Marvel Ultimate Alliance fans have been begging for a new entry in the comic-themed action/RPG series for over a decade now. In a few months, those fans will finally get their hands on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. However, the game industry has grown a great deal in the last 10 years, which leaves us with a few questions. Will The Black Order scratch that inch fans have had for years? Does the Marvel Ultimate Alliance formula need to evolve? Can it do both?
We’re ready to answer many of those questions. During our recent cover story trip to Nintendo’s headquarters, we spent several hours with the game. Then Game Informer editors Matt Miller and Ben Reeves sat down to talk about their impressions.
Reeves: To start, maybe I should share my enthusiasm for the series. I’ve been a comic-book reader for for nearly as long as I’ve been a gamer, so I was in the bag for these games the second they were announced. I’ve been a fan of this series since the original X-Men Legends games; I played them all, and loved gathering my friends around the couch for all-night superhero battles. I know you’re a big comic guy too, and I think you have a similar affection for this series, so what was your general impression walking in and playing The Black Order for the first time?
Miller: I share your enthusiasm for the series, Ben, as well as that long affair with the comics. My history following these characters goes pretty far back, so I come to the table with some preexisting enthusiasm. When the original X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance games released, it felt like such an obvious idea for a game – to bring these heroes into an RPG framework and provide quick-playing superhero throwdowns – and if anything, that formula feels even more relevant now, due to the popularity of the Marvel brand.
So, to answer your question, when I first started playing MUA 3, it felt mostly like a return to form. From a gameplay perspective, this has a lot of what made those earlier games so appealing: a huge number of characters, and arcadey action that is fun to hop in and out of with friends. The initial gameplay is pretty simple and button-mashy (in a good way), but after a few hours you can sense that higher difficulties and later enemies demand a little more care, particularly in the use of hero powers and how you upgrade each character. I think that Team Ninja has brought its own eye for high-octane action, so the gameplay moves fast and features some interesting opportunities for cooperation.
The other thing that is apparent right away is the pure chaos that this game unleashes on the screen. There’s a learning curve to recognizing where your character is on the screen (Hint: follow their colored circle below their feet) and keeping track of the action. It’s a lot to take in. From our conversations with the devs at Team Ninja, I know it’s one thing that they’re looking at really closely in these final months of development. It’s tricky. If they tone down the action too much, it’s going to lose that insane superhero vibe of flying shields, missile explosions, and magic blasts. But if the camera and action is too chaotic, it’s hard to feel invested in the unfolding gameplay. I’m really eager to see the final balance they reach when the game releases in July.
What was your sense of the feel of the action? Did it match with your memory of the original games?
Reeves: Overall, it felt pretty close to my memory of playing those old games, which is good. You’re right about it being visually chaotic, which could be a problem, and I hope they tone that down before launch. However, as a comic fan, there is a real thrill in seeing Groot, Spider-Man, Thor, and Deadpool all fighting alongside one another. Team Ninja has done a fine job with the overall controls and feel of the game. I spent a lot of time with Spider-Man (both Miles and Peter) as well as Spider-Gwen. I like the Spider-family. Did you have any memorable characters?
Miller: One of my favorite things about the hours we got to play together was trying out all the different characters. I think one of the hard decisions for people is going to be whether they constantly flip around among characters, or focus on just a few early on in their playtime, so as to immediately begin powering them up to their optimum potential.
While the core light and heavy attacks, dodge, and block are all relatively similar, they still have unique animations and effects depending on the character, their size, and their choice of weapon/attack. It’s the use of powers that really makes each character stand out. For instance, Wolverine’s inherent healing factor makes him an obvious choice early on for frontline scrapper, so he pairs quite well with another character who backs him up with ranged attacks and enemy debuffs. While it doesn’t unlock for a good while, Scarlet Witch’s healing field seems enormously powerful, and something that has a great deal of utility for teams.
In terms of personal favorites, it’s pretty hard to beat the pure raging insanity of the Hulk. That classic Thunder Clap power is in full effect, and I love the way he can just leap right into the thick of a big fight. I also really like Rocket & Groot, who play together as a single character. They certainly have some great powers, but it’s really just the animation work of seeing them work together that is super fun.
