Spider-Man. Wolverine. The Fantastic Four. These are but a handful of the heroes you and your friends can control in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the latest multi-platform offering from Activision. In the vein of their previous X-Men Legends games, Ultimate Alliance brings together some of the most notable (and several of the least) Marvel heroes for some hot teamwork beat-em-up action. The Wii version in particular boasts an interesting control scheme (one that may irritate as much as please) at the expense of attractive graphics and an irritating glitch among your CPU teammates. In the end, the game's only worth your money if you've got the friends for it - and even then, perhaps not.
The control scheme should be familiar for those who've played X-Men Legends: four characters in a "party," each with his or her regular attacks, special moves, and the like. What makes this version of Ultimate Alliance a unique experience compared with copies for other platforms is the creative uses of the Wii control scheme - some successful, some not.
Players use both the Wii remote and the nunchuk while playing. The remote is used for attacks: the A button is the primary attack (punch, kick), while holding down the B button activates a special move. The remote uses five "gestures" players can perform to activate different attacks: lift (raise the remote), lower (drop it down), thrust (jab it forward in a straight line), swipe (move the remote to the side), and shake (jiggle the remote back and forth). If one holds the B button while performing one of these actions, one can perform special attacks: for example, Spider-Man's shake action spurts a flurry of quick web projectiles, while his swipe move ensnares an enemy in a web and flings him around the screen. (Players can also use these gestures to activate regular attacks without holding B; for example, just lifting the remote will enable a character to "trip" an enemy.) It is also possible to perform special attacks without these motions by toggling through an on-screen menu, which can allow you to decide which attack is activated by pressing A and B simultaneously; there are also special "Boost" actions that are activated by pressing A and B if they are selected on the menu, however.
This control scheme is a mixed bag. The sensitivity of the Wii remote requires incredibly precise gestures, which means that players - especially those with unsteady grips - may find themselves performing the wrong move at crucial intervals; the biggest culprit here is the thrust move, which requires the remote to be almost perfectly parallel with the floor (otherwise it registers as lift, swipe, or drop). The plus side of these controls, however, is that characters can perform multiple moves in succession without the need for cumbersome scrolling and menus.
The nunchuk is used for movement (with the analog stick), jumping (the C button - some characters can also fly with two taps of C; others double-jump), menu activation and interface (Z button), and the camera (rotating or curving the nunchuk). This last part is particularly troublesome, as inattentive players can begin twirling the camera around screen by shifting the nunchuk slightly. This means that both remote and nunchuk must be kept parallel to the ground at all times, which can be irritating. Also, shaking the nunchuk even gently activates the Z button feature, which means players may end up activating menus or performing actions without realizing it.
Activision should be applauded for taking a risk and working hard to incorporate the unique design features of the Wii into the game controls; however, the end result often becomes more frustrating than rewarding, as the utmost precision is required for successful gameplay.
In terms of the actual game design, Ultimate Alliance is a fairly straightforward beat-em-up most of the time: go to different locations and wail on the enemies with your various powers and abilities. Boss fights, however, can range from the above (straightforward face-pounding) to more obnoxious "puzzle" fights, some of which can have infuriatingly obtuse solutions, even on Easy mode. The level design is often of the "run into a room and kill everything" category, with little in the way of diversity.
Your team of superheroes will have four characters which can be swapped around at save points throughout the game. Each character has a great level of customization, with four different "outfits" per character that can be unlocked throughout the game, each with distinct attributes players can spend money on and bolster. Also, players who turn off "auto-spending" can customize how powerful characters' special moves are; experience points can be moved around and re-spent at any point, so it's very helpful to see what works and what doesn't for each character. Players can also spend money on additional skill points, although it normally takes a large amount of cash.
Speaking of money, sadly, the money system in the game is frustrating, as is the item interface. Each player carries his or her own individual amount of money which can be spent on any character in the game - unless another human player has that character selected, in which case that player's money will be spent. This also holds true for items - each player carries the items they themselves pick up, and only they can equip them to characters, which leads to much confusion about who has what item and whose money was spent and so on. The most infuriating aspect of items, however, is how easily they are accidentally sold - because Z is the button to sell items and because of the ease with which players can accidentally shake the nunchuk and activate the Z button (as stated above), items can get very easily sold. A confirmation menu of "Are you sure you would like to sell this item?" would have gone a long way here.
