Developer: Team Ninja
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Rating: T for Teen
When Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order was officially revealed on December 6th, 2018, the teenager inside of me absolutely lost his mind with excitement. The game we had all waited over a decade for was finally revealed to be in existence before the ultimate culmination of over tens years and 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) all came together in Avengers: Endgame.
Some dreaded it. Some ran from it. But destiny still arrived on the Nintendo Switch.
Religion/Sprituality: One early level features cultist enemies performing some sort of ritual/seance with what appears to be a pentagram in order to essentially possess a familiar heroine. Other characters have religion or mysticism as part of their backstories; Dr. Strange and Iron Fist immediately come to mind with regard to Far Eastern Religions and Spirituality. Most of this is handled well and nothing is outright pushed on players or condemned; the developers did not attempt to make a statement with any of it. It’s present because it is part of these heroes’ and villains’ iconic comic stories.
Violence: This being a Marvel Game, there is quite a bit of violence as players and their teams of heroes will beat up on countless goons and supervillains throughout the story. Perilous events unfold, but no characters outright die and there is no blood and absolutely no gore. Enemies get knocked out and their bodies disappear from the battle. The villain flees after the fight.
If Avengers: Endgame was the end all be all superhero epic for the MCU, then Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is its video game equivalent. Nearly every major MCU Marvel character is here, and some lesser known relative new comers as well (looking at you Elsa Bloodstone). Fans will easily be forgiven for having no idea who Elsa is or how long she has been a part of the Marvel’s near-limitless pantheon of heroes and villains, but I find these more obscure characters endearing. After all, I never knew who Deadpool was until I played the first Ultimate Alliance. Ask anyone and they will likely tell you this game is where they first met and fell in love with the “Merc With a Mouth” and his quirky and borderline psychotic sense of humor.
Despite having no connection to the story line established in the first two Ultimate Alliance games, MUA3 does a fantastic job of bringing all these heroes (and some villains) together to face one of the biggest threats the Marvel universe has ever known: the mad titan Thanos and his imposing Black Order. With a total roster of 36 characters, and more already announced to be coming via both paid and free DLC add-ons, I immediately got Super Smash Bros. Ultimate vibes upon booting up the game and checking out the available roster as I progressed through the story. Almost immediately, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of MUA3’s level up system and character progression as so many systems are in play when it comes to customizing the player’s experience.
Characters are handed out by the fistful as players progress through the 13 hour campaign and locations ranging from New York, to Wakanda, and even the Immortals’ homeworld, Attilan. There are many different facets to how a player can upgrade and tweak their characters and team that the sheer scope of it all can seem overwhelming at first. I’ve never been good at math, so the smorgasbord of numbers, percentages, and various other stats was intimidating at the onset. But as I progressed through the surprisingly lengthy campaign, it all slowly started to make sense as I used a combination of level ups, ISO-8, and Alliance Upgrades distributed via a Final Fantasy X style hex grid, to gradually beef up my heroes for the battles ahead.
The story in MUA3 may be the strongest in the series. The game opens with a scene that feels like it came straight out of the last Guardians of the Galaxy film, with Star Lord chastising Rocket for stealing on their last job. Some witty banter is exchanged and Drax is excellent as always with his innocent, yet hilarious, naivety. After discovering a seemingly abandoned Kree vessel, the Guardians decide to board the ship and investigate. Shortly after walking through some eerily abandoned rooms, the group is ambushed by Nebula and her soldiers. After quickly dispatching this first sub-boss, the game transitions into its first full on boss fight with one of the Guardians’ nemeses, Ronan The Accuser. Bosses are introduced with a comic book-esque title card, which wouldn’t be complete without some humorous quip or pun about the boss’ name or power set. After the Guardians defeat Ronan and accidentally activate the Infinity Stones, Thanos and his Black Order arrive just in time for the stones to become separated and fly off to different parts of the universe.
This sets the stage for the rest of the adventure. While it does tread some very familiar ground (there isn’t much that fans of the Infinity War comics arc and the last two Avengers movies won’t see coming) there were some nice twists throughout, including the final boss fight, which I wasn’t expecting at all. Along the way, players will pry the Infinity Stones from the hands of iconic villains like The Red Skull, Green Goblin, and Ultron in their race against the clock to stop Thanos.
