I was crestfallen when Marvel Heroes, an online action RPG that ran for nearly five years, shut down in 2017. Not necessarily because I played it a lot. I didn’t, really. I indulged in fits and starts. Bursts of colorful nonsense now and then, here and there. Whenever I wanted I could drop in and make some little Wolverine or Iron Man punch things and shoot lasers. A colorful swirl of whooshing effects, leveling up, and loot scooping. I even learned things. Did you know there’s a superhero named Squirrel Girl? She was to squirrels what Willard was to rats, except with the chipper demeanor of an Eisenhower-era sorority girl on her way to the malt shop. Oh, Marvel.
So when Marvel Heroes closed because Disney would rather make money than let people have fun, I was left with meticulously crafted experiences that takes the Marvel license seriously. For instance, the in-depth world building and character development in Spider-Man on the Playstation 4. It wasn’t nonsense at all. So what’s a guy to do when he’s looking for the occasional burst of meaningless comic book nonsense? One night — I’m not proud of this — I installed the PC version of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, an Activision superhero action RPG from before Marvel was a cinematic universe. It’s on Steam. It’s an utterly junk port of an Xbox game. I couldn’t get it to work with a gamepad. It doesn’t even have Squirrel Girl. But I tried anyway. What had I become?
However, since Disney would rather make money, they have replaced Marvel Heroes and updated Marvel Ultimate Alliance, proudly carrying forward the banner of meaningless comic book nonsense. And although it’s everything I wanted, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 can be a, well, modest package. It’s a Switch exclusive, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a platform exclusive. You’d think Nintendo would make something that really shows off what the Switch can do, something to wow videogamers, something that has all the polish and performance of a game with Mario rescuing Princess Peach. Nope. It doesn’t even look that good. Some of the later levels at least try to get more ornate and colorful, but this is one of those games that not even a reviewer at IGN would call visually stunning. It will variously zoom in close and pull out far, so it never feels comfortable onscreen. It doesn’t even know whether you should use an over-the-shoulder view as if it were a brawler, or a top-down view as if it were an action RPG. It’s not even sure whether it wants you to play undocked. It probably doesn’t. The characters and text are just so tiny, the perspective and scale so uncertain. You know how smoothly Diablo plays and how confident it looks, how comfortable it feels on the Switch, even undocked? This ain’t that.
Even more odd is that it doesn’t play as smoothly as you’d expect from the platform that brought you the latest Super Smash Bros and the development team that cut its teeth making high-performance Ninja Gaiden brawlers. In contrast, this game stutters uncertainly, as if I have the graphics cranked up a notch too high. Maybe I should just turn off antialiasing? Oh, wait, this is a console game. It’s not my job to worry about performance. And a game that looks this modest has no business having performance problems.
The sound especially is janky. During epic battles, sometimes all the noises cancel each other out and I’m playing a silent movie. Even when the sound works, the mix lends an inexplicable prominence to the characters’ various grunts while they attack. Before this game, I didn’t even know superheroes grunted. There’s almost no sign of one of the best elements of superheroes teaming up: the banter. Marvel Heroes featured all kinds of context sensitive sound bites that triggered when specific superheroes met. This game has general-purpose one-liners that may as well be delivered to brick walls. The superheroes talk to generic placeholder text instead of each other. What kind of developer makes a superhero game, marshals this much voice talent, and doesn’t even have them talk to each other?
But what Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 gets from the developers at Team Ninja — Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden, Nioh — is a hearty combat system, far more gratifying than the MMO model in Marvel Heroes or the simple punchfest in the earlier Marvel Ultimate Alliances. During combat, the consistent challenge involves something called “stagger”, represented as a purple bar under an enemy’s health. It’s like a layer of armor. Once the bar is stripped away, that enemy is vulnerable to being stunned by synergies comprised of compatible attacks from two different superheroes. This is the key to doing well. Setting up and timing synergy attacks among whatever characters you’ve decided to play. If you don’t do this, you’re just slowly chipping away at purple stagger bars.
The previous Marvel Ultimate Alliance had multi-character combos, but they were just plus-damage super-punches instead of an actual system. And Marvel Heroes was an online game that encouraged you to join others to more efficiently grind experience and scoop loot. In those games, character combos were mostly adding up numbers for more damage. But this is a fleshed out system about piecing together your own solutions from your choice of four characters. Different attacks are differently efficient at stripping away that purple stagger gauge. This is as fundamental to combat as inflicting damage. In fact, the three ratings for any given attack are 1) how much energy/mana it takes, 2) how much damage it does, and 3) how effective it is against stagger. There’s a reason the final step in improving most character abilities is an increase in stagger damage.
You don’t necessarily need to know this stuff. You can play Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as a brainless brawler using whichever four characters are your favorites, blissfully unaware of what that purple bar means. You might progress slower than you like. You might get frustrated or bored having to replay the same bits to level up. You might conclude that even if you are making some little Wolverine and Iron Man punch things and shoot lasers, this sure is a tedious punching game.
It’s not entirely your fault. The nuts-and-bolts of Team Ninja’s combat system are easy to miss. After a couple of quick pop-up messages during an early level, you’re on your own and you can ignore staggers and synergies all you want. Since this is an action RPG, time spent playing will eventually trump almost any difficulty level. The grind can be king. But if you want to play Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 like the Team Ninja brawler that it is, you’ll find all the information in the in-game documentation. It’s in the system menu, coyly labeled “tips”.
