Platforms: Switch (Reviewed)
Remember the original X-Men or Avengers arcade game, sitting in a corner in your local arcade waiting for you and three other people to shove a week’s worth of allowance in quarters into it in an attempt to beat down some of the biggest names in the Marvel Universe? Well, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is exactly that experience, a four player button mashing romp through Marvel’s most notable locales with Marvel’s greatest heroes to take down Marvel’s most infamous villains.
However, Marvel has grown quite a bit since the ‘90s, from a comic book publisher only hobbyists and super-nerds knew about to quite literally the company behind some of the largest grossing movies of all time. So Ultimate Alliance has grown too, with a bigger roster, more mechanics, and modern day design sensibilities, but at its core it’s still the frantic co-op beat-em-up experience that older gamers remember so fondly and that younger gamers will enjoy simply due to the overwhelming charm of Marvels many franchises.
The Infinity Fetch Quest
The plot is a paper thin excuse to get you traveling around the Marvel universe. The Guardians of the Galaxy just so happen to find all six infinity stones and after a tense battle, they accidentally warp them all to Earth in order to get them out of the hands of The Black Order, Thanos’ band of cronies.
Unfortunately, this lands them in the hands of some of the most recognizable names of Marvel Villainy, from the Green Goblin to Ultron, Magneto to the Kingpin. So it’s up to all of Marvel’s heroes to get the stones back before Thanos can, and eliminate the threat they pose to the world (Of course, you know this is going to end with a showdown with Thanos anyway, but just roll with it).
After the intro stage which features the Guardians alone, you really don’t get much more than Nick Fury telling you “we found a stone at (insert location here) go get it.” However, you can do a surprising amount with that formula.
Each stage is themed around a specific section of the Marvel universe and comes with it characters that fit inside that universe. Fury himself will get you the main cast of the Avengers because, come-on everyone wants to play with the Avengers, but then you’ll pick up an assortment of Spider-Heroes as you go through the maximum security prison “The RAFT” to take out the Green Goblin. You’ll storm the Kingpin’s mansion with the cast of Marvel’s Defenders. You’ll defend Xaviers mansion with the X-Men. You’ll stop by the Dark Dimension to pick up characters like Dr. Strange and Ghost Rider.
Every corner of Marvel’s expanded universe is open to explore here and every time you do you’ll unlock yet more characters to play as. You’ll unlock comic darlings like Ms. Marvel, major movie names like Ant-Man and The Wasp, major names from formerly competing franchises like Deadpool and several notable X-Men, you’ll even unlock obscure characters like Elsa Bloodstone. Do you know who Elsa Bloodstone is? Of course you don’t, but read Nextwave anyway.
The charm of Ultimate Alliance 3 is almost entirely based on reference. Characters will spout lines calling back to famous moments in their movies. Certain attacks are based around other Marvel video games, some calling back to the Marvel vs. Capcom series, others calling back to the original beat-em-ups we talked about earlier. If you are even the most casual of Marvel fans, every three seconds will have you going “I remember that!” It’s a cheap way to invoke nostalgia, but it works and it feels great.
The gameplay is about as simple as it gets. Each character has a light attack, heavy attack, jump, block, four special attacks they unlock as they level up that can be used with a combination of R and a face button, and an “extreme” attack they can use once a meter fills. Special attacks use “EP” a resource that also fills as you beat up enemies. The result? Mash your light and heavy attacks, use your special attacks every so often, and save your extreme attacks for bosses. It’s really the same old beat-em-up formula we have become familiar with.
The question is, how do you want to mash? This is what brings Ultimate Alliance 3 a cut above the rest. While the controls are simple playstyles are many and varied. Some characters only have ranged attacks, for example. Some are “mage” like characters that do pitiful damage with their normal attacks but tons of damage with their special attacks. Some are healers, some are buffers and debuffers, some (in fact most) even have special jumps and jump attacks.
For example, Spider-characters can web swing and perform attacks out of that swing, while characters like Iron Man and Dr. Strange can fly and safely pelt enemies from a safe distance when their health gets low. Some characters even have unique passive abilities as well. Deadpool will constantly regenerate his health while the Hulk has super armor to almost all attacks.
Outside of character choice, there are tons of little RPG mechanics that can enhance your experience, or just as easily be ignored for large swaths of the game. You might think that this makes these mechanics throwaways, but rather this design is fixing a problem with previous Ultimate Alliance games. We all had that one friend who would go into the menu every three seconds, preventing us from making any progress.
