Game Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 - variety is only skin deep

Video games allow us to simulate amazing feats and experience what it's like to possess superhuman abilities, or to put it another way – to act like superheroes. Even games like Halo or Call of Duty owe as much to the super-heroic experience as they do to modern warfare. In real life, you can't just shrug off a burst a machine gun fire by hiding behind a rock for five seconds. That's a bona fide, Wolverine-style super power. It's off then that there have been so many bad superhero games over the years. But we're in a new golden age of such games, and if you read my Batman: Arkham Asylum review then you know it's possible to make a superhero game that perfectly captures that comic book experience. Batman focused all its efforts on simulating one particular hero. The new Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 takes the opposite approach, offering a whole comic book universe of heroes to choose from in an attempt to recreate the world of Marvel Comics in one giant epic tale.

Ultimate Alliance's story is drawn straight from two recent cross-over events in Marvel Comics – the Secret War and The Civil War. The Civil War in particular strove to achieve some really interesting political and social relevance with the legal and moral issues facing superheroes mirroring real world debates about freedom vs. security in the age of terror. With Marvel's heroes split into two camps – Pro-Government led by Iron-Man and Pro-Freedom led by Captain America – the high drama of brother against brother that only comes from a civil war played out in dark, dramatic fashion across the pages of dozens of different comic book titles. This game offers a pretty close (but not by any means exact) version of that story, leaving it to the players as to which side they will support. And of course since it's a video game, you can always go back and play it again from the other side.

While the game's story offers a tough choice and some interesting twists and turns, the actual playing the game part is as straightforward and nearly mindless as they come. You and up to three local or on line friends control a team of four heroes, and as the game unfolds you can mix and match characters at will from a roster of dozens. Want the Fantastic Four? No problem. Want some weird mix of Deadpool, Storm, Daredevil, and Venom? You can do that too. Some characters only unlock after certain story moments, while others get locked away depending on which side you choose in the war. Even with these restrictions, you'll find yourself spoiled for choice. Each hero has four super powers plus special Fusion Moves that they pull off in concert with another hero. Sadly, the variety is often only skin deep, with many heroes having different versions of what amount to the same basic ten powers or so. Once I settled on a squad that had the right mix of melee, ranged, and area of effect attacks to handle any occasion, I stopped switching much unless I opened a new character (Storm, Iron Man, The Thing, and Deadpool mostly).

There's a whole leveling up mechanic that you can and should set to automatic, since there really aren't many meaningful choices for you to make on manual. Once all four powers are unlocked, you won't even be able to tell the difference. Game play involves hitting dudes and robots with your powers and occasionally fighting some superhero or villain who you have to hit ten times as much with said powers. It's a beat 'em up slog through level after level of secret bases and good looking but uninspiring settings. There are a few boss fights that I found more confusing than fun, as the game's not great about giving you directions. Often someone would be yelling what to do on the radio and I couldn't hear them over the cacophony of the sound effects and music. When things get busy on screen (as they often do), it gets hard to figure out what's going on, and the game's camera is pretty awful, especially when it sticks you with obstructed views. I found a number of annoying bugs in my X-Box 360 version, including a disappearing boss that never returned and characters who would get stuck inexplicably.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2's greatest sin stems from its decision to favor variety over specificity. Sure, you've got tons of heroes to choose from, but very few of them are interesting. And because the game's levels and camera controls are very linear and restrictive, I never felt like a superhero. There's nothing to break the illusion worse than playing a hero who can fly and yet still falls when the bridge blows up underneath him. That said, it may be uninspired fun, but it is still fun. Weirdly enough, it's kind of even more sun the second time through, since you can play from the beginning with all your heroes unlocked and all their powers leveled up. For sit back and relax brainless brawling, this game delivers. For anything deep or actually compelling, well, did I mention Batman: Arkham Asylum recently?

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is available in one form or another on every gaming platform out there. This review is of the X-Box 360/PS3/PC version.

(Rick Dakan is a former game developer, author of the Geek Mafia series of novels, and one of the voices behind Gamma Testing, a video game podcast that goes in depth in a single game each week.)

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