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.