Monday, June 23, 2008

Backblog: January 3rd, 2008. Marvel Ult. Alliance.

I was really psyched-up for Marvel Ultimate Alliance when it came out, but I wanted to wait until I could play the Xbox 360 version, as it looked the best at the time. My plans to purchase the Xbox 360 were consistently scuttled on a monthly basis. Every time I saved up enough to purchase one, the money needed to be somewhere else. I purchased the version for the regular Xbox (which ironically costs more than the 360 version does now), but it was lacking. Finally I broke my own commandment and financed a new console… then lost my job a month later (the two aren't directly related – the forces that be just decided to send a little extra "screw you" to me this X-mas). I recently found the game for what amounts to $10, so I bought it again. I have a terrible habit of buying different versions of the same game – I won't even get in to how many times I've bought the original Super Mario Bros. But enough about how much my life sucks – onto the game!

If anyone reading this blog doesn't know what Marvel Ultimate Alliance is, then you've never played an action role-playing-game, read comic books, or watched a superhero movie. For you, there is no hope. Go back to night school and finish your "bachelor's degree," go out and get a "girlfriend" and have a "life." The rest of us will be tearing up Skrulls and AIM with Wolverine and Thor.

The first thing that I noticed about this game was how much better it looked than the Xbox version. The 360 has cleaner textures, higher-polygon models and more lighting tricks than the developers knew what to do with (seriously – sometimes they're annoying but overall they do look better). Strangely enough, the 360 version also has bigger icons for assigning and executing the super-powers with. I know it doesn't seem like much, but it is a much needed and noticeable improvement on a regular resolution TV; the icons on the Xbox version are tiny to the point where you just can't tell what you're using until you've used them.

From a control standpoint, the two games are nearly identical. The only difference is that the 360 version uses the top buttons to extra effect, making it a little easier to play. All of the combos are identical, the timing is the same, and the only way the controls are really improved is if you are used to using the original Xbox's original controller (put it away, your thumbs will thank you). Little interface annoyances still rear their ugly heads, such as pressing "Y" on the hero select screen instead of pressing "A" to change your characters' details (it's practical, just annoying sometimes because I'm used to pressing "A" to get what I want, right?). One glaring omission that this and every other version has is that they don't let you assign the buttons to how you want them, but I suppose that they just did this for universal pick-up-and-play (you go to a friend's house and the controls are the same as they are at yours).

Game-play is in that nefarious area between really great and kind of sad. It's fun to select a hero and see most of their powers from the comics reproduced faithfully, but it doesn't seem like much thought was given to their individual resistances. Mr. Fantastic, for example, shouldn't be a heavy hitter (and he's not), but getting punched by a goon like Piledriver (from the Wrecking Crew) shouldn't hurt him at all – he's really stretchy, so blows should just not have much of an effect. They could have remedied this by making him more susceptible to energy and poison damage, but he's not. All of the heroes have the same basic strengths and weaknesses given their size (the bigger ones hit harder but move slower), and the only real noticeable difference is their superpowers, which is kind of a shame really. I understand that to remain ultimately faithful to the comic means that the heroes would be pretty much unstoppable and therefore boring to play, but it just makes the game play a little on the shallow side. Speaking of shallow game-play, this is one of those games where you will fight through wave after wave of generic enemies (two to three variations per level) most are taken from the comics (AIM soldiers, Doombots, etc.) but some are just pathetic. On the semi-rare occasions that you do tackle a bonafide super-villain, you will find that none of your grabs, stuns, trip moves or powers do anything other than give them normal damage. If you have any debuff moves to slow down or entrap enemies you will find that the super-villains are not affected by these either (but they can affect you). Basically, a brawl with a super-villain devolves into a button mashing frenzy with no real strategy involved. This is especially clear at the start of the game when you realize that the Fantastic Four or the X-Men should be able to take out the Scorpion or Bullseye (yes, Daredevil's Bullseye) without 75% casualties. It sort of makes me angry that I can lose half of my team to a second string loser just because they're immune to all of my special attacks.

I was kind of disappointed to have to play through the Asgard stages and Mephisto's realm. It just seemed like a re-hash of every Dungeons & Dragons action RPG computer game I've ever played (Dungeon & Dragons Heroes, Balder's Gate for the consoles, Champions of Norrath, Champions Return to Arms, et al). They're not bad, but when are developers going to realize that when I play a game based on superheroes that I want to fight supervillains, not trolls, demons, and the generic undead vikings that I've fought in every game before (shame on you, City of Heroes).

As far as the story goes, it's the usual Marvel drek, and that's just fine with me. Everything in the game will be noticeable to longtime Marvel fans, culled from the days of Kirby, Lee, and Ditko when everything didn't need an explanation but got one anyway. There's enough new stuff in the conversations with the NPCs that newer fans will be able to keep up, but overall the whole story is steeped in the foundations of Marvel lore.

The sound is amazing – better than the Xbox version. It has the same music, but the effects are slightly deeper and the vocals less tinny. The voice acting varies from passable to grating, and most actors sound really hammy and cartoony (and some sound an awful lot like their cartoon counterparts so I guess that in a way it's okay, but Thor should sound cool, not like Leonardo from TMNT). Also, I don't know why but I've always envisioned Dr. Doom's mouthpiece moving when he talks (like it did in the early Spider-man and His Amazing Friends cartoon) like a scary Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, and I just always associate his voice from Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 as to how he should sound in a video game – appropriately sinister and metallic, not like he's reading a British newscast. As an added bonus, a gag real that plays during the end credits is quite funny, but you'd probably not notice it if you had the sound set too low on your television.

The variety of heroes is what wins this over all other versions of the game that I've seen. You get two more characters than in the Xbox version right off the bat: Moon Knight and Colossus. Colossus has always been my favorite X-man, and I was quite happy to see him included, as that special team needed the muscle. Oh yes, special teams. By combining the heroes into different teams you can give them extra bonuses. For example, by putting the members of the Fantastic Four on a team, you get extra health bonuses when you beat enemies, all X-men or all Avengers gives you extra energy for superpowers and so on. The team that I've found to work best is the classic Avengers: Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man. I actually hated this because once I maxed them out I had to play as lesser characters in order unlock more outfits. This version also gives you the option of downloading two new hero packs consisting of four heroes each for 800 MS points ($10) or 500 MS points for the two packs separately. This really adds a lot to the game as you can play some villains now (strangely enough you can select Doctor Doom, the main villain that you're trying to defeat… but whatever), and the selection of heroes is increased. I worked really hard to unlock all of the characters only to discover that I was probably never going to get the Silver Surfer (I really can't get through some of the training missions), so I had to put in a cheat code to get him, but I don't regret it – if you've played Daredevil's retarded mission you know what I'm referring to.

All in all, I would say that it's a pretty good game bordering on great. The ending of the game leaves it open for a sequel and I'm hoping that materializes sometime in the near future, with certain flaws fixed and maybe some voice recasting. I'm giving this game my highest rating ever – a C+!

(Disclaimer: may or may not be my highest rating ever)

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