For Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Activision adapts the successful format of its X-Men Legends games into the larger Marvel universe. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is one of the first leaps for the new Nintendo Wii system into the realm of next generation gaming. Furthermore, the game also provides an excellent early look at translating a game coming out on multiple platforms to the unique control style of the Wii.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is an action RPG that continues the gameplay style of the X-Men Legends games. The players control a team of four Marvel superheroes as they battle supervillains from the extended Marvel universe. The game begins with Dr. Doom attacking a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier helmed by Nick Fury. As the ship is slowly being overrun, Fury puts out a call to all metahumans. Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine answer the distress signal. From here the game progresses in an almost identical fashion as the X-Men Legends games. With each of the five Acts of the game, your team of superheroes works out of a base of operations from which they launch their missions. The missions take place within several areas all related to a particular zone. There are S.H.I.E.L.D. access points, which serve the similar purpose as Extraction points in X-Men Legends, that allow the player to warp to other areas in the zone, switch the members of their team, and save their progress. As you fight your way through the areas, the superheroes gain experience levels that grant them points to assign in a variety of special abilities. Several of the structural aspects inherent in the previous X-Men Legends games have been streamlined, however, I will deal with these changes after discussing what I imagine everyone is truly interested in…
The controls. The basic gameplay mechanics have not changed a great deal. Each character has a basic attack, strong attack, the ability to pick up objects, and special mutant powers. The Wii, though, presents an opportunity for unique methods of enacting these relatively standard abilities. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance adapts the motion sensing technology inherent in the Wii through a system of gestures. There are five primary gestures that the player uses with the Wii remote: the lift gesture (an abrupt upward movement), the lower gesture (an abrupt downward movement), the thrust gesture (stabbing the remote towards the television), the shake gesture (quickly moving the remote from side to side) and the swipe gesture (a broader right to left movement). The motion sensing ability in the nunchuk attachment, which is required, is not used as elaborately. Tilting the nunchuk to either side rotates the camera and shaking the nunchuk blocks, though blocking is more easily performed by pressing the Z button on the nunchuk.
The five gestures mentioned above provide the foundation for all of the player’s abilities. As in previous games, the buttons alone performed basic attacks and holding a mutant power button transformed all of the basic attacks into various special abilities. The same is true in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. The five gestures provide the controls for all the basic attacks and holding the mutant power button, the remote trigger B button, changes them all into mutant abilities. The developers tried to make the gestures intuitively control what the character was doing onscreen. The shake gesture matches up with the basic attack. Continually using the shake gesture allows the player to unleash short combos. The thrust gesture is the strong attack, which usually involves the hero springing toward the enemy. The basic and strong attacks are unique because they are also accomplished using the A button, the primary thumb button on the remote. Tapping the A button performs the basic attack, and holding and releasing the A button unleashes the strong attack. The remaining moves in the heroes’s arsenal, however, can only be executed using the gestures. The lift gesture does a pop up attack that knocks the opponent into the air. The lower gesture performs a stunning blow. Finally, the swipe gesture does a tripping attack which throws the enemy briefly off balance.
Before the game even starts, there is a brief tutorial explaining each gesture. The player must correctly perform the gesture five times before moving on to the next one. This demonstration gives the player a handle on what the game is looking for in each gesture.
I thought the gestures provided very smooth gameplay in regular combat. I choose to use the A button for my basic and strong attacks just so I wouldn’t be moving the remote the entire time. However, enemies quickly defend against a stream of unending basic attacks. A quick flip of the wrist either up or down or a casual swipe changes the fight very quickly. These movements seem very natural and the game responds well to them. There are a few glitches. Sometimes a shake gesture will be registered as a swipe. Also often times I will unconsciously lift the controller a bit in order to exaggerate the lower gesture resulting in a lift command when I wanted a lower one. Overall, I think the game does a solid job of recognizing which move you are actually trying to perform.
My primary complaint in the control department comes from the fact that you don’t have total reign over assigning the various mutant abilities to a particular gesture. There are some mutant abilities that you use frequently, such as a character’s basic projectile attack. Others are used in specific situation like a radial attack or a buff ability that lasts for a period of time. It would be great to assign the mutant ability you use often to the A button, so the player could just hold the B trigger to switch over to Mutant ability controls and simply tap the A button. The less frequently used abilities could be mapped to either a swipe or a lift gesture. The gestures, minus the shake, are all very natural movements. It would make combat flow very nicely if you were tapping the A button for your basic mutant ability. When the situation arises, you casually throw in a swipe or lift gesture to activate one of your other mutant powers. Unfortunately, the mutant powers are all assigned to a particular gesture. If you do not like the control mapping of the powers, fighting can be a bit cumbersome. There is one aspect of customization with regards to mutant abilities. When you hold the B button down, all of your mutant abilities appear in the corner of the screen. You can cycle through them using the directional pad which is above the A button. Pressing the A button on a particular power registers that ability to the A button. However, some mutant abilities such as party buffs can only be used in this manner. So if you register your primary attack to the A button and want to use a party buff, you have to cycle through the powers, press A to use the buff, then cycle back through to the primary projectile and press A again to reset the power back to that button. In the heat of battle, this process can be very agitating.
As mentioned above, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance streamlined some of the gameplay aspects from the X-Men Legends games. The heroes still have the four basic stats of Body, Focus, Striking and Defense, but you cannot manually adjust them with each level achieved. Each character has a built-in formula for gains in these stats. Also, each player can only wear one piece of gear at a time instead of the three pieces in previous games. Thus, the drop rates for gear have been drastically reduced. I believe they occur only in special chests and boss fights. Passive abilities have been added to the character’s costumes. The player can purchase skill points to add to these abilities. Each character begins with one costume, with others being unlockable. If you are not interested in micromanaging your team, the game can automatically assign skill points as you level and automatically equip gear as you obtain it. The idea of health and energy potions have also been eliminated in favor of this new health and energy orb system. When you defeat enemies, they drop a certain number of orbs that are automatically absorbed by the heroes. These orbs replenish a part of your health and energy. I think this new approach takes a great deal of control away from the player. Destroying objects in the environment sometimes yields orbs, but their primary source is enemies. Thus, if you are low on health, you don’t have much choice but to further engage the enemy.
The graphics for the most part are not next generation. They look only marginally improved from the Gamecube versions of the X-Men Legends games. Now, these previous games had pretty good graphics anyway, but visually this game could easily have come from the previous generation. Still the detail in the fully rendered cutscenes are absolutely astounding. The sound is pretty standard fair for the series as well. The music ranges from ethereal orchestral arrangements to rock riffs. Each Marvel hero has voice characterization, and they chatter constantly. Once more, the voice characterization is nicely done.
Overall, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a solid game in the tradition of action RPGs. The game does a respectable job of displaying the potential of the new Wii control system. I believe its greater impact in the realm of control is showing that the Wii remote and nunchuk can still accomplish much of what was done with more traditional setups. The gesture system is a comfortable way of controlling the heroes. Unfortunately the graphics do not scream next generation, but the Wii is more focused on the gameplay aspects, which are certainly unique in this game. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a fun game for action RPG fans and an exciting introduction to some of the possibilities of the new Nintendo Wii.