One of the most appealing aspects of the game, however, is the options for teams. Eventually the game gives you the ability to create your own permanent team, which receives levels of "reputation" that can be used to buy levels in things for all party members (such as increased health or damage). There are also a number of bonus teams one can create that receive their own special bonuses; a team consisting of the Fantastic Four, for example, gets each team member 20 Health per KO. It's fun to play around with different party members and see what you get.
The last item of note in terms of gameplay is the aforementioned glitch involving CPU teammates. Every character eventually unlocks an "Ultimate" move, which, when your "momentum" is filled, unleashes lots of destruction and kills most things on screen at once. However, when one Ultimate move goes off, everybody's in the party does too - and the CPU characters on the Wii just do it without provocation some of the time. It's a glitch that seems to be solely found on the Wii, and while it's not too problematic, it can be especially annoying when you've saved up your momentum for a big boss fight and it just sort of evaporates on a blank screen.
As for the story, well, you see, Dr. Doom, that most heinous of Marvel villains, has assembled a group of (mostly B-list) bad guys calling themselves the Masters of Evil. Nick Fury, the commander of S.H.I.E.L.D., has called for all available "metahumans" to aid in bringing down Doom's forces.
Ultimate Alliance works hard (sometimes a bit too hard) in throwing in as many cameos and Easter eggs for die-hard Marvel fans as possible. The action takes our heroes to places like the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and the Viking land of Asgard. Non-playable heroes like the Vision and Professor X give you advice and items; notable foes like Loki and Bullseye stand in your path.
The plot itself is largely irrelevant and convoluted, and the cutscenes (featuring only six or so playable characters in your party, heavily implying what the game considers the "ideal" team to be) don't help matters much. But the plot is also irrelevant; it's an excuse to get as much Marvel madness into one game as possible, and at this it succeeds. Where else could you see Doctor Strange, Elektra, and the Black Panther saving the Skrull planet from Galactus?
One of the tradeoffs for the Wii's unique mixed-bag is the graphics. The game resembles a first-generation Gamecube game at best, with flat, uninspiring textures and generally unappealing sprites. It's certainly not unpresentable, but it's not exactly good, either. The music is mostly forgettable tunes repeated over and over throughout the course of a level; even the best songs, like the soothing and even touching melody of Asgard, are only decent at best. The most entertaining sounds in the game are likely the characters' voices; while the sayings of each character throughout gameplay are likely to get old (hearing Iron Man yell "This one's OUT!" every two minutes is somewhat unappealing), the game has many vocalized conversations, and it's a treat hearing the pleasant and enthusiastic voice acting.
The game has three modes of difficulty (Easy, Normal, and Hard), with Hard mode becoming playable after Normal is completed. With multiple human players the game can take anywhere from 20 hours on Easy to estimations of upwards of 40 on Hard. While there are no "side-quests" in the traditional sense, there are a number of hidden items to find, foremost among them being simulator discs, which normally pit one character in a solo mission (often pulled directly from one of their comic-book exploits) which allows him or her to gain experience and an outfit. There are also action figures (necessary for unlocking two hidden characters), unlockable art, and upgrades for the party to find. The hidden characters you've unlocked also remain unlocked even when starting a new game, which is nice for teams that want to build more customizable teams or try new characters from the start. With the fun that comes with playing with different friends, there's a lot to keep you coming back, at least for a few more playthroughs.
As much fun as Ultimate Alliance is with multiple people, there are simply too many glaring flaws for me to be able to fully give the game an enthusiastic recommendation. The presentation overall is lackluster, and while each individual character really seems like he or she was given a good deal of attention, the rest of the game, from controls to interface to graphics, just feels slapdash at best. I can't say for certain how the game stacks up on other consoles, but those with the options of multiple versions will definitely want to do some homework before rushing out and purchasing this one.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance lets you create a four-member strike force of Marvel Super Heroes. If you had to assemble a team of the best heroes, who would you pick? Choose wisely, because this is an alliance for the ages...