Reeves: You touched on the powers a bit there. I think that’s another area where I was hoping for a bit more. The old games definitely streamlined the leveling process, but I still yearn for the deeper progression systems in games like Diablo III. It doesn’t feel like this series has evolved with the times. I was a bit disappointed that each hero only has four powers, and while you can swap out which button is assigned to each power, there isn’t much customization beyond that. Of course, you can power up each of these moves, but by the end of the game, I don’t think my Thor will be much different from your Thor. (I guess there is only one God)
That said, I liked the powers I used. Spider-Miles has a lot of electrified web attacks that set him apart from Peter, and Gwen has a fun move that allows her to swing a giant wrecking ball of webbing at enemies. Cap still has his shield throw move, which bounces off enemies and the environment, but I don’t think you can control it like you could in the first MUA.
What did you think of that leveling process?
Miller: That path to improvement is one of the other things that really excites me in the game. With this many characters, I feel like you could invest a lot of time leveling all the character on your account. There are multiple ways that players progress both their individual heroes and their broader alliance.
I go into greater detail about this in our magazine cover story, but here we’re talking specifically about actual moment-to-moment hands-on gameplay impressions. So on that topic, it’s enough to say that there are ways that you’re leveling your entire alliance to be better with a particular attribute, which might affect an overall playstyle for your team. For instance, if you as a group of players really like to spam power usage, then perhaps early on you invest in greater energy to fuel more powers, but at the expense of other capabilities. It was hard to get a complete picture of that in just a few hours of play, but I like the idea conceptually.
You’re also gaining various currencies that let you beef up the characters you’ve been playing the most, improving their abilities (which unlock naturally as you level) as well as tweaking the way they play by equipping ISO-8 pieces, which might dramatically change the way you play a given character. One piece might add a shock attribute to your attack, while another changes the way HP orbs drop. There’s room for a lot of tweaking. To your point about making one Thor different from another, I think that will be one of the big places that you might be able to distinguish your characters from one another.
A lot of leveling happens during a natural playthrough of the campaign, but the game also includes this whole other play mode called Infinity Trials, which is where I suspect a lot of players will invest time if they want to really enhance their team. Do you want to talk about your experience with that system a little bit?
Reeves: Sure, you spend a lot of time on the Infinity Trials in the cover story, so people should go check that out if they want more details, but in short: It seems like a good way for some players to get more content out of the game. It’s also a great place to farm for experience and items, I believe. These Infinity Trials are separate missions that have been disconnected from the main story, but they usually take place in an area you’ve already explored during the narrative. However, they also add a new wrinkle to the action so you don’t feel like you’re just replaying old content. For example, one of the Infinity Trials we played had us trying to defeat a certain number of enemies under a time limit, and we gained more time with each defeated enemy.
Miller: Yeah, the Trials can be pretty challenging. You know, the thing I’m stoked about here is to have a great four-player action/RPG that I can sit down and play with a bunch of buddies hanging out together. It’s easy to forget how few cooperative games allow for that, and I think it’s going to be really fun to just blow a bunch of stuff up with my friends. The game may motivate me to get a second or third pro controller for my Switch.
Reeves: I love having multiple co-op options in any game. I could definitely see playing with a bunch of friends online. I might play as Spider-Man here in Minneapolis, while Daredevil joins in from Denver, Venom from Dallas, and Iron Man from Seattle. That’s not a problem. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure I’ll play a lot of this game while looking at the Switch’s portable screen. Technically, you can play four-player on the Switch’s tiny screen, but given the onscreen chaos, it’s very hard keep track of all the action, so I don’t recommend that.
Regardless of how you play, at the end of the day, I think fans know what they can expect from this game. It’s not a giant leap forward for the series, but it is more Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which many comic fans have been eager to play for a long time.
Miller: My takeaway is that The Black Order does feel uniquely suited to the strengths of the Switch as a console, and I think it’s going to let a lot players live out some superhero fantasies that may be swimming around since the recent movies. You’re right that playing four players all together on a single screen is pretty challenging to track, but it gets credit from me for allowing for that option, if that’s what you want. The game also has a super bright and inviting color palette and art style, which I enjoy, and I think it will also be attractive to many young players. I’m eager to share the game with my young nephews and nieces, and have a game we can enjoy together.
To be honest, I haven’t played enough to know whether the progression systems provide the meaningful long-term engagement that the game is going to need, but I am hopeful. There’s a lot of ways to tweak and improve your characters, and the availability of multiple difficulty settings and higher-level Infinity Trials should offer a lot of replay.
If the developers at Team Ninja can nail the balance between bombastic action and still address the need for “readable” action on the screen, I’m hopeful that this is a game that can offer something very similar to what the original games in the series provided – great arcade-style action, fun character leveling, and a chance to beat up some colorful bad guys with friends.
Reeves: ‘Nuff said.
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