Ultimate Alliance’s return might be a relic of the past, but at least it has a charming cast of characters.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is an oddity. For one, it’s a Marvel game published by Nintendo. It’s also a sequel to an Activision-published game that last had a new entry a decade ago. After spending a handful of hours with the final game, the Team Ninja-developed isometric co-op-centric action game is exactly what I wanted it to be as a follow-up to a personally beloved series, but it also feels more like a lost port of a 2010 Marvel Ultimate Alliance game we never saw before.
The action kicks off in space, following around the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is the surest sign that this isn’t actually a 2010 game. The gang finds a derelict ship and goes to explore it, eventually stumbling upon the Infinity Stones and then kicking off the crux of the adventure as you travel to Earth to find the Infinity Stones before Thanos does. Your first four characters of an impressive 34-character roster are Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and the duo of Groot and Rocket Raccoon. At all times, four heroes explore and fight, with a quick path to drop-in/drop-out co-op. Star-Lord offers more ranged attacks, Gamora and Drax focus more on melee, while Groot and Rocket split the difference. Everyone has light and heavy attacks that can be chained into combos and also have energy-dependent special abilities. It’s limited at first since each hero only has one, with new abilities unlocked at level 10, 15, and 20. Most of the abilities fit into specific styles and types, though the more minute details and effects are specific to each hero, usually peppered with cute references to their comic past.
After the opening chapter in space, the Guardians end up in the Raft prison in New York City. They bust out, which puts them on a path through faceless enemies and eventually meeting up with Spider-Man, Nick Fury, and a slew of new playable heroes. After being limited to just the Guardians for the first chapter and a half, the moment where you unlock no less than a dozen heroes at once is dizzying and fun.
It’s a silly complaint, but if anything, the roster is too large too fast. I wanted to experiment with all of the heroes, but you have to level them all up individually, so over the course of my preview playtime, I focused on a few core heroes while cycling in and out some others to try them out. The variety is awesome, though. In addition to the Guardians, you can mess with some stock Avengers, like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk, as well as Spidey, Captain Marvel, Wolverine, and even the Inhuman Crystal, who I honestly didn’t know much of anything about. She’s got fire powers and has a teleporting dog named Lockjaw. It stands to reason that if you like specific elements of Marvel, you hopefully have some representation early on, though from peeking at the full roster, it seems overall light on X-Men, which is disappointing as someone who loved X-Men Legends (but hey - one of the DLC packs features X-Men, so hopefully Cyclops and Iceman will fight again).
The portion in the Raft highlighted a lot of good and bad elements of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Copious amount of enjoyable fan service is ever present, which is delightful. On the other hand, the camera is rough. It alternates between fixed placement and free right-stick control, but it too often obscured enemies or heroes. A broad zoom-out happens sometimes too, which makes everything harder to see. While the combat is full-on button-mashing brawler nonsense at times, the ability to chain Synergy attacks across your four-hero team adds some nuance. Using different abilities in conjunction will do more damage, which is easier to trigger manually in co-op but can also be done with computer-controlled partners and a timed button press.
For most of the fights, darting around and wrecking goons is the key, but boss fights offer up some need for strategy. A two-part Doctor Octopus fight kicks off with fighting him like a normal enemy while trying to nimbly avoid his attacks. The next stage is on an elevator where his four arms sit in the corners of the arena. Each one must be weakened to reduce his Stagger gauge to zero, and then Doc Ock collapses on the floor to get pummeled. The Stagger gauge separates big enemies from little ones. Separate from a health bar, Stagger is reduced by doing damage until it’s wiped out and the enemy is stunned for a brief period of time.
That element also factors heavily into the Green Goblin boss fight that closes off the Raft portion of the story. Goblin circles the arena tossing pumpkin bombs onto the stage that you have to pick up and throw the bombs back at him to deplete his Stagger gauge, which then lets you beat the snot out of Gobby.
As a fan of Marvel comics, romping through different locales filled with winks, nods, and familiar faces is a blast. I don’t want to oversell that majesty, though. There’s a strong mindless brawler element at play here that is very dependent on your familiarity with the cast. I’m having a great time, but a solid bit of jank undermines the enjoyment. That camera is frustrating and to a degree, so is the podunk level design filled with countless corridors and little of note to explore. The few nooks and crannies hide little more than experience boosters and other items. Seemingly one area per chapter hides an Infinity Rift, which leads to a cornucopia of extra challenges.
The Infinity Trials are presented in a grid, demarcated by level requirements and different mission types. The rewards are more experience boosters and items, but alternate costumes are also nestled in these challenges as well. The structure of the Trials seem to be more post-game-relegated, as they are often harder versions and alternate takes of completed segments. It adds some legs to the game as well as offering a place where you can level up characters if you want to catch a hero up to your current crew.
A major element of character customization is ISO-8 - equippable items that are introduced at the end of the third chapter. I haven’t dabbled that much with these items, but they’re essentially power-up crystals that can be equipped on fighters to give them a boost, ranging from increasing light attack power to boosted health. Additionally, you can use an earned currency to expand a team-wide hex grid that gives broader boosts and buffs to all character stats. So far, the customization is more passive and slow-paced, but you have a lot of ways to tweak and upgrade your team and a promise exists that this will deepen as you get further along.
I’m very much enjoying my time with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 and I look forward to strengthening my favorite characters (my current main team is Spider-Gwen, Ms. Marvel, Wolverine, and Venom). The whole experience is a little rough around the edges, but this is a game focused on romping through the Marvel universe with a cast of 34 heroes. The thrill is much more in the references and the character moments than it is in the overall design and polish. I have reservations, but also like the next place I’m going to seems X-Men-related and I want Nightcrawler to join my team and I’ll totally fight Magneto.