Marvel Ultimate AllianceDoctor Doom has assembled some of the most evil super-villains of our time together as the Masters of Evil, and has set upon some secretive plan of destruction and possible world domination which looks set to shake up the very planet itself. A direct assault on the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier forces S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury to call in the help of all available meta-humans – in the hopes that this alliance of superheroes may be enough to stop Doom and his cohorts in their tracks before it is simply too late!

Following up on their superb X-Men Legends and X-Men Lengends II: Rise of Apocalypse releases, Raven Software returns once more to bring us Marvel Ultimate Alliance, perhaps the biggest chunk of Marvel comic ‘fanboydom’ to ever grace any game console before. Expanding on the already hit game mechanics from X-Men Legends and X-Men Legends II (themselves having borrowed heavily from dungeon-crawling RPGs like Diablo and Champions), Marvel Ultimate Alliance ends up being a thoroughly absorbing and exciting game that will easily suck up more than a few hours of your life and leave you all tingly at the end of it all – particularly if you happen to be a comic book fanatic.

What makes Ultimate Alliance such a treat is the sheer variety of characters and locations that have been jam-packed into it, as well as having a complex and intriguing enough storyline that will keep you guessing right until the end. There are more than 20 customisable, playable heroes to mess about with, countless villains and bosses to battle against and locations that vary from the Norse Gods’ fabled Asgard right through to Doom’s Latverian lair. The designers have gone out of their way to keep as many people as happy as possible, including a wide variety of heroes to play with, including the heavy hitters like Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Captain America and Iron Man, but at the same time tipping the hat to the slightly lesser know characters like Dr. Strange, Luke Cage, Deadpool and Spider-woman. The same idea applies to the villains, where you face off against the major players like Ultron, the Mandarin, Mephisto and Galactus, but also get to go up against the lower-profile villains such as M.O.D.O.K, Grey Gargoyle and even Arcade! This sheer variety of characters and locations does well to touch just about every corner of the vast Marvel Universe and truly ends up being a treat for any true fanboy.

As was mentioned earlier, the gameplay sticks pretty closely to the genre established by heavy hitters like Diablo, Baldur’s Gate and even Raven’s X-Men games of before, basically leaving you with an ‘area exploration from a fairly top-down view while controlling a team of four heroes to contend with’ kind of game. As with their previous games, the environments are all nicely destructible and on that note, be prepared for a lot of barrel smashing should you wish to take advantage of all the collectible items, gear and S.H.I.E.L.D currency lying around.

While the majority of gameplay consists of you walking around, button-mashing and just generally beating up horde after horde of villain, the game does occasionally throw in the little mini-game to complete or puzzle to solve and these are generally quite a fun distraction from the main branch of gameplay that seems to never let up on the action. A nice interactive touch is the inclusion of those button-press interrupted cutscenes ala Resident Evil 4 style, which has you pressing specified buttons displayed during a cutscene in order to advance the cutscene and hopefully avoid an untimely and unexpected death.

The actual combat mechanics itself is fairly simple in that you have an assigned button for light attacks and an assigned button for chargeable heavy attacks, the two of which can be mixed up to provide for simple combos. You also have a button for jumping, the same button which causes your character to fly should they possess the power of flight. The last button is used for grabs and throws, which can be utilized against both opponents and objects. Of course, the basic block and roll buttons are also present, and is the equally more important power modifier button. Each hero has four powers assigned for use at any point in time, all mapped to the same buttons you use for normal combat but triggered by holding down the power modifier button. This is kind of the crux of what makes a superhero game super, because you get to play with all those powers and abilities you have so loved to see in the comics. From freezing things around you to throwing fireballs at your enemies, the wide variety of powers on display is really the thing that makes this game so much fun to play. Each hero also has a super superpower ability that can only be triggered after the usual slow-filling combo meter fills up, usually triggering a visually stunning attack which can be chained together should other characters also possess a full meter.

As I mentioned before, you run around with a team of four heroes at a time, meaning that the AI controls the other three while you get to grips with walloping bad guys with your chosen man. Of course, you can instantaneously switch control to any of the other three characters and this makes for a nice game mechanic should you require a special ability to advance through a particular point or just happen to get bored very quickly. While the AI is fairly competent, it does perform a little sluggish at crucial times and you will often find your team members accidentally plummeting off bridges and getting caught in some of the stupid traps littering some of the stages. Of course, Marvel Ultimate Alliance supports the wonderful drop-in, drop-out mechanic from the previous X-Men games which means that your buddies are welcome to join in anytime they wish, making for some exciting co-op play.

The game follows the usual RPG rules of leveling up characters, stats and abilities and while the AI can be set to handle it all for you, for those of you who like dabbling and customizing your characters, this is an essential must have. The system itself is pretty intuitive to use and you can lose yourself quite easily in doling out the gear, stats and abilities your want your customized team to have. And on that front, Marvel Ultimate Alliance has introduced a ‘My Team’ concept which allows you to hand pick a team for which you are specially rewarded by sticking to them and grabbing as much XP as you can without changing the roster too often.

The game features a host of playable characters for you to control, some playable right from the get go and others you have to unlock as you progress. Each character comes with their own set of special powers which you can assign and switch between as you wish, as well as with a number of alternate costumes, all with their own special abilities. This multiple costume gimmick is a great touch for those of you who want to switch between the various guises that your favourite characters have carried through the years.

Lastly, when selecting your four member team at the plentiful S.H.I.E.L.D Access points littering all of the stages, you will note that picking certain team members results in specific bonuses. There are obviously the painfully obvious teams like the Fantastic Four and New Avengers to go for, but there are other, lesser obvious combinations like Femme Fatale and Forces of Nature to pick up on. These special teams give special bonuses, something that might just prove to be more than a little handy in the numerous boss battles you encounter throughout the lengthy adventure.

In terms of extras, Marvel Ultimate Alliance certainly doesn’t disappoint. The trivia game is a delight to all the comic book fans who get to test out their knowledge and gain some valuable XP points in the process, while the extensive list of training missions does well to extend the life of the game and also provide further incentive in that they release further locked skins for your characters. Then there is the usual gamut of cover art, loading screens and background art to collect, all which adds on to the experience as a whole.

Visually, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is probably not the prettiest of looking games on the PlayStation 2, but it is certainly polished and colourful enough and looks as if it jumped straight off the pages of your favourite comic books. The colourful environments are all lusciously detailed and the nicely detailed heroes with all their powers simply adds to what is one of the better looking ‘dungeon crawlers’ out there. The game also features some beautifully animated CGI cutscenes and these are well worth looking out for just on their own.

The game also features a brilliant score, subtly capturing the feel of each and every varied location you find yourself in, but also matching the relentless tempo of the game perfectly. And while it is great to have so many voice artists on board on one single project, it must be said that some of the voices and dialogue does lean towards the cringe-worthy campy side. The sound effects on the other hand are all beautifully full bodied and you will often find yourself sitting completely immersed in the environment in which you find yourself.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance just doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong and is certainly a further step up from Raven’s previously brilliant X-Men Legends and X-Men Legends II releases. It will satisfy any gamer who loves these top-down dungeon crawler type games, but even more so, it will particularly satisfy all of those who love the Marvel Comicdom. It has just about something for everyone, providing a satisfying button-bashing experience that lasts well over 20 hours and covers a host of different locations and boss battles. It looks good, plays easy and intuitively enough and is not so overly hard that it will leave you frustrated at any point during the game.

Simply put, if you love comic books and you love Diablo type dungeon crawlers, then you should simply not skip this one. Definitely one of the top games on any comic fanboy’s shelf!

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