Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 review - with medium power comes medium responsibility
A decade after Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 came out, the series returns in curious circumstances. This isn't an Activision gig, published to all the platforms of the time. Nor is it a Raven Software or Vicarious Visions development, as the originals were respectively. Rather, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is developed by Team Ninja, the people behind Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden and Nioh, and published by Nintendo exclusively for the Switch. Such a change! Still, despite this publisher and developer shakeup, Nintendo has taken an old-school approach - for better and for worse.
The formula follows its predecessors closely: four Marvel characters on-screen, smashing scores of enemies to bits using a combination of light and heavy attacks, special attacks and screen-clearing ultimate attacks. With the camera in the classic view (there's a new "heroic" perspective that puts the camera closer to the character you control, but I didn't use it because I like to see as much of the arena as possible), MUA3 has a Diablo vibe to it, as its predecessors did. Combat is the focus. Tweaking the makeup of your team to trigger stat bonuses, such as "Heavy Hitters" and "Big Brains", is merely the preamble to the bashing of buttons.
Thankfully, the combat is as satisfying as it needs to be for this kind of game. Everything benefits from the new cel-shaded art style, which makes for a more colourful and vibrant look than the previous two games and puts Crystal Dynamics' laughable look for Marvel's The Avongers to shame. The black outlines make the action pop and help you keep track of your characters amid the fast-paced fighting. When you do area of effect attacks on lots of enemies, there's a nice audio ping and big damage numbers crash zoom into your face. We've seen this kind of thing done before and better, of course, and Blizzard remains the master of the crit, but MUA3 is not without a sense of impact.
And yet, there's an odd feeling that comes from sweeping through scores of identical enemies as you work your way to a boss fight. I wouldn't call it mind-numbing, because there's fun to be had in MUA3's fighting. But I wouldn't call it exciting, either. I find myself comparing it to doing the washing. There is an efficiency to be figured out, a sorting and arranging before you wrestle with the hanging out. Then that most dread boss encounter: the putting away. To extend this monotonous metaphor, those who iron are the MUA3 players who spend time upgrading and combining ISO-8 shards. Sure, it makes you look a bit sharper, but you'll never get that time back.
Occasionally, though, you do have to pay attention, because the game's story mode is littered with horrendous difficulty spikes, most of which revolve around the boss fights. The idea, I think, is that the game expects you to grind to level up your characters if you find an encounter too difficult. That's fine - and it's certainly something I remember doing in the first couple of games. But even so, I encountered multiple hour-long chunks of frustration that left me teetering on the edge of a rage quit. And don't get me started on those one-shot snipers.
The issue here has to do with the limited number of difficulty options. When you start story mode you're presented with two: friendly and mighty. The game suggests friendly if you're new to action games, mighty if you're familiar with them. As a veteran of the Devil May Cry series and a lover of all things Diablo, I opted for mighty, thinking it something akin to normal. Mighty, though, is tuned too hard for its own good. What the game needs is something sat between friendly and mighty - something called normal difficulty, perhaps.
In truth, the difficulty stems not from mechanics or interesting set-pieces, but from stats. The enemies have lots of health and the bosses do a lot of damage via hard-to-dodge attacks that snap away the health of your team. Boss fights can overstay their welcome, feeling more like ultra-basic MMO raids than memorable action game encounters. The teammate AI doesn't help at times. In one boss fight, my computer-controlled teammates simply stood and took an energy blast to the face time after time even after I'd moved to safety. Thanks guys.
You have to stick with the story mode, though, because progressing through it is how you unlock new characters to play with. Thankfully, story mode dishes out new characters at a generous pace, and you can't help but have a play with the hot new thing after it sashays down the superhero catwalk. Otherwise, story mode is a bit of a slog and disappointingly uninspired. The environments are drab, with grey corridor after grey corridor funnelling your progress towards a boss fight you forget as soon as it's done. Only Shadowland, with its rooftop ninjas under bright moonlight, does anything interesting artistically. Bizarrely, in the early hours of the game we get awful stealth, puzzle and 2D side-scrolling sections that are as tedious as they are half-hearted. They're not expanded upon later on in the game, either. I'd rather MUA3 didn't bother trying to switch things up - better to stick with what you're decent at.
The characters lean heavily on their most famous comic-book iterations, which means you get all the now cringe designs from 90s comic books we've largely moved away from. Wolverine is in his yellow, Captain America is in cheesy "What is it, soldier?" mode, and Thor looks and sounds like, what was it Tony Stark said? Ah yes, "Doth mother know, you weareth her drapes?" I was hoping for some unique designs, some new twists. I was excited to unlock a new costume for Black Widow, but was disappointed to find it was simply her default costume in white.
