transported to Earth where they eventually find themselves joined by a whole litany of Marvel heroes on a quest to stop the evil tyrant Thanos from destroying the universe.

As a narrative, Ultimate Alliance 3 doesn’t skew too far beyond what fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are accustomed to, but thankfully the game isn’t slavishly devoted to the films. There’s a healthy mix of what fans know from the movies as well as the comics. The result is a broad, nuanced collection of takes on these characters that makes the game feel almost like a “best of” when it comes to Marvel’s pantheon of heroes and villains. While Disney has made strides in bringing nearly all of Marvel’s various characters under its umbrella, in particular by acquiring 20th Century Fox’s catalogue of the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a genuinely unfettered crossover in a way that the movies might never be able to compare to.

At its best, Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like the event comics that Marvel is so famous for publishing. The stakes are high, the roster of heroes is enormous, and there are countless winks and nods to bits of Marvel lore all over the place. Koei Tecmo might be a Japanese outfit, but the developer clearly has done its research into Marvel history (and likely has more than a few diehard fans among its workers). There are a ton of fun cinema scenes sprinkled throughout the campaign that help to flesh out the story even more, and whether it’s the video segments or just conversations with other characters, all of the dialogue is voiced.

The blend of the comic and movie universes extends to the art design of Ultimate Alliance 3, as well. As opposed to a more naturalistic visual style (as the previous two Ultimate Alliance games went for), Ultimate Alliance 3 offers a gorgeous cel-shaded aesthetic. The result is a hybrid of realistic animations and comic-like visuals that is perfectly suited to the experience. The characters sport fun, bold versions of their costumes that are reminiscent of the more practical gear from the films, but generally are inspired most by what they wear on the printed page (except for poor old Hawkeye). This is unapologetic fan service at its best.

Ultimate Alliance 3 is an action-RPG that revolves around arcade-style brawling. Waves of foes appear on-screen at once and attempt to overwhelm the four-hero team that the player has assembled. The roster grows steadily as the story unfurls with dozens of heroes eventually becoming playable. As an RPG, players amass experience points over the course of the game which level up each hero. While mostly inoffensive, one problem that does arise as a result of this leveling system is that it can become very difficult to keep the large roster of characters evenly maintained.

Only four heroes can be in-game at the same time, and as new combatants are introduced, they’re inserted into the roster at an already high level of experience. This helps to keep new heroes from being defenseless, but it also means that in some scenarios it proves necessary to utilize a fresh face over an old one if opponents are too strong to take on with the player’s current team. This is mitigated somewhat by the presence of Infinity Trials, which are objective-based challenges that reward experience points, but it’s not an ideal solution. Some of these trials are so difficult that it’s necessary to grind experience points by replaying levels in order to be powerful enough to tackle them. It can get frustrating having to grind for exp in order to take on a mode… that’s meant to allow players to grind for exp.

At the same time, RPGs are no strangers to grinding, and the core gameplay in Ultimate Alliance 3 is so fun that it’s not the worst thing in the world to take on trials or replay levels. Yet, this dependence on leveling beyond the confines of the main storyline can tend to bring progression stuttering to a halt, which can be very disappointing when the player simply wants to see what happens next in this epic storyline. There is one saving grace in the form of power-ups that grant large chunks of experience points, but they’re not particularly abundant and must be earned by beating Infinity Trials. How irksome leveling up will be is likely to vary from player to player, but it’s definitely something that could stand to be (hopefully) balanced out in a future update.

Combat revolves around a mix of light and heavy attacks as well as individual abilities. Some heroes approach battles at a distance while others go rushing in to face enemies at close quarters. Carried over from Ultimate Alliance 2 are Synergy Attacks where heroes combine abilities to strike at the same time. These attacks are brutal, flashy, and come in handy during tricky fights. Extreme attacks, meanwhile, charge over time and can be unleashed with up to four other heroes simultaneously, resulting in screen-filling bursts of energy and explosions that really deal a hefty dose of damage to foes. Rampaging against enemies with all of these signature attacks and abilities is not unlike playing with action figures as a kid— in fact, it’s arguably better.

If there’s one glaring weakness besides the wonky leveling system in Ultimate Alliance 3, it’s the obstinate camera. There are two vantage points from which the camera can be positioned, but neither ultimately serve to help the situation. Whether in corridors or wide open rooms, the camera is regularly at odds with the player, refusing to position itself in a way that clearly displays what’s happening on-screen. It frequently gets stuck in the geometry of a stage and only seems to become even more cumbersome during co-op play. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s certainly annoying and I wish that Koei Tecmo had managed to get it working better than it ended up in this final build.

Speaking of co-op, outside of the camera sometimes hampering visibility, it’s a breeze to set up and very fun. It’s a simple matter of selecting the feature from the menu and adding another controller. Playing with an additional person can greatly heighten the action, adding even more chaos to an already packed screen of foes and special attacks. At times, as a result of all this mayhem, it can become difficult to pinpoint where the player character is. In single player, this is a rarer occurrence, but in co-op it tended to happen more often. There’s a colorful outline that appears around each hero, but even that isn’t enough to rectify the issue. Nevertheless, co-op is well done and definitely worth a look for those wanting to play with others.

Beyond all of that, Ultimate Alliance 3 has a lot of customization features to take advantage of, too. ISO-8 crystals grant buffs such as increased strength and defense to individual heroes, while a large skill tree optimizes stats for the entire roster. There are also unlockable costumes and color variants for each hero, further tailoring the experience for players. As a whole, Ultimate Alliance 3 is an immensely enjoyable game that really reminded me how much I love Marvel’s wealth of characters. The roster is huge, the combat is gratifying, and it all looks slick running on Switch either docked or in handheld mode. There are some blemishes in terms of player progression, a bland soundtrack, and the unwieldy camera, but it’s nothing that should stop anyone from going out and giving Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order a download.

Note on DLC

There’s a $20 Expansion Pass available for Ultimate Alliance 3 that will bring with it three content packs in the coming months. There are 36 characters that can be unlocked through natural play of the game and two free DLC characters have been released (Cyclops and Colossus) with likely more to come. It’s a lot of heroes, but admittedly it can be a little frustrating to think that characters like the Punisher, Moon Knight, and the Fantastic Four (among others) aren’t there from the start. Still, in this day and age, $20 for three content packs is at least a reasonable deal and with over 30 characters on the cartridge, the original roster is pretty robust.

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