The old co-op action role-playing series makes an unexpected return as a Switch exclusive – but how super is it really?
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Why it took so long is a mystery, but at last Marvel seems to be taking video games seriously. Surprisingly, there’s still no adaptation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but after the PlayStation 4 exclusive Spider-Man game was such a huge success we’ve had announcements for a VR Iron Man game and Square Enix’s Avengers title. It’s not exactly a flood of new titles but it’s more than we’ve had for the last decade and hopefully a sign of more to come.
A new Marvel Ultimate Alliance was certainly an unexpected sequel though, especially as it used to be a multiformat franchise published by Activision and this is a Switch exclusive. The series started life as X-Men Legends, before incorporating the whole of the Marvel universe, but all that happened before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was properly established. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 came out a year after the first Iron Man movie and then that seemed to be it for the concept.
Why it stopped is a mystery but despite promoting itself as an action role-playing game the series really had more in common with old co-op scrolling beat ‘em-ups, with extremely simple combat but a gormless charm that was difficult to dislike. Its position in the market was replaced by the somewhat similar Lego games, of which there have been several Marvel-related iterations, but now it’s back and… it’s pretty much the same deal as it always was.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is the video game equivalent of junk food, but that’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s mindless and it’s repetitive but it knows it and given this is technically the fifth entry in the series its nature shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That makes it a difficult game to review because despite its shallowness it is doing exactly what is asked of it. And while the developer has switched to Dead Or Alive makers Team Ninja you’d barely guess anything had changed behind the scenes.
That said, this isn’t really a direct sequel in the sense of a continuing narrative and while the plot nominally revolves around preventing Thanos and his lackeys (the Black Order of the subtitle) from obtaining the Infinity Stones the story is really just about jamming as many hero and villain cameos in as possible. There are around 30 playable characters in total (including a number of X-Men but no-one from the Fantastic Four – although they are part of planned DLC) but many more than that once you start to count non-playable cameos that range from Mysterio to Jessica Jones.
Whether you’re playing with friends or not there are always at least four superheroes on-screen at once, but no matter which character you play as the controls work in the same way. Basic combat amounts to nothing but a choice of light or heavy attack, or a jump attack if you’re feeling daring, and there are no combos as such. But everyone gets an ‘Extreme’ attack that takes ages to power up and various synergy moves depending on who the other characters are – although the window to activate these is frustratingly small for even experienced players.
You also gradually unlock a number of special moves which run on a recharging power meter. Some of these are what you’d expect, such as Iron Man’s unibeam or Spider-Man’s webbing, while others are generic abilities like a tornado attack for Star-Lord, which, as far as we know, isn’t something he’s known for.
Even the seemingly unique powers are often functionally identical to at least one or two others, which is a shortcut the Lego games also take – but then they have many times more characters, so it seems more forgivable there. The Lego games also have proper flight controls, whereas here heroes can only float a few feet off the ground. The puzzles in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 also manage to make the ones in the Lego tie-ins look like Mensa tests by comparison.
The role-playing element is also incredibly simplistic and revolves around levelling up and unlocking new abilities, which in turn can be upgraded with collected items. There are also a number of customisation options, including collectible crystals that give you minor buffs and debuffs, an unlockable web of similar enhancements that apply across all characters, and bonuses depending on the make-up of your team and whether they’re similar in some way or have a shared history.
There’s a pretence of depth in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 but while it’s entirely unconvincing it doesn’t feel disingenuous. The story campaign isn’t too long, especially on easy, but there’s a wide range of challenge levels that have particular requirements such as a time limit or the characters you can use. There’s a certain amount of level grinding required if you play on the higher difficulties, but you can generally avoid repeating whole stages if you instead try to complete challenges along the way.
Visually, the game is quite appealing, with a quasi-cartoonish style reminiscent of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, while the script occasionally exhibits a wry sense of humour that also recalls Capcom’s use of the licence. (We’d say maybe that’s indicative of how Japanese developers in general see superheroes, but the script is by American comic book writer Marc Sumerak.) Given how many characters can be on screen at once the graphics are quite simplistic, particularly the backdrops, but given there’s still some slowdown at times that seems a sensible compromise.
We can’t vouch for online performance, as we were unable to get much of a go before launch, but there is couch co-op as well, with everyone using the same overhead view and being teleported back to the pack if they lag behind. This works much better than Lego’s split-screen approach, although there is also a closer ‘heroic camera’ option if you’re playing alone.
We don’t advise that though because the main appeal here is getting to play together with friends. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is big, dumb fun and while it’s hard to defend as a video game it’s very easy to have fun with if you’re playing with others that know what they’re getting themselves into. We’re entirely ambivalent over whether there’ll ever be a Marvel Ultimate Alliance 4 but if you did want the series to continue then this is pretty much everything you could’ve asked for.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
In Short: Shallow, stupid, and very repetitive but as long as you play with friends there’s a goofy charm to what is, for better or worse, the best Marvel team-up game in a long while.
Pros: Large cast of characters with a fun visual style and script. Four player co-op is good mindless fun and there’s plenty of content.
Cons: Extremely shallow and repetitive combat, with very limited role-playing elements. Character powers are never as unique as they first seem.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: 19th July 2019
Age Rating: 12