The voice acting isn't good enough for a Saturday morning cartoon (Elsa Bloodstone's "cor blimey guvnor!" English accent is the worst I've heard since Overwatch's Tracer), the dialogue is exponentially clichéd and the story itself - a rush to retrieve the Infinity Stones before the Black Order (Thanos' dour goons from the MCU) get them - makes little sense as it gathers up superheroes and anti-heroes and mashes them into a hero-select paste via plot blender. None of this, really, is the point of MUA3, which is fundamentally a game about combat. But there's no reason not to at least try with this stuff.
In fact, there's a sense MUA3 lacks inspiration all over the shop. Compared to other action games, MUA3's combat is simple and repetitive. Pretty much all of the characters feel the same to play, bar a few archetypes. You have some characters, such as Black Panther, who are agile and like hacking and slashing. You have some characters, such as Hulk, who are more tanky. You have some characters who are better doing damage at range, such as Storm, and some who offer support, such as Captain America. But when you boil the fighting down, whether your character is shooting a gun or firing energy beams out of their palms, the player is doing and thinking the same. Take Dr. Strange, for example. The Sorcerer Supreme has the power to create portals, but he doesn't use this in battle to, perhaps, send enemies flying off the map or send teammates to safety. Instead he casts a funnel of flames in the direction he's facing, or releases a vortex of magic that heals, or binds enemies with a magic attack, or does an AOE rotating beam attack. Dr. Strange's attacks look unique, but they work the same as so many others. I found myself gravitating towards Venom, Ghost Rider, Crystal and Spider-Gwen simply because I haven't seen them in countless movies over the last decade, rather than because they work in cool, interesting ways.
The boss fights aren't particularly interesting either. I won't spoil who you encounter, but I will say that MUA3's boss fights sometimes shift the camera perspective upwards and turn the game into an odd mix of brawler and bullet-hell shmup. You get some bosses who shoot projectiles that bounce around the arena, others who bounce around the arena themselves. I was reminded of the first Nier game, a deeply flawed but always fascinating action game by Japanese studio Cavia that did the same sort of camera / genre switch up, but much better.
Once you're done with the story you can play it through again on a harder difficulty for the challenge or go back to uncover secrets you missed, but really there's little motivation to return. Instead, you find yourself getting stuck into a mode called Infinity. Inside, trials offer stars as rewards. Earn enough stars and you unlock a new character costume. Clear some trials and you'll unlock new playable characters. Some of these trials are incredibly challenging, and it's here you actually do need to consider team makeup, stat bonuses and fuss over the cumbersome ISO-8 system.
Your character's level is the most important stat when it comes to defeating these trials, but you need to be on the ball. Standard attacks and even standard special attacks won't move the needle. Instead, you need to master the synergy attack, learn which synergy attacks are good for which situations, how close you need to be to the character you're synergising with to trigger it, and be mindful of synergy traits. Your knowledge of the combat system will need to improve, too. For example, it's best to hit enemies with a heavy attack when they're powering up a strong ability if you want to quickly stagger them, which you have to do when there are loads of strong enemies to contend with, before stunning them with a synergy. Once an enemy is stunned, it's pile-on time (the more ultimates the merrier!). Good management of your blue gauge (mana, essentially) is crucial, because without energy points, as they're called, you can't do synergy attacks, and without synergy attacks, you're struggling.
Some of the trials do interesting things with the ruleset, too. One forces you to play solo as Spider-Man. Another sees you recover health only when you do damage. Most are on a timer, and all will give you bonus stars for completing the trial while also meeting certain objectives. Infinity mode isn't up there with trials modes found in other action games, but it does just enough to present the player with a compelling grind. And it's the main reason to play with others co-op, either locally on the same console, across multiple local consoles or online (where a predictably bare-bones lobby system lets you search or set up rooms and that's about it). MUA3 is much easier with friends, because friends are much better than the AI and you can coordinate. MUA3 is also much better with friends, because of course it is. But in truth multiplayer is no game-changer.
A paragraph on MUA3's performance. This is a game that sometimes suffers drastic drops in resolution and frame-rate. While playing on my telly, most of the frame-rate issues were limited to boss fights, arenas packed with enemies and sparked by ultimate attacks. But the issue is much worse when playing in handheld mode. Here the resolution and frame-rate drops are so bad they sometimes render the game unplayable. During one boss encounter I played in handheld mode, the frame-rate dropped into the low teens, making it almost impossible to react to what was going on. This is a big disappointment for an action game that at times relies on split-second reactions. And it's a big disappointment for a Switch exclusive, which you'd hope would fare better for focusing on Nintendo's console.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is, ultimately, just fine, but it feels like a last-gen game visually and in design. You can see it in every door you have to press a button to open, in every recycled enemy, in every spotlight you wait to pass, in every move-block-to-the-right-pad puzzle. Some of my colleagues said it reminded them of one of those late 2000s superhero MMOs, and I get that. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 launches 10 years after Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but it feels like it could easily have come out just a year later, when the Xbox 360 and PS3 were still going strong. I suppose this is exactly what some had hoped for from the game, but I was hoping for a bit more.