10th best game of 2019: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

, | Features

Boy, do I feel silly about this.  A Marvel boondoggle taking up a slot on my 2019 top ten list?  I don’t even really like superheroes. They’ve been foisted on to me. They’re shrapnel in a cultural explosion whose blast radius I can’t escape.  I’m at the nexus of three different infection vectors: movies, boardgames, and videogames. I suppose I haven’t put up much of a fight. Come to think of it, I’ve been a pretty willing participant.  I might grouse about Spider-Man Goes to Europe and Marvel Endgame Self-Congratulatory Three-Hour Fan Service Session. But last night, I watched Captain Marvel for a second time. I’ll hold forth to anyone who will listen about Fantasy Flight’s abusive business model, but I just ordered the Captain America deck for Marvel Champions.  Instead of talking about Uncut Gems or Little Women, I had a lengthy conversation with a friend’s mom about how Logan was an Important Movie. Of course a Marvel boondoggle would find its way onto my 2019 top ten list.  

Boardgame publisher Fantasy Flight, with whom I have a love/hate relationship for their combination of often keen game design and always mercenary business model, published Marvel Champions this year.  I didn’t want it. I already had a mess of Marvel cards in a Marvel card game I bought from a friend who didn’t want her copy anymore. Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game, published by Upper Deck, lets me shuffle together all sorts of superhero and supervillain cards, and then flip them up to play out varied card puzzle narrative collages.  Bright, colorful, inconsequential nonsense straight out of the comic books I never read. I didn’t need Fantasy Flight’s version of the same, especially since I was already a willing victim of their nickel-grubbing Lovecraftian card game, Arkham Horror.

But Marvel Champions turned out to be a pretty good take on the game they designed as a Lord of the Rings cash-in back in 2011, and have been redesigning ever since with Warhammer, Lovecraft, and now Marvel skins.  I don’t regret buying Marvel Champions, and I begrudgingly respect how it makes the Fantasy Flight cardplay more snappy and lithe. And while I might feel silly buying a Captain America deck, I can’t deny I’m looking forward to seeing how his shield-centric deck plays.  Here I come, Ultron.  

Jeeze, listen to me.

And that’s pretty much my feeling about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a Nintendo exclusive action RPG billed as the follow-up to Activision’s half-assed Marvel action RPGs from 2006 and 2009.  However, it has more in common with Gazillion’s Marvel Heroes, which Disney put down two years ago, probably to make room for this game. There’s more muscle in the gameplay, more heft in the decisions you make as you level up characters, and more ways to keep you playing even though you’ve pretty much seen all it’s got to offer.  It’s that classic action RPG design in which nothing ever maxxes out and therefore nothing ever ends, and, oh, here are a few more characters as DLC just to drive the point home that you never have to stop playing.

Developer Team Ninja is known for their fighting games, and not so much their action RPGs.  So of course you’d expect a relatively intricate hack-and-slash. But I didn’t expect quite so much character progression.  And after two rounds of DLC, I didn’t expect so many different ways to play and level up and unlock and focus on different elements of gameplay and track high scores.  Marvel Ultimate Alliance is a sprawling package, especially when you pay the $20 for the version with the season’s pass. Oh, and also the $20 a year if you want to play online multiplayer or even see your score rankings.

It helps that I was bitterly disappointed in Platinum’s Astral Chain on the Nintendo Switch, another game in which you develop characters in the context of a compelling combat system.  If you had told me at the beginning of 2019 that I was going to spend more time with a Disney tie-in from the creators of Ninja Gaiden than an original property from the creators of Bayonetta, I would have laughed at you.  But Astral Chain is bogged down in a morass of JRPG silliness, fetch-quest errands, and pointless folderal like having to wash your robots. You have to wash your robots in Astral Chain. You scrub the dirt off them. You turn them, check the other side, scrub some dirt off, check again, okay, all clean.  I’m not sure what happens if you fight with a dirty robot. Maybe nothing. But the fact that Platinum made robot washing a part of Astral Chain tells you everything you need to know about Astral Chain.

In Marvel Ultimate Alliance, you never have to put your superheroes in the shower or hose them down or even brush dust off their shoulders.  You just pick them and fight, and when you do want to fuss over them, you give them boost doo-dads depending on what character build you want to play.  It’s as sleek as Astral Chain is clumsy. It gets right down to the punching and grunting and biff-pow-blamming. It’s quick and easy comfort food, convenient and familiar.  It appeals to the little voice inside me that says, “Jeeze, Tom, stop trying to think critically all the time and just admit you’re having fun.”

But here’s the review in case you want to hear me trying to think critically about this splashy sprawling superhero boondoggle, which turned out to be my 10th favorite game of last year.

The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
2. Control
1. Sunless Skies