Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 Review

It's a tricky thing when green-lighting a sequel that the original development team won't be around for. This goes for any medium, but maybe most importantly for a video game. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 has fallen into this trap, but only slightly. With original developer Raven Software too busy working on the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie tie-in game to take the helm of this sequel, publisher Activision turned to developer Vicarious Visions. Luckily they are very familiar with the franchise, having ported many of the instalments to handheld systems. The only question now is, can they hold their own on the big stage?

Insert obligatory 'Hulk Smash' reference here.

The story in this sequel focuses on two recent storylines from the actual Marvel comic book universe. The prologue mission puts you in the middle of the Secret War waged by Nick Fury against Latveria. However, the meat of the game focuses on the Civil War storyline, in which legislation is passed that will force anyone with a superpower to register with the government, give up their secret identity and train to properly use their powers before being put into the field. Obviously this works in theory, especially for younger heroes, but many of the old-school heroes are not buying it.

Thus brings in one of the main attractions of the game, the split story mode. With a total of three main acts and a prologue, the game's second act is different depending on which side you take in the Civil War. At the end of Act One you can either choose to sign up and register, and then begin missions focusing on hunting down renegade heroes, or choose to rebel, and go into hiding and fighting back against what you feel is an unjust law. This aspect gives the game excellent replay value, especially considering some heroes are locked to a side in the war. If you're on the Pro-Registration side for instance, you will not have access to Captain America, Iron Fist or Luke Cage for the entirety of Act Two. Luckily Act Three kicks off with a bigger threat looming as villains such as Green Goblin and Venom are taken over by nanite technology and the two sides will reunite to do battle side-by-side once again. I do love a happy ending!

The biggest draw of the first game is still the biggest draw of the second. Designed with co-operative play in mind, you create custom teams of four heroes to use on missions. Instead of being limited to "extraction points" to utilize this feature like in the original, characters can be swapped in on the fly at any time. As you defeat enemies, you will earn experience to level up your characters and gain attribute points to increase their skills and stats. One excellent feature added in to this sequel is being able to upgrade on the fly as well. Pressing the Back button at any time will transfer your character to AI control and allow you to fiddle with your stats via a very small pop-up box that lets your co-op partners play uninterrupted. A very nice touch to keep the game flowing without sacrificing customization.

Unfortunately, the co-op when attempted online over Live is (at the time of this writing), completely mucked up. The first glaring error is no drop-in, drop-out feature though I'm sure that was just to save development time. To join a game, everyone has to quit to the main menu and begin anew. The second glaring error is the save file system. If the host of the game has a save file either further along in the game than yours or on the opposite side of the war, only collectibles will be saved on your end, which means no levelling up and no progress toward achievements. The third issue is saving in general. The auto-save is extremely far apart and if the host drops from the game without the others are manually saving, there goes any work you've done up until that point. On top of all that, there is a glitch that will cause players to get frozen at the pause screen. The only fix is returning to the dashboard, which again will cause a loss of progress unless you just happened to save.

A guided tornado fusion at work.

Most of the gameplay mechanics remain unchanged from the original, but things unfortunately seem a bit toned down. Each character has up to four special powers to use, down about half from the total in the first game. No mixing and matching for your play style here either; you are stuck with what you're given. Another one of my favourite aspects of the original has been replaced ever so slightly as well. No longer can you find equipment to increase your individual stats (a staple of pretty much any RPG), but instead your team has up to three "Team Boost" medals that can be equipped for team-wide increases. These can also be switched on the fly via the pop-up box (though only the game's host can do so) and will greatly help to strategize against certain bosses. Equipping a medal that adds elemental damage to your attacks against Mr. Fantastic (who is resistance to melee damage) is essential.

Another big loss is the character's alternate costume unlockables. You can still earn one additional costume for every character, but this is down from three in the original. And where this change is merely cosmetic, it used to be that the different outfits offered various stat changes, such as increased healing ability for Wolverine or attack power for Hulk. Some of the costumes are still cool, but offer a much smaller incentive for working toward them.

There are of course plenty of collectibles to be had outside of the missing equipment, which adds yet another level of replayability to the game. There are three types of pickups for unlocking additional characters (once you find five of them), dossier files on all the characters and locations, audio logs that add extra meat to the story, concept art to check out and the return of the simulation discs. At a Simulation Terminal you can unlock up to 12 additional score-based missions or replay any story mission in the game.

The biggest switcheroo pulled for this sequel is the removal of individual super moves and instead, this system has been replaced entirely by the "Fusion" moves. As you inflict damage, your Fusion meter will fill. Once you have enough Fusion, you can connect with another character and perform a super move together. "Targeted" fusions are best used against bosses, and these are executed with a larger hero who will pick up and throw something that is charged or booby trapped. "Clearing" fusions usually use an energy based hero to make a screen wide blast. "Guided" fusions are a mixed bag, being both the worst and best in the game. Some of the fusions will also pair two heroes together who will run around the screen and attack enemies in unison, or you can get two heroes who will create giant energy fields that will move around the map wrecking havoc, such as a fire tornado with Human Torch and Storm.

Sometimes it's fun to be the villain.

The graphics are upgraded a bit in this sequel, though not incredibly so. Characters are more fleshed out, locations a bit more developed and destructible. The change isn't overwhelming, but it's noticeable. The fusions are definitely the biggest upgrade and I must say there is something special about seeing that fire tornado I mentioned earlier wreaking havoc on your enemies. Sound-wise, there isn't much to be said. The voice acting is passable, if a bit off at times. Not so much that the actors do a bad job, just that the casting director may have had a different vision than myself. Certainly Nick Fury doesn't sound like that, right?

When going for the achievements, you'll find all the usual suspects. Multiple playthroughs? Yup, you have to beat it not only on two difficulties, but on both sides of the Civil War. Collectables? Oh yes, various types of them. Grinding? You betcha, so you had better start throwing people off cliffs early. Not only are the achievements as generic as an Xbox 360 game in general, they don't offer much that the original didn't.

Reading back over this, I may sound overly pessimistic about the game, but that isn't quite the case. I am however extremely underwhelmed by the overall experience and appalled at the design choices when playing over Live. This game delivers a much better story and a broader look at the Marvel universe as a whole, and while they offered some excellent new gameplay features such as fusions and team boosts, these came at the expense of individual super moves and the old equipment system. I definitely enjoyed Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but all said and done it left me eager to go back and play the original instead of sticking around for another play of this version.

It does the job, but that's about it. The casting choices were a bit off in places (Nick Fury and Colossus most noticeably), but it does not take anything away from the game.

A slight upgrade from the original, especially where the fusions are concerned. Again, nothing mind-blowing and nothing awful, it just gets the job done.

Excellent gameplay overall with on the fly changes for a smooth experience, but if you're going to try and hook up with friends over Live you'll be running into some huge issues. Unless a patch comes out, try to get some friends at your place to play locally.

I really enjoyed some of the new features, but they came at the expense of some really great older features. Then everything else left in was toned down and less exciting. That being said, the story is great and the gameplay itself is spot on.

More of the same, both as an Ultimate Alliance game, and as an Xbox 360 game in general. Rather generic.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is passable at best. In answer to my original question of whether Vicarious Visions could handle the big stage? Well, I wouldn't say I booed them off, but I was definitely checking my watch for when the main act would be on.

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