Release Date: July 19, 2019Platform: SwitchDeveloper: Team NinjaPublisher: NintendoGenre: Action RPG/Beat em up
The strength of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, as well as their X-Men Legends predecessors, is that they capture the pure fun of arcade beat em ups while also using light RPG elements and a cadre of unlockables to make the experience feel substantial and full of features. The latest, Switch-exclusive entry in the series, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, essentially boasts all of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but with updated rosters and nods to Marvel’s recent big-screen outings.
After all these years, Marvel Ultimate Alliance’s core gameplay still holds up. The button mash-y action’s simplicity is masked by dynamic special attack and stagger gauges as well as the sheer number and variety of heroes to choose from. Each character plays pretty much the same, boasting weak and strong attacks as well as four special attacks and one “Extreme” attack that does massive damage, often with screen-clearing areas of effect. Heroes’ abilities can be combined in “Synergy Attacks” to make them more effective (and flashy-looking), which also fills the heroes’ special meters.
Your heroes’ stats can be improved across the board with the game’s sprawling stat tree feature, and ISO-8 crystals can be equipped and modded to lend characters perks. Leveling up and unlocking goodies certainly help to propel you through the game’s campaign, but in all honesty, the core gameplay is fun enough to justify the game’s existence—the light RPG elements are just a bonus.
You (and a few friends, if you fancy) take control of a four-hero team as you play through the campaign and challenge modes, and as always, mixing and matching all of your favorite characters from the Marvel universe is unabashedly geeky and cool. In addition to Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the rest of the MCU mainstays, there are characters who have yet to be featured in Marvel Studios’ oeuvre, like the X-Men, Ghost Rider, Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, Blade (that’s soon to change, though), and more. It’s an eclectic cast of characters, and depending on their associations to one another, your team will benefit from star boosts, like if you pair up original members of the Avengers, or all four Guardians, for example. Unlike most games, character selection in itself is as delightful as the actual gameplay.
Online multiplayer is the best way to play the game, as is the case with most arcade-style beat-em-ups. Coordinating your abilities is an essential skill if you want to progress through the game without grinding, and learning how and when to synchronize perfectly is pretty fun to boot. Playing solo is okay, but the AI can be dumb as dirt, often times failing to dodge blatantly telegraphed enemy attacks.
The campaign unfolds as something of a greatest hits of classic Marvel Comics scenarios, from containing a supervillain breakout at The Raft, to defending the Xavier Institute from Sentinels, to taking on Dormammu in the Dark Dimension, to clashing with Thanos and his Black Order over the Infinity Stones. New characters are unlocked as you play, and while the storytelling is anything but elegant, and the dialogue is insipid, the game’s overall Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic and vibe make these shortcomings feel more forgivable than if the game had taken itself more seriously.
Visually, the game is about as average as they come, both artistically and technically. The character designs look enough like the comics to invoke feelings of nostalgia, but they aren’t exactly memorable or all that cool-looking, either. Overall, the game’s aesthetic feels uninspired. And while developer Team Ninja does a good job of keeping the action running smoothly, the frame rate does dip quite regularly, which is surprising considering it sometimes dips when there isn’t all that much going on onscreen.
By far, the biggest complaint I have about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is its in-game camera. It’s awful at times, constantly getting stuck on invisible walls, or pulling back so far that you can’t tell who’s who on the battlefield, leading to utter confusion and, too often, failure. In fact, losing track of my characters during battle was far too common of an occurrence. Also, my characters were frequently killed by projectiles shot from off-screen enemies who, despite my best efforts, I could not get in my sights. This was incredibly frustrating, and the camera became a thorn in my side that needled at me during almost every moment.
Heavy-handed writing and a wonky camera make Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 a decidedly unpolished game, but the gameplay is just too fun to be overshadowed by artistic and technical nuisances. Ultimately (had to do it), the off-the-wall joy of creating random teams like Hulk/Daredevil/Psylocke/Groot, or Wolverine/Doctor Strange/Spider-Gwen/Hawkeye, and seeing what happens when they wreak havoc together is what’ll stick with you long after you’ve forgotten all of the game’s flaws.
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Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.