First, let's get the latest playable character reveals out of the way: Jean Grey and Gambit. There. That was easy, if not the best-kept secret. What is a surprise, though, is that I was able to clearly distinguish Jean from the other on-screen heroes and mess of beaten-down baddies as I stood a distant twenty feet from a Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 demo at a recent Activision games showcase. As I approached, I was amazed by the difference three years makes. MUA2, at least on Xbox 360 (and PS3, presumably), is a hot dayam–better looking game than its predecessor. This is not a last-generation production brushed with high-res assets.

Vicarious Visions proves a worthy successor to Raven Software, taking over lead development of the franchise -- and finally ending its streak of assignments to Activision's lesser ports. While it was evident the first time we played MUA2, it's worth reiterating that the game's camera angle has been adjusted to provide a closer perspective of the foreground and more distant view of the background. I could identify Jean from across the room because the character models are larger and more detailed. Additionally, updates to Vicarious' Alchemy game engine have added Havok physics and more on-screen enemies. While the grandiose (super) heroism has been amplified by newer technology, MUA2's style is still very much that of a Saturday morning cartoon.
I'm no Civil War historian, but the conflict seems rooted in adult themes, and I would like to see that better reflected in MUA2's dungeon-crawling gameplay. Of course, Vicarious is limited by license and rating restrictions. These are Marvel's characters, after all, and the game can't risk content that exceeds T-rating limits for sales purposes. Still, even with the hero-to-enemy ratio more appropriately unbalanced, the combat is un-epic.

Visible damage effects of super powers are anything but super. When Hulk thunderclaps a dude's head, it should explode, you know? Perhaps the "Uncaged Edition" of the recent Wolverine game spoiled me, but after the adamantium-clawed X-Man is psychically cannon-balled into an enemy helicopter by Jean Grey, I'm expecting the much-hyped "fusion attack" to at least leave a scratch. Likewise, I'd expect to see Wolverine having to repair from a few battle scars of his own.

Even after a few minutes, I noticed my attention waning as I unconsciously slipped into button-mashing mode. With little more than red and blue meters to signal status changes in my character, MUA2 becomes a monotonous push from one end of a level to the other.

Ultimate Alliance is still a Saturday morning cartoon.

Add in some fatigued body language, some "costume damage" -- no need to go as far as blood -- and this game would be more visually engaging. Why reserve drama for cut scenes?

Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and X-Men Legends before it, always struck me as a lazy Sunday afternoon affair -- the kind of game you mindlessly plod through with a buddy as you both recover from a hangover. There is a deep customization layer to MUA2, though, which can be ignored in the haze of the casual mode, but offers a lot of potential playability for anyone eager to experiment with the endless combinations of team play.

Experience points can be reassigned to new powers and perks without penalty, and Vicarious encourages players to get inside the accessible menus and move the various ability bumpers back and forth. A four-hero team can be a fine-tuned machine, and it will need to be at higher difficulty settings in which super villains won't go down with careless thwaps and pows! Actually, most upgrading can be handled within the gameworld (the status meters toggle to mini-menus) without forcing your friends to sit through your compulsive tweaking. Playable characters, too, can be swapped out on the fly by briefly pausing the game and selecting a new lineup.

After a three-year hiatus, perhaps it's comforting to know that the formula, after changing hands, still comes out seeming effortlessly concocted. You won't notice the creative absence of Raven Software and should appreciate Vicarious Visions' improvements, especially to the flow of co-op gameplay. Regardless, if you haven't relished this series before, it's doubtful Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 will turn you into a true believer.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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