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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2

Sure, it's a touch confusing, but you get to be Penance. Wait...who?
What's It All About:
When I got my Wii, one of the first games I got was Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and it was good. Though the RPG label frightened me a bit (that's a genre I simply can't get into) it was a blast to play, because the RPG elements were subtly integrated into a somewhat top-down brawler (tilted slightly to the side.) I didn't have to worry about managing my team much, the action was non-stop and I didn't have a single spell to cast. But more importantly, I had a huge crew of Marvel characters at my disposal. Getting to play as Ghost Rider or the other B-level stars was simply fun.

So a few years later, we've got a new Ultimate Alliance, based on two big recent storylines from Marvel's comics, Civil War and Secret War. The premise is actually pretty simple (even if you haven't read the comics (like me)) and plays out well through the game's cut-scenes. An unauthorized mission into a foreign country by a team of heroes lead by Nick Fury, including Iron Man and Captain America, results in retaliation on American soil. As a consequence of this, the government decides to regulate superheroes, dividing them into two groups: those who register and those who go on the run. You choose which side to join, and take that path, though you'll arrive at the same place. The story gets a bit convoluted, but at least the base is solid.

Like the original Alliance, you pilot a team of four heroes you can select from an ever-growing roster, and you can change your characters at anytime (though each of yourfour slots shares a common life bar.) As with the previous game, the big roster of playable characters is the biggest draw (I'd be lying if I said I didn't put in the unlock all characters cheat and try them all out.) But even with fun characters like Venom and Spider-Man, the line-up is a bit wanting, marked by the inclusion of non-"powered" characters like Daredevil, The Thing and Luke Cage. When you've got all these cool powers to choose from, enhanced punching and kicking just doesn't cut it. That goes double when you compare them to the Invisible Woman, who at first seems like a joke of a choice, but since her powers go beyond just hiding, to the point where you can put someone in a bubble, blast them across the screen, grab them out of mid-air and do it again, she may be one of the best warriors.

Similarly powerful (and pretty cool looking) is Penance, but who the hell is he? I admit I haven't read comics regularly in years, but if you're going to include a playable character in a game like this, I shouldn't have to look them up on Wikipedia. Especially when there are a bunch of bigger characters who make appearances, but aren't playable, like Cable, Havok and Havoc. Penance's inclusion is equally problematic because he brings with him the baggage of "the Stamford Incident," a major part of the storyline that's casually referenced a number of times, but which is only explained if you find and collect the dossier file on it (or if you read the Wikipedia info like I did.) You can't expect everyone who plays a game to have followed the continuity of years of comic books.

Back to the actual game... You're sent on various missions that progress the storyline, and they consist mainly of exploring, battling waves of cannon fodder foes, destroying the scenery in the hunt for experience points (to level up your characters) and battling mini and big bosses. There's a collecting aspect as well, with various unlockables strewn throughout the game, including new characters, art and audio files. Though the new characters, including the very powerful Thor, are worth the hunt, after playing Batman Arkham Asylum, most of these unlockables pale in comparison.

For the most part, the game's all about brute-force assault, mixing your standard attacks with a set of rechargeable, limited-use special moves, but Alliance's big gimmick is the Fusion Attack, which, after you fill a meter by beating up bad guys, allows you to combine two heroes for a more powerful attack. While each different combo of characters has its own unique animation, the attacks are all one of three types: targeted, clearing and guided, and they have differing effectiveness depending on the situation, like saving your butt from swarming hordes with a wide-radius blast of Iron Man's repulsor rays reflected off Wolverine's claws. This comes in very handy (the controllable attacks more than the others) and it's almost impossible to beat bosses without using them (or at the very least it's much easier.)

The RPG elements of the game, which involve managing your team of fighters, enhancing their abilities with experience points gained through play and equipping special boosts, may act as a layer of fun for people into such things. Thankfully, if you could care less about levelling up, you don't have to, as you can set the game to manage all your point spending, so you can focus on smashing them buttons. If you do want a distraction from the main story though, there's the simulator mini-games, which let you tackle time-trials and other one-room challenges, earning you medals, and a trivia game that's easy enough to beat if you pay attention to the cut-scenes. If you need any inspiration though, there is gamerscore to earn here (see Achievements.)

Online Play
Either no one is playing this game online, or something is very wrong, because after many tries, I was able to get three other players together only twice. On one try, we ended up running around the Wakanda lobby because the game wouldn't let me start a new online game thanks to my single-player status. At least there was no lag in the lobby. The second try we got through a couple of fights in Latavia (I started a new save file before going online) before my teammates quit out. The lag was definitely a problem this time, especially when we were battling a group of robots. Not being in full control of when the fusion team-up is used is very frustrating.

For a system that allows you to jump, grab, punch and super-punch, along with up to four super attacks, fusion attacks, air assaults and healing, not to mention change characters on the fly, the controls are pretty straightforward and easy to grasp, using the D-pad to switch up your fighter (each arm is one of your four team members), the left stick for movement (right gives limited camera control), and your four face buttons for actions, modified by the shoulders. Selecting characters for fusions or healing is extremely simply, as they are labeled with face buttons when you hold the appropriate shoulder button. Everything is nice and responsive, though the perspective can make projectile attacks a bit hard to aim, so you can't blame the controls if you lose.

There are 50 achievements to be earned here, for a total of 1000 points, but annoyingly, you have to play the game through twice to get them all, as many are flipsides of the same coin, and the one you earn is dependent upon the side you chose. Though a majority of the points to be earned are tied to simply beating the levels of the game, difficulty levels, completing goals and playing co-op also have their own rewards.

The graphics on this game look quite nice from a distance, offering up impressive animations on the characters and their powers, and the settings have nice detail, but there are far too many visuals for such a high-profile title. The cut-scenes are actually pretty good, but anyone with hanging hair or other such details shows dramatic aliasing and the up-close movement is awkward. The camera (which you can only control at certain points in the game) frequently ends up in awkward positions, so you're looking at half a wall or, worse, nothing, until you blindly navigate your way out. There's also an issue where at times you'll grab an opponent without even facing him, pointing to some collision-detection problems. On the other hand, the presentation around the gameplay is well-done, mimicking the classic, understated style of the Civil War comic books.

One side issue that is partially gameplay, partially graphics, is the lack of alternate costumes. In the first game, you could swap to different costumes to change your look and abilities, but here, the abilities are the same no matter what you wear, and there's a definite decrease in the number of alternates. Plus, I don't get what Gambit's alternate costume is supposed to be. It looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. (Update: I was looking through my collected dossiers, and noticed this was when Gambit became one of Apocalypse's horsemen. I must have missed that.)

The audio is lively, with lots of explosions and dramatic musical score, as well as lots of voices, but that's a problem as well. While most of them are appropriate for the characters, like Deadpool's goofball asides and Iron Man's electronic statements, the writing can be awful at times, and there's a limited number of phrases for each character. The first time Deadpool mentions needing a longer life bar it's cute. The fifth time, it was eh. The 25th time, I muted the game. Literally. By the way, Kenneth Branaugh should look at this game as the way not to write dialogue for his Thor movie.

And in the End...
While I enjoyed playing this game, it simply flew by (I completed my first run in just over seven hours,) and the teases of characters who make appearances but aren't playable were disappointing. It's probably time for the Marvel action RPG concept to get a thorough revamp, making it as exciting as it was in the past. After Batman: Arkham Asylum, the bar's been raised for comic-book games, and another effort like this won't get Penance any more well-known.