Joystiq hands-on: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

Kevin Kelly
K. Kelly|10.11.06

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Joystiq hands-on: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
After previewing Call of Duty 3 and seeing the trailer for Flags of our Fathers for the umpteenth time, we wanted a diversion from the battlefields. Returning to Activision in search of something that would allow us to shed our daily mundane identities and to become heroes that weren't dressed in fatigues, we encountered our friend the receptionist again, still holding a grudge from our earlier victory. She led us into a dark room that had the villainous look of a secret lair. We had entered the realm of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

The green glow of Xbox 360 rings of light around the room looked like laser-activated booby traps, but we managed to evade them and press on. After a short briefing we were off to hand pick our four fellow heroes. You pick from tons of playable characters, although some of them are unlocked as you explore areas and find more heroes. Putting The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch on our team got us a Fantastic Four bonus (it was a no-brainer, we admit it), but we couldn't figure out any of the other combinations. We spied Deadpool and Spider-Woman on the Wii version -- which are probably the two unique characters that only the next-gen systems will be serving up. There is an extremely Nick Fury-esque shoulder holster on one of the silhouetted locked characters, and our fingers are itching to play the cigar-chomping, insult-hurling leader of the Howling Commandos.

We selected Dr. Strange, Thor, Silver Surfer and Spider-Man, and teleported instantly onto the deck of a S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier, fighting off waves of invading Ultron-bots. This can be fun, but you'll repeat this action a lot: fight through tons of underlings, fight lesser baddie, take down big boss. Fighting the big boss doesn't just mean "Hit, Hit, Dodge Dogde, Hit Hit" etc., as the frost giant we encountered in the Asgardian level had to be taken down Shadow of the Colossus style, but you're still just hitting a combination of buttons in order to whack the guy. After only an hour, we started to tire of the formula and we would return constantly to the team selection screen to try and come up with a hidden combination of heroes that would allow us to rule the universe. Sadly, we were denied every time.

Retro (like 1980s retro, dig it) Activision games appear in Ultimate Alliance as minigames that your characters have to defeat in order to unlock different parts of Arcade's Murderworld level. In the Breakout room, you come across a HUGE playfield, and you have to maneuver the block at the bottom with your character, dragging it back and forth to deflect the ball and break all the bricks. Once you've cleared them all, a door somewhere will open. We only played the Breakout level, but as evidenced by the stunning graphics below, Pitfall appears as well. These helped break up the monotonous mowing down of henchman, and was sometimes more fun than blasting away at no-gooders like the Mandarin and Shocker.

We swear to god we didn't Photoshop this picture.

Just like CoD3, the game was a very different experience on the Wii. The controls are gesture-based, and each hand has different moves that make you punch, kick, run, shake, or activate your powers. When we played the level set in hell, through some of Mephisto's trickery, demonic imps kept jumping on the backs of our characters. Shaking the Wii-mote violently drops 'em to the floor, where you can mete out some much-deserved pain. Yes, graphically it doesn't hold a candle to the 360 or PS3 versions, but the fun was in the gameplay, especially when four of us were co-opping our way through Murderworld. The Wii graphics make it seem much more comic-bookish than the other versions, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just a ... different thing. Don't get us wrong, it still looks great, it just doesn't shine as much as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.

Wii or not, Ben Grimm can still clock Dr. Doom's chrome dome.

This wouldn't be a Joystiq post without some PS3 vs. Xbox 360 action. In all honesty, both versions of game look extremely close in the graphics department. It's just that the Xbox 360 version was more complete, and they were having trouble running the game on the PS3 development kits. The multiplayer we were shown was all on the Wii and the 360, so we can't vouch for it on the PS3. However, we did play the minigames and part of Murderworld on the PS3, and it looked amazing. The wood floors on that level look like ... real wood floors. Video game reviewing has come to a very strange place when you're talking about the wood floor in a game based on a comic book, but it really looks amazing. The game supports 1080p on the PS3, so it will have a bit of a visual boost over the 360, and Activision is working on incorporating the tilt controller into the game as well.

Just look at that PS3 shine! New Ultimate Alliance is both a dessert topping and a floor wax.

The 360 version looked very polished as we took it through the paces and from what we were able to see, it looked identical to the PS3. Just once it would be nice if these developers could set up side by side comparisons for us, but they don't want to play favorites, so don't hold your breath on that one. We played multiplayer via a split-screen, all on the same console, although Activision promises that online multiplayer will be available as well. The controls also felt a bit tighter on the 360 than they did on the PS3, but in all fairness that can be blamed on the PS3 test kits not working right yet. The point being, they both look good, and will play almost exactly the same way same, with the exception of however the PS3 incorporates the tilt.

Blade and Ghost Rider team up on the 360 while Dr. Strange fights indigestion.

Admittedly, the game is not going to blow your next-gen socks off in the graphics department, but it is fun to play if you're into this sort of game. Think Gauntlet meets the Marvel universe. At times we got caught up watching the cinematics, and would have rather watched a whole feature-length movie of those than try to whack our way to the end of the next level. Another bummer was the flying. Characters that can fly in the comics can fly in the game, although they hit an invisible ceiling at about 10 meters when outside. This is an unfortunate limitation, because when we hopped on Silver Surfer's cosmic board for the first time, it was tempting to just jet around the place and hang ten. Alas, we had to settle for surfing through hordes of enemies instead of the cosmos, since he kept hitting the ceiling

We'll start paying a lot more attention when Grand Theft Auto meets the Marvel universe. Jacking the Fantasti-car would be sweet.
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