Marvel's mightiest heroes are just three months removed from coming together for their greatest big screen alliance ever. This is far from their first get-together in the video game world, of course. The Marvel Ultimate Alliance series is over a decade old. However, the series has been dormant for many years. But after a few rights changes, Marvel's heroes are uniting once more under the Nintendo and Team Ninja banners for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3.
A lot has changed between Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and this latest entry to the series. In between these two games, almost the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe played out. Yet, Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a friendly throwback to a simpler time of superheroic dungeon crawling, whether alone or with friends. And while the game doesn't feel quite as epic as the Ultimate Alliance that started it all, it still proves to be a superheroic good time.
Some assembly required
Speaking of the Marvel line of movies, it's easy to look at the cast of characters and their design and imagine that it's taking heavy inspiration from the recent theatrical releases. However, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 builds on that foundation and extends it out to the greater corners of the Marvel comic book universe. The story sees the Guardians of the Galaxy following a distress call onto a Kree vessel, only to find that Ronan the Accuser was actually guarding one of the six Infinity Stones against Thanos' loyal henchmen, the Black Order.
Star-Lord is able to recover the Space Stone, but acting in the heat of the moment, he inadvertantly takes the Guardians to Earth. With our planet now in Thanos' crosshairs, Nick Fury acts quickly to assemble the greatest heroes in the Marvel Universe. The Avengers? Yes, they're a no-brainer. But Fury also reaches into several other corners of the comic book pantheon, recruiting members of the X-Men, the Inhumans, Marvel's magic wielders, and Marvel's street-level heroes.
This opens up a slew of storytelling possibilities, achieving something that I hadn't expected. After getting so accustomed to seeing these heroes come together on the big screen, I still got chills when I saw other corners of the Marvel Universe join the party. Watching the Black Order get stopped in their tracks by Magneto was genuinely cool. Meeting the tortured Ghost Rider and monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone and having them join the fight was fun. Looking through the perspective of newer superhero team, the Champions (Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen), was a blast. Unfortunately, the interactions between these characters outside the cutscenes leaves something to be desired, as the dialogue from the player character is cookie cutter stuff, with no room for unique interactions between familiar characters. For example, Wolverine should be more than familiar with the X-Men's backstory, but he recites the same lines to Cyclops that Miles Morales would if you were controlling him for the conversation.
The story looks to be a fairly straightforward battle between the best Marvel has to offer against Thanos and his band of superpowered minions. Without spoiling the latter half of the story, I will say that there are some unexpected plot twists sprinkled throughout the narrative, including one in the game's final minutes that leads to a fascinating final battle.
While the story itself is linear, there's a shift in personal perspective based on which heroes you choose. Like the other Ultimate Alliance games, you can approach this with a mish-mash of heroes. Or you can play this out as an Avengers directive, an X-Men adventure, a Defenders mission, or even as Sony's Spider-Verse getting into something they never expected to find themselves in. There's a lot of room for imagination with the narrative and I found that element enjoyable. The downside is that not everybody is available out of the gate. While there are over a dozen characters to start with, many of the game's characters are unlocked over the course of the campaign. That's a disappointment for anyone wanting to step into the cape of Doctor Strange right away. Some characters are even locked behind the game's various Infinity challenges, which I'll get to shortly.
Touring the Marvel Universe
One of the toughest aspects of designing a game like Marvel Ultimate Alliance is creating locales that feel distinct from one another. That's not just in terms of looks, though there are plenty of unique locales like Wakanda and Shadowland. It can be all too easy to craft a bunch of stages that all feel the same, only with different backdrops.
Ultimate Alliance 3 does manage to make its stages vary in certain ways. A lot of it is standard dungeon crawling and enemy waves to beat up. But sometimes, players will find a few things that mix up the gameplay a bit. Avengers Mansion, for example, will have players try and get through Tony Stark's malfunctioning security system by navigating invisible laser walls. Shadowland will offer a side-scroller like setting in dark corridors to emulate the Daredevil hallway fights that have helped make his Netflix show such a hit. But the most unique mixup comes in the Dark Dimension, where players must take fallen rocks, pick them up, wait for the nearby Mindless Ones to fire lasers at them to charge them up, and then toss them for a massive explosion.
The latter plays into one of Ultimate Alliance 3's biggest strengths and that's the boss battles. There are very few boss battles that are just, "Hit them repeatedly until they fall down." Many of the bosses have special patterns and gimmicks that require some extra thought and a degree of teamwork. Teamwork is obviously much easier when there's more than one human player and, fortunately, it's easy to find one with seamless online play. The game is at its best when four players are all going in with their own attacks, their own strategies, and most importantly, their own camera.
For the anti-social, it's entirely possible to get through the game solo. The AI is competent for the most part, though they will get clumsy in areas that are heavy on traps. But I mentioned the camera a moment ago and that's because it's easily Ultimate Alliance 3's biggest villain. The camera can be downright rage-inducing, zooming all the way in at the wrong moments or rotating in undesirable ways. Don't get cornered at any point during a boss fight, because the camera will create an almost inescapable situation.
There's a lot of grinding in Ultimate Alliance 3, but the game makes it easy to level up in ways beyond playing through the same story sequences repeatedly. There's a separate game mode called Infinity, which presents playable scenarios and challenges for your hero team of choice, though there are a few challenges designed for individual heroes. This is not only a valuable space to earn experience points, but these trials also offer rewards that can be used in the campaign. More Infinity challenges will open up over the course of the game, accessible through rifts sprinkled into each stage.
Some of the challenges can be excruciatingly difficult, but finding a good challenge that sends waves of hapless enemies at you is a good way to practice your craft and level up your characters along the way. This is particularly helpful for your lesser-used heroes, since experience doesn't carry over to inactive team members. If your Spider-Man is riding the bench for the whole game, then he's going to be at Level 5 for the big Thanos fight, where he won't be of much use.
The other way to level up your heroes is through a massive skill tree, a good portion of which you'll barely touch before finishing the game. There's are also equipment slots for stat-enhancing crystals called ISO-8. Finding heroes to boost with the ISO-8 is the easy part, but upgrading them is where things start to get overly complex. Each of the ISO-8 colors require their own currency and keeping them all straight can be a chore. One might assume that they're designed for microtransactions, but there are none of those to be found in the game, which makes the multitude of currencies an even stranger design choice. It's not a particularly user-friendly system and one that can put more impatient players off.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 retains much of the formula that made the original games the best of their genre. It has a massive roster of comic book favorites, a slew of recognizable locations, some well-designed boss battles, and an intricately crafted storyline that touches upon every cornerstone of the Marvel pantheon. What holds it back from true greatness is a wretched camera and a few missteps with the dialogue system. Outside of that, this is a fine return for one of Marvel's great gaming franchises. Ultimate Alliance is still the best it is at what it does and what it does is very nice.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is available now on Nintendo Switch for $59.99. The game is rated T.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
- Fun dungeon crawling gameplay
- Many Marvel favorites to choose from, including lesser-known heroes
- Fun storyline that explores many different corners of the Marvel U
- Infinity challenges are an easy way to level up
- Creative boss battles
- Local and online co-op feel seamless
- Camera is awful
- Confusing currencies
- Occasional lag issues
- Dialogue outside of cutscenes feels stilted
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 review: To Infinity
but not beyond?