It’s been 10 years and a whole console generation since the release of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that little time has passed when looking at Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order.
The game, developed by prolific Japanese action game studio Team Ninja, is very much a throwback to the Marvel Ultimate Alliance action-RPG team-ups of old, which is its greatest strength and its most glaring weakness.
Bring me Thanos!
As with the first two Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, The Black Order has you assembling your dream team of Marvel superheroes with which you’ll travel to iconic Marvel locations and fight all kinds of colourful baddies. You’ll be able to play alone or with up to three other friends in couch co-op or online, which makes it a good multiplayer experience.
This time around, the story focuses on the Mad Titan Thanos, the now-infamous Avengers villain who threatens the universe with the mystical Infinity Stones. When a throwdown between the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thanos’ titular Black Order servants goes wrong, the Stones end up scattered across Earth, forcing superheroes from around the world to step up and collect them before they fall into the wrong hands.
As far as superhero crossovers go, this is a fine, if exceptionally well-worn, premise. Unfortunately, the story, penned by veteran Marvel Comics scribe Marc Sumerak, doesn’t really do a whole lot with this conflict. All told, Thanos and his Black Order are barely in the game, despite being the central threats.
What few appearances they actually make depict them as little more than the generic, take-over-the-world kind of supervillain that you’d find in old comic books and cartoons. At the same time, the plot has very little in the way of surprises and plays out in a pretty by-the-numbers fashion. With recent Marvel entertainment like Marvel’s Spider-Man and the Thanos-starring duology of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame offering compelling and emotional storytelling, it’s disappointing to see Ultimate Alliance 3 fall wholly flat in that regard.
Earth’s mightiest heroes
Thankfully, Ultimate Alliance 3‘s heroes fare much better. Altogether, the game features a robust roster of more than 30 playable characters, ranging from heavy-hitters like Spider-Man, The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther to deeper cuts like the Inhuman Crystal and monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone.
The best part of the roster is how it shines a light on recent beloved heroes from the comics, like Miles Morales (Spider-Man), Spider-Gwen and Ms. Marvel, while also honouring Marvel’s past, most notably through the X-Men. Indeed, the X-Men are stand out the most in the cast following years of corporate politics that resulted in their unfortunate omission from games like Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite and Lego Marvel Superheroes 2. I can’t understate how much of a joy it was to run through the X-Mansion and run into the likes of Cyclops, Colossus, Magneto and even Deadpool.
As a whole, Sumerak’s writing is often charming and gives each character their moment to shine. Little touches like Daredevil referencing the standout hallway fight scene from his Netflix series or Deadpool yelling at Thanos over their shared love for Lady Death make for particularly great bits of fan service.
That level of authenticity extends to a uniformly strong voice cast that brilliantly brings each character to life. As a nice touch, many actors from previous Marvel titles reprise their roles, including Yuri Lowenthal (Marvel’s Spider-Man) as Spider-Man, Nolan North (2013’s Deadpool game and Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series) as Deadpool and Rocket Raccoon and Steve Blum as the Green Goblin (the excellent, short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man).
With great power comes great frustration
Best of all, playing as the heroes is a blast. Each character has a basic one-button light jab combo, as well as an aerial move and a heavy attack, although the grapple and charged attacks from the previous games are conspicuously absent in this third outing. Meanwhile, every hero has four unique powers that consume energy when used. These include Spider-Man’s Webspinner projectiles damage and ensnare enemies, Black Panther’s Bast’s Fury to absorb and redistribute damage using the vibranium in his suit and Rocket and Groot’s Minefield grenade attack.
By and large, each ability is delightfully flashy and useful in its own way, which made me eager to discover new ones over time. It’s a very rudimentary combat system, to be sure, and one that hasn’t evolved at all from its now decade-old predecessors. Nonetheless, there’s beauty in that simplicity, letting you live out over-the-top Avengers-like brawls with just the tap of a few buttons.
The only major problem with all of this, though, is MUA 3‘s frustrating balancing system, wherein characters are introduced at a certain level depending on which chapter you’re on. For example, martial arts expert Iron Fist joins your team at Level 10 in the early Shadowland chapter, which focuses on the villainous Hand ninja clan from the Daredevil comics.
However, MUA 3 doesn’t offer any way to give inactive characters a cut of your earned experience, which means that Iron Fist will be under-leveled by the next chapter unless you use him right away. While this system is presumably intended to encourage you to try out every character, it also punishes you by stagnating progression for whoever you remove from your party. Likewise, this ostensibly prevents you from deciding to experimenting with parties later in the story.
The only alternatives are to use XP cubes to automatically level up a character or grind in the optional Infinity Trials. That said, XP cubes are rather rare and Infinity Trials are just repetitive retreads of campaign scenarios, so there’s not really a solid solution here. For a game that’s supposed to be about giving you the freedom to choose your own roster of wonderful Marvel characters, the levelling system is incredibly limiting.
Fortunately, the game opens up more when it comes to mixing and matching your party’s respective move sets. Through the ‘Synergy’ system, each ability in the game is assigned a trait, such as ‘Beam,’ ‘Slam’ or ‘Explosive.’ Order your characters to perform moves with corresponding traits simultaneously and you’ll receive added area of effect benefits, like a massive shockwave or ricocheting projectiles.
Further, you’ll be able to beef up your characters’ attributes with special ‘ISO-8’ materials or spend acquired currency on a Final Fantasy X-like Sphere Grid. These intertwining systems offer a surprisingly robust level of customization and add a bit of welcome complexity to otherwise basic mechanics.
It’s a good thing that playing with the characters is as fun as it is because what you’re doing with them is usually quite repetitive. Although you’ll be visiting a wide-ranging collection of iconic Marvel locations like The Raft, Avengers Tower and Wakanda, the actual level design largely consists of sterile environments with cut-and-paste hallways. All the while, a jittery camera often has trouble keeping up with your characters, especially in interior areas where space is more limited.
The highlight of each level is certainly the villain encounters, where Team Ninja’s action game pedigree really shines through. By and large, each boss offers a thrilling challenge that requires you to really take advantage of your heroes’ unique strengths and Synergy options.
Even when the levels themselves were bland, I always found myself looking forward to seeing which bad guy I’d encounter next, especially when they had an Infinity Stone. Fighting the Green Goblin as he flies around a helipad bombarding you with pumpkin bombs and Time Stone-powered freezing attacks is exactly the sort of zany, comic book-inspired toss-up you could hope for from a Marvel team-up game.
Make Mine Marvel
For better or worse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is like comfort food. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before and it doesn’t improve on areas from the older games, like level design and story.
Nonetheless, MUA 3 proves itself to be a compelling adventure thanks to snappy dialogue, engaging combat and rock-solid boss encounters. Whether you’re a Marvel fan or just looking for an easy-to-pick-up singleplayer or co-op adventure, you’ll be well off with MUA 3.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is now available exclusively on the Nintendo Switch.