The Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series seems to exist on a spindly icicle bridge halfway between licensed product and all-out fan fiction. Its central premise - choose a bunch of your favourite funny book characters and power them through a biff-heavy narrative, lamping anything that isn't in tights and a couple of things that probably are - is simple, direct, and has already proved irresistible to the kind of person who knows how much Steve Ditko's autograph is worth on any given day, and gets angry whenever somebody draws Captain America with the scales of his chainmail pointing the wrong way. The first game stayed on the charts longer than many might have expected, and if Activision's smart, it should be stealth-developing a reskinned version alongside this sequel, too, swapping out the colourful superheroes for the current Radio 4 announcer line-up: that way the company would pretty much have the entire audience between the ages of twelve and 65 handing over money this Christmas - in middle England at least.
Favourite heroes get people playing, but to keep them bashing away at the buttons takes something more, and Ultimate Alliance is a bit of a tag-team in its own right when it comes to mechanics. Working alongside the capes and tights is a mercilessly addictive levelling system, the tokens spilling from every enemy you administer a brisk shoeing to allowing you to buy new skills for your increasingly powerful team-members (the system's tweaked in the sequel, so that you can level-up using a mini-menu in-game without even having to pause the action) while regular news flashes pop up at the top of the screen every minute or so, detailing your progress in mission objectives, Achievements, and the steady crawl towards dozens of unlockables.
Vicarious Visions, the developer who ported Raven's work on the original game and now steps forward to take the reins on this outing, hasn't tampered with the series' compulsions much, but it's certainly refined proceedings and added a few new twists. The big deal this time around are Fusions - a strategy that allows you to combine any two of your team of four superheroes for a devastating special attack. There's a nice variety of moves, by the looks of it, each new blend of characters giving you something fresh to mess around with, while the basic offensive flavours include room-clearing area blasts, targeted strikes, and guided Fusions which you can steer through the level furniture with the left stick.
Firing one up is simple: once you've bashed in enough enemy grunts to fill the Fusion Meter, pull the left trigger, and every one of your team-mates will be mapped to a different face-button, with icons floating over their heads telling you what manner of mayhem a partnership would unleash. Finding the best combinations - and simply seeing the results of weird couplings - seems to be half the fun: connecting the Human Torch with his invisible sister creates a chunky clothesline of fire you can drag around the level, while Wolverine and Captain America dash about in a painful two-man freight-train, sending enemies tumbling through the air. They look a bit childish doing it, frankly, but I wouldn't want to stand in front of them all the same.
Other than that, Ultimate Alliance 2 seems to be business as usual, if on a slightly grander scale. This time, the story revolves around the Civil War - a Marvel Universe narrative in which superhumans are treated as a species of WMD and have to sign on with the government, forced to reveal their secret identities and become agents of the state. It's pleasantly political - although I wouldn't expect Noam Chomsky popping up as an unlockable - and it lends itself to a crucial choice at the very start: do you side with the government and begin tracking down your former friends, or go rogue to stick it to The Man?
However the story unfolds, Civil War gives the game a sprawling narrative that's already been tried and tested in the comics, and it also means that it's the only time you'll ever hear the line, "I've been asked to testify before the congressional sub-committee!" uttered in a videogame that also features Dr Doom. (It's good ol' Iron Man who's been tapped up by Congress, incidentally: maybe he'll stay an extra few days on the hill to see if he can help cut down pork-barrel spending at the same time.)
Areas revealed so far include Washington, D.C. and Latveria, a nation that appears to have been entirely invented by Marvel Comics (you know, like Canada), and the levels we've played through don't feel too much of a departure from the original. The scale's a fair bit larger, however, with bigger environments and a lot more enemies, and the staging has been quietly improved. Choppers fly over our heads in Washington, chewing up the street with gunfire before crashing elaborately in the cherry blossoms, and everywhere you turn, the newly-installed Havoc physics is working its magic, tossing trestles of flowers and parked cars around as only Havoc can.
Despite the flashier set-dressing, the pace of the game remains the same, as your super squad wades into one scrum after another. Combat is a stable pyramid, with grabs, heavies and light attacks at the bottom, character-specific powers which use up Stamina on top of that and the Fusions at the very peak, ripping up the scenery, but taking a lot of lower-level pummelling to recharge. Objectives come and go a little more swiftly now, perhaps, and there's a lot more chatter in-between lampings. The script is often genuinely funny, actually, although Wolverine was already repeating his witty asides fairly regularly by the end of the first level. Maybe you'll be able to download new dialogue as DLC.
Characters, selectable with the d-pad, can be hot-swapped in and out from a roster of 24 - once you've unlocked them all - with fan favourites like Deadpool enlisting for this outing. Helpfully, any heroes you aren't playing will auto-level anyway, which means if you get a good way through the game using only the Fantastic Four and then develop a sudden yearning for Gambit, he won't be a useless weakling when you bust him out and throw him into the fray. (But he will still have a stupid haircut.)
Auto-levelling's just one of a handful of thoughtful inclusions, some old and some new. Revival Tokens, either found in the levels or earned by handing out a lot of damage during Fusions by the looks of it, now stop you getting kicked back to a distant checkpoint when you finally get flattened, and there are auto-select options which allow you to let the game take control of your power-purchasing choices if you don't want to get sucked too deeply into the micro-management of your roster.
The tiny slice we've seen is all reasonably good-looking too - Latveria's painted in rain-soaked gloom, an American fantasy of Europe filled with those dinky Citroens with the funny suspension, while Washington is cast in the same peachy evening glow you often see in episodes of the West Wing, when the day has drawn to a close and Toby's bollocking Bill Bailey for upsetting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the real grunt is saved, sensibly, for crafting the heroes themselves. Chunky and swaggering, Marvel's crown jewels look rather good; their animations tend to get lost a little when the camera pulls back for the big battles, but look closely and you'll still see the odd flash of fun, such as Captain America gently headbutting some random into a wall while Wolverine pops his claws tenderly through someone else's ear.
Inevitably, given the dungeon-crawling nature of the game, it may all become a bit of a slog at times, but there are signs that Vicarious Visions is mixing the combat up with different enemy types and regular boss excursions. Beyond that there's always co-op, and with the Fusions to be taken into account, that may lead to some cheerily acrimonious occasions as players struggle to agree over matching the Hulk with that huge orange thing out of the Fantastic Four.
In the end, Ultimate Alliance is a bit like the old Stan Lee method itself: back in the sixties when the owner of the largest pair of Reactalite glasses in showbusiness was a touch over-worked, the legend is that he got things done by giving an artist the rough idea for a story, commissioning the artwork, and then freestyling the dialogue directly onto the finished panels. He had a bare template for entertainment, in other words, but the real fun came from what happened in the heat of the moment. As a recipe for videogames, you can't help but feel there are definitely worse approaches out there.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is due out for DS, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 on 25th September.