Back in the ancient times of 2006, a time where films like Spiderman and X-Men were building the foundations for true mainstream superhero popularity, and before people took Captain America seriously, and before people thought Iron Man was cool hero, and before the rise of the MCU, there was only one source of entertainment outside of comicbooks that would allow you to visit the Marvel universe…
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is an isometric action RPG where players choose four of their favourite superheroes to fight in a team against Doctor Doom’s villainous team known as the Masters of Evil, in a story that spans many of the well known, as well as some of the more obscure, places in the Marvel universe.
The story is as follows:
When the S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier is attacked by Doctor Doom’s team of super villains, superheroes are summoned to help. However the attack is a diversion so that the Masters of Evil can obtain a Mutant Amplifier and kidnap Nightcrawler from the Omega Base, another S.H.I.E.L.D base. By amplifying Nightcrawlers powers, Doctor Doom travels across multiple dimensions in order to obtain Odin’s powers from Asgard which, with the help of Loki, he is able to do. When he kills all of your heroes, you are spared from death by a being known as the Watcher and find yourself in battle across the cosmos in order to return to Earth and stop Doom’s reign of tyranny.
In all honesty the story is surprisingly good and a part of why this is the case is how the various locations you visit are woven into it. For example, when you first hear Nightcrawler has been kidnapped, you are ordered to go directly to Doom’s Castle to save him. However when you arrive the place is quite saturated and the music is oddly goofy. If in your fight’s there you happen to destroy some of the environment you’ll find that behind the grey stone pillars are huge multi-coloured spiral pillars – not something one would associate with Doom. This ends in a segment where you are told a villain called Arcade intercepted your teleportation to Doom’s Castle and instead bought you to Murder World: A carnival full of robotic clowns, and jack-in-the-box’s with machine guns.
For another example, after you visit Atlantis and find out that the Master’s of Evil have stolen something from the vaults of the city, you find the Mandarin trying to make an escape from there. In pursuit of the Mandarin to learn what he stole, your next location is to go to the Valley of Spirits, a place full of ceramic ninja’s, warrior monks and dragons. But once you arrive, you discover that the Mandarin never was a part of the Masters of Evil, and that Loki had been masquerading as the Mandarin in Atlantis the whole time in order to throw you off.
This type of story telling allows an otherwise straight forward plot about stopping Doctor Doom from taking over the world to take you to bizarre and fun locations that otherwise wouldn’t have a purpose in the story. The result is that Marvel Ultimate Alliance becomes an RPG with some of the most diverse sets of locations I think I’ve ever played. Murder World is probably my favourite because it features a section where your heroes get into bumper cars and fight against a team of evil clowns also in bumper cars, and then there’s treasure chests that smack you on the head with a hammer if you interact with them, as well as a segment that has you navigate the 1982 game Pitfall in order to save Jean Grey, who has been trapped inside of it.
Other stand out locations are the Valley of Spirits because of how fun I find the enemies are, the Shi’ar space ship because of how fun the cosmic part of the Marvel Universe is, and the Skrull home world because you can see Galactus trying to destroy the world as you fight enemies along the way. Asgard is also particularly good because of how much it embraces the Viking culture. There are some lesser locations, such as the Omega Base which feels very generic, and Atlantis which has tedious enemies and some of the least interesting bosses in the game. But more often than not the diversity is great and it keeps the game feeling fresh, as no location slogs on longer than it needs to or is too short that you feel you have wasted your time going there.
In terms of gameplay you control a party of four superheroes from a large roster, which may vary depending on which version of the game you own. For example I had access to heroes like Colossus, Cyclops and the Hulk on the Xbox One remaster who were not available to me when I first played this game on the PlayStation 2. The default team of heroes you start with consists of Captain America, Spiderman, Thor and Wolverine. For narrative purposes, these heroes are often the point of view characters during cutscenes but there is nothing preventing you dumping all of them and making your own team of heroes. The heroes I used to begin with were Captain America, Hawkeye, Cyclops and Nightcrawler. But as I unlock more characters I swapped out Hawkeye in favour of Blade, and Nightcrawler is favour of Ghost Rider. The way I played the game was to keep using the same few heroes throughout since they would level faster and become more powerful, but there are several opportunities to change your team in every location and even in the hub worlds if you prefer to experiment with different heroes. Every hero has access to a variety of powers they can use to deal extra damage at the cost of stamina, but they can only have three powers slotted as abilities at one time. This means that if you really want to play a particular character but aren’t a fan of their initial abilities, you don’t have to wait long until more become unlocked for you. While some powers are blatantly copy-pasted from one hero to another, there are some unique and powerful ones such as Captain America’s shield throw that decimates crowds of enemies and is completely unpredictable. Doctor Strange has one of the more hilarious powers, with which he transforms an enemy into a box that you can then break to get coins from.
