Comics fans are pretty blissed out right now, as they just got one of the best games ever to be based on a comic book with Batman: Arkham Asylum. It really raised the bar for superhero games, and will affect how all future games based on caped crusaders are judged. Which leads us to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, and how the action-RPG series is starting to look like it’s on the wrong side of “evolve or die.”
Based on Civil War, the two-year comics series that really changed the face of the Marvel Universe, MUA 2 tells the tale of a Patriot Act for masked men. Under the act, superheroes must either reveal their identity to the government and get deputized, or refuse and face arrest, unmasking and imprisonment. After a longish intro, the stage is set for you to choose a side and pit your group against their fellow heroes. It follows the exciting story pretty closely on both sides, until a lame final third that introduces an unimpressive new enemy to fight.
Although this is a direct sequel to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance from three years ago, it’s actually the fourth game in a series that began with X-Men: Legends. And despite simplifying the healing and equipment systems in a positive way, the basic dungeon-running gameplay is practically unchanged. Things could be worse, as these adventures are still addictive (if repetitive) fun, especially in four-player co-op. But so little has been changed at the core that we get a bad feeling of déjà vu when running these “new” maps.
To be fair, MUA 2 introduces some fresh features to combat the growing tediousness of these games. The new dual attacks – slowly-earned special moves that are unleashed by two characters at once – add a new facet to the battles and play into the fun co-op nature of the title. Plus, Ultimate Alliance 2 looks remarkably better than its predecessor from 2006, but that mostly comes through in the character models, since many battles are set in nondescript warehouses or caves.
Sadly, the roster of heroes doesn’t feel like much of an improvement over the last game. Numbers-wise, it’s virtually the same in terms of playable characters, though the cast isn’t as obscure this time around (which will probably only bother hardcore Marvel nerds). But even if you prefer Venom to Moon Knight, some of the best characters – Hulk and Thor being prime examples – are only unlocked after annoying collect-a-thons. And as much as you might want to play as some of the other characters you fight or talk to, like War Machine and She-Hulk, you can’t. What’s most annoying is that they feel like advertisements for later DLC releases (though we honestly don’t know at this time whether that will be the case).
There’s nothing wrong with MUA2. It was made professionally, it’s addictive and fun (even more so in co-op), and it’s still a treat for comic fans. But it’s short on new ideas, with a fundamental template that hasn’t changed in the last five years. And in this brave, new, post-Arkham Asylum world, we need a little more than that to be really awed.
Sep 15, 2009