Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order – Marvellous Masterpiece or Boring Button-Masher?

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One game that I used to play the crap out of during my childhood was Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. A loose adaptation of the Civil War comic story-line, it was a top-down action-RPG/beat ’em up featuring a tonne of famous and not so famous heroes and villains from across the Marvel universe, enjoyable and addictive gameplay, cool character interactions, and some great replayability that had me coming back again and again, just so I could keep making all manner of different teams to play through the game as.

That game came out ten years ago and it very much seemed like a series that wasn’t going to get revived any time soon, especially with Disney now holding Marvel’s reigns. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a new, third title get announced out of nowhere. And if that wasn’t enough, Activision and Vicarious Visions were out and Nintendo and Team Ninja were in. Suddenly, everybody was getting excited to see how this game would turn out. Aside from those big names, the roster looked great (the presence of the X-Men alone helped tremendously) and the presentation was delightfully stylish, but does the game have the substance to match it, or should this series have been left back in the late 2000s?

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Despite being called Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, this doesn’t follow on from the continuity of the previous two games, acting as more of a soft reboot. The story is something we’ve all heard by now, especially thanks to the MCU. Those pesky Infinity Stones have been scattered across the Earth so it’s up to the Marvel universe’s greatest heroes (and some of its villains) to join forces to gather the Stones, foil any evil schemes along the way and ultimately defeat the titular Black Order, who seek the Stones so that they can give them to their master, Thanos.

Unlike MUA2, story was clearly not a priority for this game, but that’s fine. The cutscenes are all dynamic and full of energy, more focused on showing off the newest character to appear and how awesome they are. In fact, every time one shows up, they get a cute little tag-line to accompany them. And there are a lot of characters who show up throughout the adventure. It’s almost hilarious how a lot of the villains will show up for a single boss fight and are then immediately taken care of. It very much feels like one of those event comics where tonnes of characters are brought in for the sake of being cool, and it works. Whether you’re a long-time Marvel fan or not, you’re bound to get giddy a few times when your favourite characters show up.

Speaking of, I love how varied the cast is. While there are some MCU inspirations, Team Ninja clearly drew a lot more from the original comics in terms of character designs, backstories and power-sets. Amongst the playable characters, there are the obvious picks like Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk but, fortunately, it’s not completely dictated by the movies either, as it includes fan-favourites like Ms. Marvel, Psylocke and Elsa Bloodstone – a character I didn’t even know existed until this game. That’s a good thing, by the way. This kind of game is the perfect place to introduce these less famous characters to people and help them find new fans (yet no playable Lockjaw? Very disappointing). And whenever you unlock one, you get a cute Smash Bros. style cut-in, like “Black Panther Joins the Alliance.” It’s a little thing but it got me cheering every time it happened.

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Presentation-wise, everything is on point. Character models are full of personality, special moves are flashy as hell, and the music sometimes sounds like it came from an old Capcom game or even Marvel vs Capcom, though it occasionally can’t help but sound like the generic orchestra we’ve all heard in the movies. Plus, as much as I love the overall aesthetic and think it’s perfect for this kind of game, it can get very overwhelming during certain fights and cause some sensory overload. There can be so much happening at once, it becomes hard to see what’s going on and results in the framerate chugging. Not to mention there a few times during cutscenes where it felt like sound effects were missing.

And this is just a personal complaint but, despite how much the game bigs up the whole “alliance” thing, I don’t feel like it does enough with having all these disparate characters hanging out and working together. There are a few neat interactions during cutscenes but that’s about it. I remember MUA2 having certain moments where characters would have their own specific bit of dialogue for. It didn’t change anything and was purely flavour text but it was one of those little things that encouraged me to go back with different characters to see how they’d react to the situation. MUA3 doesn’t have anything like that. I think it would’ve been cool if they incorporated something like Fire Emblem‘s support conversations, where two characters can improve their relationship and their synergy when being on the same team. What kind of conversation would someone like Iron Fist have with Rocket Raccoon? How would Scarlet Witch feel having to work alongside Magneto?

