Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
System: various :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1-4
Genre: Action RPG :: Released: 15 September 2009
By Damien Wilkens
06 January 2010 — Sequels used to be so awesome.
Back in the day you'd throw together some sprites, think of a story over lunch, and spend the rest of your development time refining timeless gameplay, oftentimes resulting in a game completely different from its predecessor. The sequels to Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Castlevania all fall into that category, yet they still managed to be awesome.
But now, in the era of advanced 3D engines and increased development costs, it's become more than acceptable for sequels to be little more than feature-packed carbon copies of the originals. When Marvel: Ultimate Alliance came out in 2006, it was the best use of a superhero license since, well, ever. Everything, from the varied cast to the expansive levels, and the deep RPG customization gave it a fun atmosphere and a replay value the likes of which had never been seen in a comic book game. As gamers anxiously waited for a sequel, most found the idea of the exact same game with an expanded roster and more levels to be more than enough to warrant a purchase, but as time wore on — three years to be exact — those same gamers began to wonder what was taking so long.
As I sit here — mere hours after completing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 — I'm forced to wonder the same.
On the surface, MUA2 is very much the same game. You lead a team of four heroes into battle, gaining levels with which to build up your powers. The first problem you'll run into comes when selecting those heroes. The all-encompassing screen with your entire team is gone, and in its place is a more graphically appealing (but less economical) menu. You'll also notice something else pretty quickly: a good chunk of the roster from the first game is gone, and there isn't much in their place. Even after unlocking all of the characters, you're actually left with fewer heroes than you did in the default 360 version of the first game. While surely no one will cry from the heavens for the exclusion of Elektra, it's a shame that a lot of the more unique heroes, such as Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange, have been left out in favor of lesser characters.
Perhaps this wouldn't feel like such a big deal if the characters at least had the same amount of customization that they did in the previous game. Half of the fun of the original MUA was in finding the right combination of powers, special outfits, and boosts to create a destructive team. In an effort to simplify things, nearly all of those features are gone. Your heroes no longer have eight powers to choose from. They have four. You can no longer equip boosts to individual characters. Now boosts affect the entire team and are the lesser for it. As for the alternate costumes? Yeah, you get one this time, and they no longer grant you new abilities. They're just skins to change your heroes' appearance, and a lot of them defy logic. One would assume that the alternate attire for Penance would be his old Speedball outfit. One would be wrong. In this case, it's just Penance without a shirt and helmet on. Comic missions for individual characters? Gone. Side-quests that affect the ending? Vanished.
Perhaps I missed it, but did anyone ever complain that the first game was too deep?
Compounding this issue is that a lot of the characters feel the same, and the balance is quite simply broken with others. Though you can now switch out characters at any time, you'll never have much reason to. The Hulk and Thing have nearly the exact same power, which begs the question as to why both needed to be here. The main two heroes of the game, those being Captain America and Iron Man, are so drastically nerfed from their previous incarnations that you'll never want them in your party. The developers apparently realized this fact and made them largely unavailable for most of the game. Penance, a character that's only effective when near death, is great for about 12 seconds until you have to revive him again. There are exactly three characters that are worth a damn in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. Once Jean Grey is in your party, you'll never want to take her out. The same applies to Thor and Green Goblin. Jean clears groups of enemies that even give The Hulk trouble, Thor is a boss-killer, and Goblin has machine guns on his glider that kill most enemies in seconds. There is no reason to ever pick anyone else unless you're curious as to what sort of fusion combinations you can create.
A word on fusions, if I may.
Replacing the Xtreme powers of the previous game, fusions are combined attacks between any two heroes in your party. There are not, as claimed, "over 200 unique fusions." There are maybe a dozen, and they all fall under three types. Clearing fusions are for areas with a large group of enemies, most of which consist of a tornado / force field with bits of energy blasts thrown in. Targeted fusions focus on one enemy, usually a boss, and most times have a tank character lift up a piece of earth for another hero to freeze / flame / put bombs on / energize it before throwing it at the enemy. Guided fusions seem to be the most common, and either involve two heroes running side by side to attack foes in a line, or two heroes blasting straight bolts of energy at each other like Dragon Ball characters, moving around for enemies to get caught in the middle. Fusions are the focus of the gameplay almost to the exclusion of anything else. The strategy for every boss battle goes as follows: Use fusion. If boss isn't dead, use another fusion. He's not dead yet? Well, have you tried a fusion?
The story offers its own set of problems. (The previous game is almost completely ignored. Dr. Doom is presumed dead, and that's really all you get. Galactus' epic threat at the end of the first game? Didn't happen.) Starting with Secret War and leading into Civil War, you eventually reach a point where you have to choose your side: Anti- or pro-registration. This choice then effects what sort of missions and bosses you'll face for the remainder of the game's second act, and takes away three characters depending on what side you choose. If you go pro, you can't use Cap, Luke Cage, or Iron Fist. Go anti, and you can't use Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, or Songbird. Neither is much of a loss, as everyone else just goes to whatever side you choose. Ms. Marvel can be anti, the X-Men can be pro, Spider-Man doesn't seem to care either way, and the Thing makes up his mind in about 20 minutes. As expected, when you get to the third act, the heroes put their differences aside to battle a bigger threat — shocking, I know — and that threat is so absurd that it's not even worthy of a What If? issue.
The levels all sort of just run into each other. Either you're battling robots or terrorists, and the setting is almost always a factory or chemical plant of some sort. The exclusive anti or pro missions are fairly similar, and not a big enough part of the game to justify replaying it, even for the other ending. Though the full game itself is only about five hours long, I can't imagine going through the effort again just to hear if the Superhuman Registration Act was repealed or amended.
If anyone is to blame for such a disappointing sequel, it's Activision. For reasons unknown, they took previous developers Raven off the project and replaced them with Vicarious Visions, a group that's been known up to this point for poor handheld releases of Disney properties. Technically, they're keeping that tradition alive, but I'm left to wonder what would have resulted if Raven had taken the helm once again. Would it have been the same sort of dumbed-down, flashier shell of the first game? I'm betting it wouldn't have, but we'll never know. All I can hope is that when the time comes for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 3, they have the foresight and common sense to put this game back into the hands of a team that possesses something resembling a clue.
Final Grade: 6/10