It might not have been the most glamorous of last year's winter line-up, but Raven's X-Men Legends II was, by all accounts, a compulsive "Baldurian dungeon crawler with a comic book bent" that improved on the previous XML in every way possible. We slapped a mighty (and well deserved) 8 out of ten on the end of the review and literally nobody argued with the score. Imagine that happening now.
Part of the reason nobody made a noise about it, of course, is that relatively few people care about old-school action RPGs that evoke memories of Gauntlet and, more recently, Diablo. They look a bit, well, crap, don't they? The whole isometric four-man party hackandslash dungeon-dwelling thing isn't exactly the sexiest type of game on the shelves, and consequently the cycle is already repeating itself this year with Raven's latest comic-book-tinged take on all things Marvel. Shame.
Anyone who played either of the X-Men Legends games will pretty much know the drill inside out by now. The premise in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is utterly identical ("Beat the maniac who wants to kill everything in the world ever!"), the gameplay and progression system familiar and well-worn ("Kill lots of monsters! Gain XP! Kill some more! Upgrade your abilities! Now kill the huge, super-powerful BOSS!"), the visuals decidedly old school... Unless you're a massive comic fan with a penchant for dungeon crawlers, it's not an exciting game to talk about. But it is supremely playable and one hell of an addictive little sod, and that's really all that matters.
It's pummelin' time
The initial premise seems a little lacklustre, though, and you could be forgiven for taking one look at Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and giving it a wide berth. A S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is under attack by Dr. Doom and his ever-willing henchmen, the Masters of Evil. Under the command of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, you collectively control a gang of four superheroes on a mission to put a stop to Doom's reign of terror and bring peace to the blah blah. Ok, so the story turns out to be about 400 times better than it sounds in the last weary sentence, but you have to slug through a fairly dull opening act before the game starts to show its true colours.
As with Raven's splendid effort last year, the checklist of features is undeniably comprehensive and impressive, and something of a Marvel-head's wet dream. Over 20 playable characters from the Marvel roster (two of which are exclusive to the 360) make it into the game, including Iron-Man, Blade, and less well-known types like Deadpool and Moon Knight and an almost endless supply of Marvel supervillains to rough up. It's got four-player offline or online campaign co-op (with the rather excellent option of allowing you to load in your save game so you can continue the battle with mates), and an impressive cast of Hollywood voice talent, more than 20 bonus 'comic' missions to unlock, and an endless number of permutations of who you actually decide to play as.
How you go about playing the 20-hour campaign is, joyously, up to you. The default set-up does the job just nicely, with Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and Thor offering a nice balance of characters with contrasting abilities. So, you've got Spider-Man with his web bullets to take out distant targets, fast melee and webswinging ability, Wolverine with his devastating melee attacks, Captain America with his flingable shield, and Thor's useful ability to hover in the air and rain down his powerful magic attacks from a safe distance. Essentially, each character has a similar set of basic melee combos with the A and B buttons, with grapple assigned to X and jump to Y. The temptation to mash A and B is strong, given how effective it can be, but eventually you'll have to start using the right trigger (with one of the face buttons) to pull off the special attacks. Projectiles, in particular, like Spidey's web shots or Thor's lightning attack, prove to be a godsend against more powerful foes - and it's experimentation with these sorts of attacks that begins to give each character their own identity. Certainly, the improved combat system gives you more scope over how to tackle your enemies, and is all the better because of it.
One of the great things about Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is the ability to swap out characters you don't like with ease every time you're at a save spot. As you play through the exhausting campaign, plenty of other familiar faces get added to the overall party, giving you an opportunity to create your own fantasy superhero line-up. The game even gives you an incentive to create and name your own team (complete with logo), awarding your band of heroes special attacks and team XP that individually they lack. As with single characters, you can spend upgrade points wherever you see fit, and the whole process becomes quite compulsive, worryingly. Luckily, most of the micromanagement is taken care of, so there's no real requirement to slavishly apply skill points.
Are you XPerienced?
Cleverly, Raven even takes into account the fact that it's no fun swapping inexperienced newcomers with your battle-hardened regulars, so even if you've levelled up every character in your team to level 25, you'll find that those left behind back at base still continue to level up just a step behind. So, although the temptation is to stay loyal to the initial band of supplied heroes to maximise XP, the game doesn't punish you very much for switching characters. This is not only an excellent decision for single-player, it works for those playing online too, making sure that character switching always gives you a character with a level of experience relative to your team.