Ultimate Alliance 3 specifically prevents that by only letting you do the bulk of your leveling up at save points, and making most of your enhancements marginal at best. You only really feel the effect of your level-ups if you do a lot all at once, and this encourages your co-op partners to keep playing, rather than constantly check the menu.
First of all, you’ll get small stat bonuses (from 1-5%) for putting together teams of heroes that make sense. So if you put together a team of X-Men, or Avengers, or Defenders, or Spider-heroes, or Guardians, or even weirder stuff like characters known for their intelligence, all females, and so on. Obscure comic book knowledge comes in handy here, but anyone not versed in comic lore can actually just see all the synergies in a side menu while making their team.
You get further stat bonuses from navigating a gigantic web of nodes, similar to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. These bonuses apply to all of your characters, but they are all rather tiny. You’ll be getting stat-ups of 20-40 while you start with stats in the thousands. Once again these only really build up to something massive if you unlock a lot all at once. In fact, if you manage to finish entire sections of this grid, you’ll unlock super nodes that grant your entire team incredible abilities. You unlock these nodes using cash and enhancement points, which you earn over the course of the game.
Eventually you’ll unlock the ability to equip team members with ISO-8 Crystals, kind of like tiny shards of the Infinity Stones. ISO 8 crystals once again give you numerous special effects, but in very specific ways (like increasing your light attack damage by 8% or granting you HP regen after you lose a certain amount of HP). You can level up these crystals using cash and material which you can find or get in massive quantities by trashing crystals you don’t want.
You can level up each hero’s special abilities four times by using ability points (which they gain by leveling up) and items like ability orbs that you can find. Most abilities level up in a predictable way though. They get cheaper to use, stronger, and then unlock a final special enhancement at their maximum level four.
Finally, each hero levels up individual as well, and only when being used. This does tend to make characters that you used at the beginning of the game lag behind while other characters that join at much higher levels become much more appealing, but you can find XP cores to just dump XP on any character you want, bringing them back into the fight.
You can engage with these systems as much or as little as you like. Personally, I only went into the menus after every boss or so and I was fine. However, they are still compelling. Maybe you really want a specific upgrade. You will play stages and mini infinity trials over and over again just to upgrade your characters. Quite frankly, it’s addicting, and it gives the game more replay value than you’d think, especially when you are trying to unlock the last few characters in the roster which can only be done through massive special boss fights.
Ultimate Alliance 3 shines the most when four players are on a couch playing together. It’s a game built for local co-op. The A.I. is, in a word, really bad. They rarely get into the thick of things and will most of the time stand around doing nothing. Playing with other people greatly reduces the game’s significant difficulty, especially for boss fights.
No hero is perfect
There are a few flaws, however. The most notable one is that local co-op players can lock the screen during important boss fights. So say a ranged character is staying way out of the way and pelting a boss from a distance. This will prevent your melee characters from going to the other side of the screen, say, to revive a downed ally. Fiddling with this will cause you a lot of cheap deaths.
The menu U.I. is also pretty bad. As is the case with most Switch games, you can play Ultimate Alliance 3 with a single JoyCon for each player. However, the game’s menu elements never change from assuming you are using a Pro Controller. This resulted in a lot of confusion, and a lot of me barking out to my friends “no, no, when it says A it just means the right face button.” Other Switch games either change their notation or use a simple diagram to show which button to press, which Ultimate Alliance 3 does too… in combat, but not in the menu. It just seems like such a blatant oversight.
And then there’s online play. Once you get into a game, the netcode works pretty well. The framerate on your allies drops sometimes, but you never slow down, nor does your surroundings, making for a fine gameplay experience.
It’s getting into a game that is the problem. If you have friends waiting to play, you’ll do just fine, but if you want to join a random online game, good luck. It took me hours to connect to a lobby, even with a wired connection. Lobbies appear and disappear in the blink of an eye and even if you host one, it takes forever for people to connect. It would have been great if there we even the most rudimentary of matchmaking systems here, but alas, there is not.
Overall, Ultimate Alliance 3 is one of those games that are great if you are looking for its experience. It’s not a killer app. No one is going to buy a Switch just to play this. But if you have a switch and love beat-em-ups and Marvel, this is a game that will keep you playing for hours in an attempt to level up every character, unlock every secret, and defeat every challenge. With the promise of more DLC characters, stages, and challenge to come in the future, this will keep you well and occupied between other big releases while providing tons of fun for you and three of your most comic book obsessed friends.