Friday, September 18, 2009

Game Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2

At long last, the comic book event of the decade is finally here and the seemingly endless wait is over. And funny thing: it's not even a comic book. No, it's Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, the most hotly anticipated super hero video game of all time. Lucky for you, I've spent the last few days slaving and toiling over this game in order to bring you all the news you need to know about this game. So what are we waiting for? Let's get right to the review.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Marvel Comics and Vicarious Visions

For those who have been living in a cave for the last few years (and weren't able to build a Playstation with a BOX OF SCRAPS), Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is the sequel to one of the most popular games of 2006. The original was a tour de force action role playing game (in the grand tradition of, for example, Gauntlet) which explored the farthest corners of the Marvel Universe while allowing you to play any number of classic Marvel superheroes (and if you wanted to spring for the character expansion packs, even some villains). For comic fans, it was about the most perfect blend of video games and superheroes that had ever been attempted.

So how does the sequel fare in comparison? Well, for the most part it does pretty well, though there are a few slips here and there. Let's start right up at the top with the storyline.

Unlike the first game, which featured a totally original storyline, MUA 2 uses the infamous Civil War story as the basis for the game's plot. Now, Civil War is one of the most popular (and at the same time, most controversial) comics of the past decade, so this decision makes sense in a lot of ways. Mostly, it allows the game to feel current and relevant to comic fans; as awesome as the first game was, it was very rooted in classic Marvel characters and storytelling. Unfortunately, that's not really how Marvel rolls these days, so even when the game was new it already felt a bit nostalgic (which to be honest was one of its draws for some players such as myself). The new game, then, manages to seem much more contemporary by tapping in to this Civil War setting (and also by incorporating some elements of Brian Michael Bendis's Secret War limited series).

Have no fear, though: if you're one of those people who didn't care for Civil War, you're in luck, because in many ways the version in the game is actually better written than the comic was. A few small changes were made which result in the characters seeming to be, well, more in character than they were in the comic. For example, Cap's first thought when faced with the Superhero Registration Act is to go to Congress and testify against it, and even after he begins his rebellion (triggered by his fight with Maria Hill, which in this version takes place after the act is passed rather than before -- another small but important change) his focus is on trying to convince the voting public to repeal the law. Likewise, the pro-reg group seems more understandable and sympathetic here, thanks in part to Mr. Fantastic sharing his future history theorems with everyone prior to sides being chosen (rather than keeping it to himself until it's too late for anyone to care any more).

From a storytelling point of view, then, the game gets a big thumbs up, because it actually improved upon the source material. I won't give too much more away, but suffice it to say that the lame ending to Civil War is also gone, instead replaced by an outside threat that forces everyone to realize how stupid they are all acting -- a sentiment anyone who has read Civil War can probably agree with.

As nice as the story is, though, adhering to Civil War does cause some issues with the actual game play. Because some characters are important to the storyline, they become unavailable during specific sections of the game. Even if you select the side that the character conforms to (i.e. Captain America is on the anti-registration sid,e of course), you still may not be able to play them. My plan to play Cap through the whole game was derailed when, due to a plot point, he was "unavailable" on my team roster -- and remained that way for about a quarter of the game. Needless to say, this was kind of annoying, and if you want to play other heroes (such as Luke Cage, Mr. Fantastic or Iron Man) you should be prepared to swap them out, because chances are you won't be able to actually play them the whole time.

Another thing that is less inviting in this game compared to the last game is the team bonus. One of my favorite things about the first game was the ability to create your own Marvel hero team, complete with name, roster, logo and special team bonuses. That seems to be completely missing from the sequel. Likewise, the alternate costumes are for appearance only, rather than having different abilities that allowed for more strategy. Instead of each character equipping items for specific boosts, the entire team benefits from the use of items. And the new fusion system -- where each hero supposedly has a unique interaction with any other hero -- is a slight letdown, as there are really just a handful of interactions depending on what type of character you have (i.e. energy powers, martial arts, super strength, etc.).

Beyond the character play, a couple other small things irritated me. Being able to rotate the camera seems like a simple, vital part of pretty much any game these days, but while you can sometimes do it here, other times you get stuck with specific camera angles that make it very difficult to figure out what you're doing (for instance, when a giant truck is blocking your view of the battle). And there are places where the environment conforms to a linear storyline -- there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to, say, walk down that hallway over there or fly up onto that rooftop, but for some reason, I can't do it. Instead, an invisible barrier prevents me from exploring, as if I were playing Castlevania of something.

That's not to say the game isn't enjoyable, though; most of these are fairly minor points. If you liked the first game, chances are you'll like this one too. It looks great and the story is interesting. I do have to add that, on the normal difficulty mode, it didn't seem as difficult as the first game (which itself wasn't particularly difficult). And while the voice acting is uniformly good, watch out for Thor, who sounds eerily like the Ben Franklin from those Ask a Freemason ads on the radio. I'm not sure why they decided to cast Ben Franklin as Thor, but that one voice really doesn't work at all for me. But if little things like this don't bother you, then by all means, grab your shield and start slinging it.

Because Lord knows that Tony Stark needs to be taken down a notch.

My Grade: This gets a B. I thought about slipping it down to a B-, but I suspect that playing this with four people instead of solo is going to be a blast, and that will make up for the disappointments.

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