But enough about that, how does the game actually play? Well, you form a team of four characters and travel through a linear level, beating down any enemies that get in your way. Every character ultimately plays the same, having a light attack that can be strung into a combo, a heavy attack, an air attack and so on, but how these attacks handle are usually quite different, and they all have four unique special moves that can be unlocked as they level up, which can be further upgraded to be deal more damage and gain additional effects. Some characters have extra passive abilities as well, like regenerating health and flight, and some can combine their special moves together to perform Synergy Attacks, which deal even more damage and can stagger certain enemies and bosses once you’ve emptied their Stagger Gauge (a big purple bar underneath their health bar that prevents them from being stunned). Finally, there’s the Extreme Attack, a big old super move that’s meant for crowd control. Activate all four characters’ at once and watch the enemies fall like dominoes. All in all, while some are a bit trickier to use than others, everyone effectively plays very similarly so it shouldn’t take long to get to grips with new characters.

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While you may be tempted to form an oddball team of unlikely allies, the game recommends that you try and stick to thematic teams since doing so grants even more passive buffs, like extra health or strength. Having a team consisting of Star-Lord, Luke Cage, Nightcrawler and Ghost Rider may be appealing but it won’t benefit you much in the long-run, whereas a team solely consisting of Avengers or X-Men will provide slight increases to the team’s main stats. I don’t know how much of an edge these bonuses provide but if you’re the kind of player who likes having every possible advantage, it’s worth considering. There’s even a handy chart to help you keep track of which characters are in which groups. Funnily enough, though, I went with pretty random teams and still got at least some small buffs because so many characters happen to be part of several groups.

You also have the Alliance Enhancement, which is like a massive skill tree where you can spend credits and enhancement points that you acquire throughout the game to provide permanent stat increases and such. With every upgrade you unlock, the nodes next to it open up and you can then get those ones. And you can get these crystals called ISO-8 that can be equipped to individual characters to further buff them, and these crystals can be enhanced as well to make their effects even stronger. There are a tonne of ways to make your team as tough as they can for the fight ahead, but don’t assume that these make the game incredibly easy.

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During the game, you can check the main menu to see what the recommended level your characters should be at by that point and if your team is severely under-levelled, you’re going to have a tough time. It’s not impossible; I was able to clear much of the game at the standard difficulty even with weaker characters but there were a few moments where I clearly wasn’t going to make any progress unless I swapped them out for stronger party members (and a few times, I dropped the difficulty just so I could move on). These moments were usually the boss fights and while there are some great ones, there are plenty of frustrating ones too, which were usually the ones where the boss would summon an endless supply of mooks to distract you. These fights are challenging in the wrong way. Fortunately, if you’re playing solo, your AI companions are pretty competent for the most part, though I did count a few times where they wouldn’t even attempt to block or dodge an obvious attack and just stood there taking the hits. While you can still clear the game fine this way, you’ll have a much easier time if you bring a friend or three to take control of the other party members.

The main campaign isn’t particularly long. Most of the levels are decently lengthy and have plenty to do in them, though a couple of them are shockingly short – the worst offender being the Inhumans chapter, which consists of a hallway and two rooms (no, I am not kidding). While it may not bother everyone, the linearity of these levels will leave some players wanting. The path very rarely deviates and, when it does, these “hidden” areas offer nothing but a single treasure chest containing artwork for the Gallery or a new Infinity Rift.

Infinity Rifts are these optional trials you can take on and will probably be where you spend most of your time post-game. The trials range from being pretty simple (e.g. defeat a certain number of enemies within a time limit) to ball-crushingly difficulty (e.g. defeat three bosses at the same time). They can be tough if you go in unprepared but the rewards can be great, since you not only keep any experience your party members gained during it, but also stuff like Cosmic Cubes (which can give a character more EXP), rare ISO-8, and alternate costumes, though admittedly some of them are a tad disappointing (like Captain America’s, which is just his normal outfit but green).

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There are a lot of these rifts to unlock and complete, as well, and some of them will require you to have grinded endlessly to get your team’s levels up. And with planned DLC still to come which include new characters (and possibly more Trials), this is one of those games you need to dedicate yourself to if you want to get everything it has to offer. Unfortunately, what it offers may not be enough since the core gameplay is very repetitive. While there is an attempt to incorporate some level of strategy, between the different passive buffs, blocking and dodging mechanics and so forth, it doesn’t require a lot of brain power to get through and could quickly become boring for a lot of people.

But, if you’re a massive Marvel fan, looking for something pretty casual that you can play with your brain switched off, and get a kick out of all the bright lights and pretty colours, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, while certainly frustrating at points and kind of janky, might be your new favourite game to waste some hours in at home or on the go.

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