Review – Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
It’s still hard to believe that after a decade of waiting we finally got another Marvel Ultimate Alliance, funded and published by Nintendo no less. The original Ultimate Alliance and X-Men Legends games were notable for their large playable rosters, frantic co-op action, and some lite Diablo-esque RPG elements sprinkled on top. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order takes this all to the next level with a much bigger roster, faster and more varied action, and even more RPG customization. However, it also ends up repeating some of the genre’s mistakes, as well as a few technical issues, most notably a camera that enjoys focusing on the wrong things at the most inopportune times.
The most important part of a game like this is this roster, as everybody always wants to play as their favorite character. Ultimate Alliance 3 more than delivers with a grand total of thirty-six characters at launch (with plenty more on the way through DLC), the largest in the franchise. Almost all the big names are here, with a few more esoteric choices such as Elsa Bloodstone spicing things up. You’ll unlock most of them simply by playing through the campaign too, with only four requiring special circumstances to be unlocked through the Infinity Trials mode. Wherever your preferred flavor of Marvel, be it Avengers, X-Men, or something stranger, UA3 is happy to oblige.
Of course, a large roster doesn’t mean much if everyone plays the same. Fortunately, outside the first ten-ish levels, almost everyone feels suitably unique, possibly moreso than in any other Marvel action RPG. The secret is the new basic attack and combo system. In place of the old punch and kick commands, and alongside the four character specific powers, everyone has their own unique light, heavy, and jump attacks. Nor are there a set list of attack combos, rather each character has their own set of synergies between the base attacks and the powers. Moves flow from one to another and it’s up to you to figure them out and create your own attack style. Each character also has their own unique dodge mechanic, whether it be a teleport, a roll, or in Wasp’s case, a shrink. Every character is mechanically and visually distinct in a way no other game was.
As an example, Iron Man’s light attack is a simple melee combo, his heavy a barrage of upclose repulsor blasts, while his jump attack allows you to bombard enemies with long range blasts while you hover out of reach. This is in addition to his four powers, and his rocket dash dodge (which you can even use to ram enemies). Compare this to Hawkeye’s ranged bow light attack, explosive arrow backflip heavy, and cluster arrow jump attack and you can see how dramatically different everyone is. As you unlock more powers, flesh out your combos, and build up your team, the differences only become more distinct.
It’s not just about each character differs from each other though, how your Psylocke is built compared to everyone else’s is important too. In this regard, UA3 does give you more options to personalize and build your character than in previous games, but it’s still more akin to stat tuning versus proper theorycrafting.
The systems involved in character customization are upgrading your Powers, the ISO-8 equipment system, and the Alliance Skill Tree. Upgrading powers is simple and is done through the Hero screen. Each skill can be upgraded a total of three times, with a hidden fourth power level upgrade for those who beat the game on Superior Difficulty. Each upgrade tier does something different: the first tier decreases energy cost, the second increases damage, while the third tier increases the abilities’ stagger damage. That fourth level upgrade is a secret and requires the game’s rarest currency, void spheres, but well worth the time it takes to unlock.
The ISO-8 and Alliance Tree systems are much less straightforward, but far more interesting. ISO-8 is the closest to a standard Diablo gear system the franchise has ever come. Every character has four individual ISO-8 slots; three unlocked through leveling and the fourth by completing the entire Alliance tree, and into each slot goes a crystal. There’s a wide variety of possible affixes from +% to an attribute or element resistance, +% to damage or health when your health is lower than 25%, to the intriguing +15% to Damage -15% to Defense. There’s not an insane amount, but enough to make building up your squad feel like you’re actually doing more then choosing the “right” answer. Even if it’s usually just a decision between how tanky you make a character, the four slots available mean that you have enough space to put in something unique as well. You could build up your Hulk to be a monster with health and defense ISO-8, but also toss in a increase to stagger damage crystal to give him a little bit of range. It’s not a lot, but it’s frequently enough. After all, you have almost 40 characters to manage!
The Alliance Tree is the most complicated system UA3 has to offer, and it is quite a beauty. The closest comparison is Path of Exile‘s megalithic skill tree, and while this one isn’t nearly as big, it’s still quite magnificent. You start from the skill node in the very middle and then have total freedom to upgrade in any direction you want, for as long as you want. Each of the six quadrants is based around a different attribute, and thus building your tree based on your favorite team layout is paramount. Putting all your points into Mastery when all you use are Physical heroes will actually hurt you in a way that most games like this are afraid to do. You can’t permanently gimp your characters of course, as eventually you can unlock the whole tree, but given how much an undertaking that is, making the right choices at the start is more important then ever.
The basic plot of the game will be familiar enough to basically anyone on the planet at this point. Thanos is after the Infinity Stones for typical nefarious reasons, has sent his Black Order to collect them, and it’s up to your Alliance to keep them safe from him. The story stays pretty safe, if still enjoyable, and spans a wide variety of locations from the Marvel Universe. You go from the X-Mansion to Avengers Tower to Wakanda, there’s even a brief venture to Hel, you get around. There is a pretty neat twist towards the end that does work to separate this version of the story from others, but for the most part it’s exactly what you’d expect where you’d expect it, which is hardly a bad thing. People want to run around with their favorite heroes kicking villains in the teeth, and Ultimate Alliance 3 provides that in spades.
They also want to do that in four-player co-op, which is where UA3‘s greatest strengths and weaknesses shine. There’s nothing like getting together with friends and smashing your way through the game, but the camera almost always fails to keep up. It never knows where to look and especially in more chaotic boss fights when you need to see everything, it’s just not good enough. It doesn’t kill the game, but it does occasionally make it harder than it should be which is obviously not acceptable. Still, the co-op play pros outweigh the cons and even with the camera issues, is still the best way to play.
There’s a variety of collectibles spread throughout the levels as well, from concept art to music tracks for the Gallery, rare resources such as ISO-8 and Void Spheres, to alternate costumes. Don’t get too excited about the costumes though, as almost every one is little more then a high quality recoloring. This was definitely my biggest disappointment with the game, and even though Team Ninja has said they will be providing a proper alt for each character for free over the next year, that should have been included in the game from the getgo. Some of them are pretty neat, such as the Spider-Armor suit or Daredevil’s Shadowland, costume, but I was expecting more.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is that kind of game that’s loads of fun, even if it’s technically not that great. It’s not a looker, there are some pretty substantial camera issues, music is underwhelming, and the plot is standard, but when you’re playing, it doesn’t matter. The voicing acting talent is some of the best fan service I’ve ever seen, with Team Ninja assembling the most classic VA for each hero. There’s the entire Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cast, Yuri Lowenthal voicing Spidey for the second time and killing it again, to Steve Blum returning as Wolverine. It just sucks you right in. The little small touches to character animations and the world are also nice, such as Cap’s dodge being his famous Turtle Shield or Iron Man floating instead of walking, it all feels authentic. All that alongside the fast combat, surprisingly substantial character building, and the variety of worlds to explore and you have a game that manages to outshine it’s flaws, no matter how deep they run.
While the art style is divisive, the models and textures themselves are high quality. Infrequent FPS drops slightly mar the experience, however.
The fluid and fast combat conflicts with a camera that often fails to keep up. The skill and loot systems are engaging, but hardly groundbreaking.
The assembled voice cast is masterclass, one of the best for an ensemble game like this. The soundtrack is much less impressive, but it still has it’s moments.
The huge roster of heroes to play with, the frantic combat against a wide variety of enemy types and bosses, the chaos of a 4-player co-op match, itall comes together for pure superhero fun.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is available now on Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.