Speaking of levelling, by default the game has all of your heroes on an auto-levelling system that upgrades their stats and abilities for you. Killing enemies and breaking boxes (which you’ll be doing a lot of) yields coins which can be spent upgrading your heroes stats such as melee damage, critical strike chance or defence. However, by unlocking different costumes for your heroes you also unlock different stats to level up. For instance Captain America’s US Agent outfit has a stat that gives the entire team a percentage chance to activate their offensive powers three-levels higher than what it currently is. It was for this reason that I kept him on my team and in that outfit for the whole game. You can also permanently increase your Body, Strike and Focus attributes by exploring levels and finding pickups. One of the reasons I kept Cyclops on my team was because he didn’t need to pick these things up, since one of his stats gave him +2 to each attribute every time I levelled it, thus I could allow other heroes who were falling behind to pick them up instead. The second part of levelling happens whenever a hero levels-up and grants you a single skill point. These skill points can be spent improving the powers that the heroes have slotted, typically costing one point for a single upgrade but often costing two once you get them to a high enough level, and also costing two for unlocking that heroes ultimate. Ultimate powers are always equipped and cannot be unequipped. After building enough momentum in combat you can activate it to do massive area of effect damage. I found that against some bosses they were ineffective, but were super satisfying against hordes of lesser enemies.
As you explore levels you can also find simulator discs that allow you to do unique levels with a single hero, which normally try to replicate the story of a notable comic and give you details about that hero and their backstory. They are completely optional, but completing them can yield skill points, permanent buffs to your attributes and new costumes if you choose to complete them.
For all of the reasons above, save for the one or two locations that fail to live up to the quality of the others, I feel that the games succeeds in what it sets out to do in almost every way. However, there are other areas of the game that don’t shine so well.
Dialogue, for example, is often really really boring. The only time you have options in dialogue is between missions in the hub world. At best, these dialogues provide simplified and easy to understand lore for people who aren’t too familiar with the characters or locations within the Marvel universe. At worst they bore you to sleep. While most dialogue has to be read, there are certain unique and fully voiced dialogues that trigger when you bring two characters who have relation to each other in the comics together. For example, bringing Elektra to a fight against Bullseye or Spiderman to a fight against Mysterio will trigger some banter you wouldn’t have otherwise heard. This is good, but many of the voice actors really over-act. In the case of the villains, the corny overacting can work quite well, such as in the case of the Winter Soldier who is so unapologetically evil that you kind of feel bad for stopping him. It doesn’t work so well for the heroes however, particularly in the case of Captain America who, dare I say it, is TOO American. Resultingly, the tongue-in-cheek tone of the dialogue and voice acting is hit or miss and tends to vary a lot.
In the hub worlds there are also some side missions to pick up, most of which involve you picking something up from another character and delivering it back for seemingly no reward. There does seem to be an extended questline about investigating Black Widow’s suspicious behaviour, however, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it because of how boring and pandering it was. One part of the mission required me to talk to people in order to guess what the password to her laptop would be, but when I got it wrong the game progressed anyway as though I had got it correct without asking me to try again. For the most part you aren’t going to be spending a lot of time in the hub worlds, however, and the side missions are entirely optional so there’s no pressure to do any of them.
But the core of the game is very solid and does a good job of making an extremely simple gameplay loop feel largely re-playable. I was surprised just how much of the game held up from when I was a kid, and even more surprised that the parts that don’t hold up so well are never at the forefront of the experience or are entirely optional to engage with. So overall I would recommend playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance – A simple but fun action RPG with a lot of heart.