Still, for all the welcome variety from having loads of characters with contrasting abilities, the actual process of playing the game is every bit as predictable and repetitive as you might fear. Yes, it's still a button masher, with simple combos taking care of almost every creature in the game; monsters spawn in front of you (sometimes literally), provide a bit of a tussle for your band of heroes and go down without toomuch of a fight. You collect the coins, smash up some barrels to extract more currency and move on until you encounter the inevitable boss monster. Even here, it's fairly predictable stuff (even the Resident Evil 4/God of War-style bosses), where your gaggle of sexually confused heroes hack lumps out of the re-spawning evil minions before eventually helping you to duff up the big cackling brute with an attitude problem. We've been here a hundred times before.
Despite that obvious glaring truth, for some reason it still manages to gel as an enjoyable experience. Really. It's probably one of the most refined and enjoyable examples of this ageing premise that had me up until 3AM just so I could finish it.
What's so enjoyable about it? It's certainly not the visuals, which - although stylish in their own right - look about a decade out of date next to a certain Epic title causing much excitement across the Western world currently. From a distance the pleasantly varied environments have a nice graphic novel feel to them, and the constant change of scenery helps enormously. One minute you're fighting in the epic world of Asgard, the next plunged into a big top trying not to get run over by a bowling ball (watch out for a special retro surprise in the Arcade). Just when you think it might be heading into sludgy dungeon territory, the next sequence has you fighting it out on board a space ship. But as nice as the backdrops are, the character models don't bear close scrutiny, with rather rudimentary animations and poor detail levels at close proximity.
On a personal level, the admittedly dated gameplay mechanics rattling around in the core of the game just work. Simple but increasingly effective combos, continual ability upgrades, new weapons, endless cool pick-ups to augment your arsenal, and a constant freshness to the types of enemies and the environments make it a game that progressively challenges at the right sort of pace, and one that gives you a refreshing degree of freedom in terms of who you employ to carry out the carnage. Given that most games are happy to funnel players into playing with one character or ostensibly very similar characters, it's interesting to be able to get on with the task at hand with whoever you feel can do the job best. It's a game that's constantly rewarding the player.
The way the actual campaign is constructed deserves credit too, splitting it into manageable but challenging chunks that make progression feel like a real pleasure rather than some unending epic chore. In between each of the game's five main 'acts' you get the added bonus of being able to chat to a whole host of Marvel characters to quiz them on what's actually going on and why is a really nice touch that makes you - shock - care just a little bit about what you're doing and why. Even for non-Marvel fans it's interesting to be fed so much rich back-story to the events going on in the game. It's all optional as well, meaning attention span deficient types needn't worry too much and can get on with slugging it out with mutants and crazed villains unfettered. Elsewhere, Marvel trivia buffs can even test their levels of geekdom and win extra XP after each act, which is a nice touch.
Special mention, too, regarding the way the game handles character death. Rather than forcing players to constantly reload to keep their merry throng together, you get the chance to revive any downed party members once you reach a save point. Little touches like this that focus on keeping the game enjoyable drive you on, rather than stopping you in your tracks and imposing senseless repetition on you. To be fair, there's quite enough repetition already, so it's design decisions like this that make all the difference.
Admittedly the gameplay carries on in the same dungeon crawling (okay, they're not dungeons, but you get the gist) vein throughout the 20 or so hours it'll take you to trawl through the whole shebang, but you don't really come to games like this expecting massive gameplay curveball - it's left to the story to do that, and Raven deserves extra credit for bothering to deliver one of the best game endings ever, assessing your entire progress throughout the game. If you want a decent, well-considered camp comic-book romp with a slightly obsessive desire to continually level up your characters, then this nails it very nicely. No, it doesn't do anything especially new, but you'll enjoy the game's effortless ability to suck hours of your life away nevertheless.
Although X-Men Legends II was already a 720p-enabled game on the Xbox last year, 360 owners will definitely appreciate the extra lighting effects and the attention to detail lavished on the characters and environments. To untrained eye it does look and feel and bit old school (and a complete engine overhaul wouldn't go amiss), but in the context of this type of game you can't argue with it once you get to grips with it. It's never a game that suffers from camera or control issues, and one that focuses purely on providing a decent level of grindathon entertainment. Simply, it's good at what it does, nothing more. Achievement point fans will have a tough time mining the game for more than half its points, so if you're looking for a quick and easy rental, forget it.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is one of those games that was always going to be greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't look anything special, the combat's massively repetitive, but somehow it all hangs together. With an excellent atmosphere, diverse set of characters, intriguing storyline and endless unlockables it's the sort of game that's essential for comic book obsessives, and great fun for everyone else.