Way back in January, I chose Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 as my most anticipated title of 2009. The first game was the reason we bought an Xbox 360, and we've played it for hours and hours over the past two and a half years. I am exactly the target audience for this game: longtime comic book reader, RPG fan, and parent of two kids who have similar interests, making the co-op very important. To say that my expectations for a sequel three years in the making were high is a bit of an understatement.
The storyline for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is based on two recent comic book arcs, Secret War and Civil War. The first act features A-listers Cap, Iron Man, Spidey, and Wolverine, led by Nick Fury on a... well... secret war. The fallout from this event, plus a nice cut scene taken directly from the Civil War miniseries, leads to the heroes dividing. One side, led by Iron Man, supports the registration and deputizing of all superhumans. Cap leads the anti-registration forces. This story is quite compelling, and thought provoking. It led to a rather serious discussion with my eight year old son. He was torn between Iron Man and Captain America, and was confused about who was the "good guy". We had a nice talk about citizenship, abiding by the law, and doing what was right. He even made a checklist to help him decide which direction to take. I was very impressed by the storyline, following closely to the comics and initiating a good discussion about some rather weighty issues.
The second act of the game is basically spent fighting the opposing side. We chose the pro-registration side, and were tasked with disrupting rebel actions and hunting down Cap and his supporters. We've not made it to this stage of the game in our second playthrough, but I am sure the second act plays totally differently if you choose anti-registration. Some characters only unlock costumes on one side or the other, which also adds some replayability. I was a bit surprised to see that only three characters are off limits when you choose sides. I'd have expected the roster to have been more split, but playability took priority over comic accuracy in this case. I can't fault that decision.
While the story starts off quite strong, it tapers off rather quickly. I'm sure it won't be much of a spoiler to reveal that a larger threat comes in and unites the heroes, etc. etc. At this point, the narrative gets fairly mundane. In fact, the story at this point becomes quite a bit like that of Spider-man Web of Shadows. With the loss of tension due to the Cap vs. Iron Man struggle, the game flounders a bit, and becomes more predictable. Still, the story is much more memorable than the "kitchen sink" approach of the first game.
Unfortunately, as far as gameplay is concerned, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, while still very good, does not live up to its predecessor. There are a few aspects to the sequel that are superior, but for the most part, there is less to love here than in the original.
The game's greatest problem is that it feels watered down, and over-simplified. While it's more accessible as a result, it's also less appealing. Of primary concern is the game's length. We played through the entire campaign in 7 hours and 3 minutes, according to the in-game timer. I'm not sure if replays due to death were included in that time, but we only had to reload from a checkpoint two times total. When the game was over, and the credits rolled, my boys and I looked at each other and said, "That's it?" Seven hours is short for any game, but especially short for an RPG. When you compare this to the (arguably) overlong original game, MUA2 falls short.
The "dumbing down" of the RPG elements is also a serious problem. Each character has only four super powers to choose from. What this means is, instead of choosing the best powers for your own individual playstyle, or that best suit the characters stats, each character is more vanilla. You can easily maximize two powers, and at times, three out of the four powers will be maxed out for your level. There's no real customization at all; one person's Iron Man will play almost exactly like everyone else's. The first game allowed seven powers to choose from, if you count the extreme. Customization is one of my favorite aspects of any RPG, and the removal of these options from the series is questionable, at best.
Also strangely absent from Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is the gear mechanic. No longer do you pick up belts, gloves, or any other equipment, for that matter. Instead, players collect badges. Badges can be dropped, or earned when you meet certain conditions. For example, defeating the last boss earns a really impressive set of badges. You can equip up to three badges, which apply to your entire team. I found this quite inferior to equipping individual characters with specific gear. Many badges are great for a particular type of character, but not for others. On a well balanced team, you'll want to equip badges that help each member, like XP bonus, extra health and stamina, and the like. Most badges are quite limited in application, though, like an entire line of badges that give extra damage to melee attacks. In the end, the vast majority of badges are useless, due to them applying to your whole team, and not individuals. I'm sure there is one optimal set of badges that is the best for any situation, and that, again, makes the game seem less customizable and more generic.
