I Understood That Reference - Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
When it was first shown off, this was one of my most anticipated releases… and the fact it was on the Switch was an even better announcement. Almost 10 years since the last Ultimate Alliance game, I was looking forward to jumping back in with this mega-roster of super powered people. The thing is, I remember loving the crap out of Ultimate Alliance 2 but it seems like that nostalgia didn’t kick in with the rose colored glasses… like the nostalgia was not enough here.
At its core, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 isn’t far removed from its predecessors. It follows a story where you collect Marvel Comics heroes like trading cards, adding them to your roster to either create pre existing super teams like the Avengers, or a hybrid team consisting of Spidey, Groot, Daredevil, and the Hulk. The mixing and matching is one of the best parts of this series, with certain combinations yielding stat bonuses. While the beefy roster is this title’s main selling point, it does end up diminishing the impact of these character introductions. Within the first couple levels I went from romping around a Kree ship with the Guardians of the Galaxy, to *thwip*ing around with multiple Spider-People, the Avengers, and a teleporting dog . This world is an active, living, and breathing Marvel Universe… one that doesn’t require the build up. But it does feel very rushed from the opening credits to the final scene, it’d be like starting the MCU at Infinity War.
Speaking of Infinity War, the core narrative of this entry treads familiar ground with Thanos and his tom-foolery. A mishap on a Kree warship sends the Infinity Stones hurtling to Earth with both the greater Marvel Universe of heroes and anti-heroes going toe to toe with villains who found an Infinity Stone. It’s like Inuyasha with a Marvel coat of paint. This makes up the bulk of the narrative, chasing down the stones while trying to keep one step ahead of Thanos and the Black Order. Since Thanos is the big bad here, one would be remiss not to mention how this game feels in a post Endgame world. In the 10 years since Ultimate Alliance 2 and this game, we experienced a massive cinematic universe… one that I dare-say may never be replicated. While Ultimate Alliance 3 has the scope, it disappoints in execution with a story that feels paper-thin and lacks the nuance we’ve come to expect from Marvel fiction. It feels less like the MCU and more like those direct-to-home-video animated pictures Marvel would release around the time a big movie came out. It’s like taking Infinity War and distilling it down to a 75 minute animated movie.
Story aside, I am a fan of tight gameplay… and in many respects I can forgive a lackluster story if the gameplay makes up for it. I mean, my most played game at the moment is Monster Hunter World, a game with the most paper-thin of narratives but boasting robust gameplay. Unfortunately, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s gameplay feels vapid in its simplicity. Combat rarely felt strategic, with the most strategic gameplay elements coming from combo moves that are poorly explained during the tutorial mission. A typical level consisted of primarily button mashing attack while I waited for the special meter to charge up and execute an “ultimate alliance” super move. Even those super moves rarely felt like they made an impact to battles.
Special attacks and character stats can be gained as you level up, along with an extensive skill tree that bolsters every hero. One thing I wish this game did was allow a universal pool of XP for all heroes instead of each hero individually leveling. This forced me to eventually zero in on focusing on a handful of heroes in this already robust roster, rather than giving me the flexibility to be creative with my teams. While the shared skill tree helped a little bit, this still artificially inflated the replay value by forcing me to grind my low level heroes if I didn’t use them in earlier missions. By the end game, some of the earlier introduced heroes were so under leveled, it was a hassle to even consider grinding XP for them. While a gameplay mechanic like this worked 10 years ago, the landscape of gaming has changed so much. At its core, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a beat em up brawler with RPG elements. While more granular RPGs are fine without shared XP pools, a game like this feels immediately bogged down by not having it.
On a more positive note, the character designs are pitch perfect. It felt like a comic literally brought to life in all its glory. Colorful characters, impeccable voice acting, and a unified look to character designs was the highest of the high-points of playing this game. I could watch a movie or an animated series done entirely in this style. I just wish the level design was as polished, while levels had detail, they felt boring and ended up feeling like a series of hallways. Unpolished level design made for a total package that felt uneven, despite all the good I could come up with… Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 kept trying to give me a reasons to be critical of it.
I really wanted to love this game, I wanted to relive my days throwing hours into Ultimate Alliance. But even with the portable nature of the Nintendo Switch, playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 felt bogged down every point I was critical of. Despite how massive the roster was, leveling was a chore and not implementing a shared XP pool inadvertently tied my hands in creatively putting together a team. If you wanted to keep everyone on a level playing field, you’d need to excessively grind just to keep up. While visually beautiful, under the hood it felt like shoving a golf cart engine in the body of a McLaren.
2 out of 5
… meh …