Among the other surprisingly brainy bits is an abstract loot system based on collecting, fusing, breaking down, mixing, and matching crystals. Because they’re crystals, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 doesn’t have to do that dumb thing like in Marvel Heroes where Thor churns through a hundred Mjolnirs and Hulk can equip, uh, what’s left after various pairs of ripped shorts? Rings? Piercings? Body paint? The crystals are called ISO-8 and I guess the superheroes carry them around in their pockets. They lend Marvel Ultimate Alliance its customization system. At first, these are stat bonuses. Eventually, they’re special abilities. Their effects stack, so you can have a Hulk with even more strength, a higher defense value, a special stun effect applied at the end of every four-hit combo, and an increased chance of finding rare loot. You made that Hulk. He is yours. Whatever inventory does in other action RPGs, ISO-8 does here.
ISO-8 is also a money sink, but it’s limited by the crystals you find. You’re working on a bitchin’ orange crystal that increases stagger damage, but reduces hit point damage. Your Black Panther has it equipped, so his job is to dash around knocking down stagger bars — his vibranium blade attack is especially good at this — leaving the killing blows to other characters. You’ve got plenty of gold to upgrade the orange crystal to level five, but you need one more level four crystal for the fusion process, which you can’t make until you get one more level three crystal. You can either wait to find it in the course of playing, or you can hunt it down among the sets of challenges called Infinity Trails. Let’s see, the survival trial against Sentinels always offers an orange crystal as a reward. You’ll go do that to make your Black Panther an even more efficient stagger-stripping machine.
This is how the loot chase works in Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Let it happen, or chase it across that generous spread of unlockable challenges. Survival modes, time trials, boss rushes, solo challenges for single heroes, all alternatives to replaying levels, which you’re going to do anyway, but sometimes it’s nice to just get down to it without having to skip cutscenes. There are a couple of unlockable characters in there as well.
The other money sink is an enormous tech tree. Well, tech web. Actually webs, plural, each dotted with incremental upgrades around a special power in the middle. Fill the web to earn the power in the middle. This, too, is a money sink gated by doo-dads called — ready for this? — Alliance Enhancement Points. You get a couple every time a character levels up. Alternatively, some of the later challenges offer a heap of AEPs as a reward. Like the loot crystals, let it happen, or chase it across the unlockable challenges. Crystals to improve specific characters in specific ways, Alliance Enhancement Points to rack up global improvements across the board.
What ultimately makes all this work is what brought you here in the first place. The characters. The little superhero action figures and their sets of more or less unique powers. With 36 superheroes, each with four powers, that’s 144 superhero powers. There’s going to be some overlap. Eventually, you’ll think of each character’s power as a variation on one of a handful of attack types. But to Team Ninja’s credit, they’ve done a lot of work to make them feel distinct.
For instance, lots of the superheroes have an attack that does heavy damage in an area in front of the character. The Hulk does a leaping pound, Drax does a non-leaping pound, and Spider-Man swings a heavy ball of web. Standard stuff. A bit of a windup and then bam. But here’s a delightful example of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 going the extra distance. The Wasp has a similar attack to deal heavy damage to an area in front of her. But she does it by enlarging small objects in midair and dropping them. A giant spinner toy, a piece of candy, a cell phone. In practice, it’s pretty much identical to what The Hulk, Drax, and Spider-Man are doing. But in presentation, it’s uniquely hers. Another one of her abilities is a rapid-fire ranged attack. Just like Deadpool, Elektra, and Elsa Bloodhunter. That’s right, Elsa Bloodhunter. Look her up if you don’t believe me. But when The Wasp does her rapid-fire ranged attack, her character model shrinks down to a tiny version of herself, because that’s what The Wasp does.
Another type of attack is the tornado. It’s literally a tornado. A whirling column of air that deals damage to anyone nearby until it dissipates. It’s the first power of Star Lord, who’s the first character you play. I don’t remember which Guardians of the Galaxy movie has Star Lord shooting tornados, but you gotta give Team Ninja a break for some of these things. Chris Pratt’s Remarkable Charm isn’t a viable attack power. The cool thing about tornadoes is that they can be imbued with an element to become a fire tornado, an electrical tornado, or a shock tornado. This can be part of the synergy among characters, but it’s also how Star Lord eventually levels up. His other three powers each use a different element, so if he uses them in conjunction with his tornado, he’s got the flexibility to burn, shock, or freeze anyone standing near the tornado.
But then there’s Storm, who of course has a tornado attack. She can’t add elements to it, because it goes away as soon as you release the attack button to launch another attack. But the trade-off is that she can steer her tornado around as long as you’re holding down the button and as long as you’ve got the energy/mana to sustain it. And while it’s whirling around, any of the other characters can add elements to it. So both Star Lord and Storm can get cool fire tornados. Only Storm can control them. But only Star Lord can set them up without help. These are the kind of distinctions Team Ninja makes to lend distinctive personalities to 36 different characters with 144 ways of attacking stuff among them.
As a single-player game, it’s easy enough to set up synergy attacks with your three AI-controlled buddies. You can launch an attack in regular attack mode or in “hey, someone lend me a synergy power!” mode that will light up if there’s an eligible character nearby. If you assemble an appropriate party, and if you stand close enough to whichever buddy you want to lend synergy, the AI will gladly oblige you. It sometimes even attempts its own synergies, but you have to be sharp-eyed and quick. I find it’s easier to just switch control to another character and do it myself rather than wait for the AI to attempt it. I keep an eye on who has a full store of attack energy, jump to that character to spend it, and then move on. The more natural way to play is to just control one character at a time, but the more efficient way is to use whomever has the attack power to spare. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a perfectly viable single-player game, but it’s also a party-based action RPG, built to be played on your own if you want.
Which is exactly what I want. These are the colorful bursts of superhero nonsense I’ve missed since 2017, splashy and unserious, as intricate as I want it to be, stretching out for as long a grind as I care to ride, brimming with the loot and customization I want in an action RPG, and enough content to make me forget I’ll never again play my leveled up Squirrel Girl. Oh, Marvel/Disney/Nintendo.