Another head scratcher about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is that each character only has one unlockable costume. The first game allowed for four different skins total for most characters. The comic geek in me really despises this omission. Compounding my disappointment is the fact that the costume change is merely cosmetic, and has no in-game effect, unlike the attribute system used in the previous game. Instead of buying attributes based on which costume you use, each character has access to almost all attributes from the get go, and can unlock and improve them with tokens earned by defeating enemies, smashing boxes, etc. There are two attributes that become locked when you "choose your side", which does allow for some small replayability, but it's pretty much six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The Fusion attacks are one of the main draws of the game, and easily the best new gameplay addition. A Fusion meter fills up as you play, and when full, you can unleash a Fusion attack. You can team up with any other character, whether controlled by a human or AI. Of course, there are hundreds of different combinations of characters. Before the game was released, I was wondering how they'd handle all the different Fusions, and the answer is, there are only really about ten or so unique animations. This was evident even on the first few levels, as Iron Man + Cap is the same Fusion as Iron Man + Wolverine. (Iron Man flies, shoots repulsors at the other guy's shield/claws, and the beams split and clear out the room.) Swap in Ms. Marvel for Shellhead, and it looks the same. Most Fusions are visually impressive, but some are rather goofy, like when Cap and Daredevil jog around the screen knocking bad guys over. Some Fusions are best at clearing a crowd, and others are effective against bosses, but after a fairly short time, you'll have seen most of what Fusions have to offer. They are a nice addition, but they don't live up to the prerelease hype.
The boss battles in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 are rather mundane, especially when compared to the awesome fights in the first game. Only three really stand out, those being a battle against a Giant sized foe, the final boss, and, our favorite, a battle against a certain merc with a mouth. (The latter is memorable more for the hilarious situation than the gameplay.) I was disappointed to see some repeat bosses, too. With all the different characters in the Marvel Universe, why use the same two twice?
Graphically, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is stunning. Gone are the previous gen trappings of the first game. The loading screens and menus are all incredibly slick. The fonts and propaganda style character art in menus and cut scenes mirror those of the comic series. During gameplay, the game looks incredible. Characters models are detailed, and powers look great, especially the Fusions. In keeping with the more realistic tone of more modern comics, hues are a bit faded, particularly reds. Some of the costumes look odd, as well (I'm looking at you, Wolverine). Even with these minor nitpicks, graphically, the game is appealing.
The X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance series has always been strong as far as co-op is concerned. That trend continues in MUA2. Local co-op, in particular, is as good as ever. The Fusion attacks are an obvious addition to the feeling of teamwork, but there are many other powers which compliment others well. Cap has a group buff that aids the entire group, and many powers stun or incapacitate enemies, providing a bit of crowd control. If you pick a well balanced team, you'll definitely feel like you are working together like a well-oiled machine. Online co-op is supported, but is lacking a bit since only the host's storyline and character progress is saved. This was a problem for the first game, and was unfortunately kept in the second as well.
I should mention that we ran into a few bugs and glitches. The first was during the achievement trackers which pop up and let you know how you are faring in your quest to earn achievements. These seem to appear even after achievements are reached. One that kept popping up each time we played was the health orb collection notice. Every time we loaded a game up, it would start counting over from the beginning, even though all three of us were signed in and had already earned that achievement. Once, a notice popped up and never went away until we turned the game off. Another issue is the costume unlocks. It appears that only the first player can unlock costumes. I unlocked Iron Man, Ms. Marvel, and the Thing throughout the game, and though we had Spider-man and Deadpool in our party the whole game, their alternate costumes never unlocked. When I played a bit solo controlling Deadpool, I saw the progress tracker for unlocking his costume pop up early. I'm not sure why this is, perhaps I am missing something, but it's frustrating nonetheless.
Perhaps my expectations for this game were too high. It is not a bad game, by any means, and we had a great time playing it. But Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 just doesn't have much depth. So much is missing from the original, I can hardly believe it took three years to make the sequel. The co-op is still great, allowing for four players online and off, but not being able to bring your own characters online takes it down a notch. While MUA2 is worth playing for the storyline alone, I'm not sure the oversimplified RPG elements and short game length will keep me coming back very often.