As players level up and progress through the game, they will stumble upon secret rooms containing gold, ISO-8, concept art, and other collectibles. These secret rooms are opened by using specific types of synergy attacks between two heroes on your team. Most of these collectibles are then used to upgrade nearly everything in MUA3. Each hero has only four abilities total this time around, but each one feels like it now serves a purpose in the frantic, yet new strategic combat system. Gone are the days of button mashing your way through an Ultimate Alliance game. Here, strategy is involved by managing a characters EP gauge for their abilities and knowing what characters to use and when.
Another level of strategy is the fact that most enemies, especially bosses, now have a stagger meter that must be depleted before any real damage can be done. Regular attacks do nothing against this stagger meter, heavy attacks will chip away at it and hero abilities will absolutely melt it down and stun the boss for a few seconds. This is when players can seize the opportunity to use their synergy attacks and time their team’s ultimate abilities just right to unleash maximum damage. If done correctly, this can decimate most bosses. Learning the proper timing and management of these various meters and abilities is what makes the combat so fun and engaging.
Despite the new combat upgrades, character choice is also a key to success in MUA3. For example, Hulk is essentially a tank and an absolute monster in this game. He is vital for defeating certain bosses and clearing some of the tougher Infinity Rifts, which act as this game’s version of the challenge towers from Mortal Kombat. Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has some excellent DPS, but can’t take a hit at all, effectively making him a glass cannon, his healing abilities coming in handy later on.
Elsa Bloodstone was the rogue of my group as her attacks are primarily ranged and alternate between her dual pistols for light attacks and her dual rifles for heavy attacks. Deadpool was essentially the medic thanks to his healing factor. He almost never died and I mainly used him to finish off bosses if all my other heroes were knocked out and I was out of revives. Players are only given three revive tokens, and, unlike past games, three is all you get during a level. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. However, I don’t know if it was intended as a mechanic in the game, but players can also use the experience cubes found in Infinity Rifts and secret rooms as a means to heal characters on the brink of death. Just like in most RPGs, leveling up in MUA3 fully heals the character and completely restores their EP, keeping them in the fight even longer.
While my experience with the story and basic gameplay was excellent, there are a few setbacks that some players may not be able to overlook. With the Ultimate Alliance series, players know to expect certain quirks with these games, like terrible camera angles obscuring their view of the action during gameplay. That is still a huge problem here, especially when playing local multiplayer. However, Team Ninja has implemented some adjustments to offset this problem. Firstly, there is now a white outline that appears around each hero. Even if the player’s view is obscured by a wall, they will still be able to see enough of what is going on until they are able to adjust the camera more to their liking. Another problem is that a lot of the effects from special abilities and ultimate attacks are too flashy and take up so much of the screen that players ultimately wont get to see the results of these attacks. Essentially, it looks like the characters are dancing around in the middle of a fireworks show, and, for about three seconds, players are not able to see where any of their heroes are at. What’s the point of flashy attacks if we can’t see them in action?
Also, the sound is strangely low for this game, especially in handheld mode. I thought I was losing my hearing upon first booting up the game as the music, dialogue, and effects volume were all too low. I recommend playing with earbuds or a good gaming headset for handheld mode. Otherwise, crank up the volume on the TV a few decibels when playing docked.
Voice acting is hit or miss depending on the character. For example, I am almost positive that was Sir Ian McKellen reprising his role as Magneto from the original X-Men trilogy of films, but, alas, it was Tom Kane. I also couldn’t tell the difference between Nolan North’s and Bradley Cooper’s performances as Rocket Raccoon; the character sounds almost identical to his MCU counterpart. Meanwhile, Ultron and Ghost Rider’s performances were laughable and borderline awful. Ultron sounds like a disgruntled pencil-pusher out for revenge after Stark somehow wronged him a few too many times, while Ghost Rider sounds exactly like Dr. Claw from the original animated Inspector Gadget cartoon from the 80’s.
What’s most jarring is the inconsistency in how the game scales to your heroes’ levels and the abrupt, unexpected difficulty spikes that pop up throughout the story. For example, when 75% of my team were over level 30, they were dying faster than my level 20 Hulk, while the enemies at that point in the story were around level 35. This shows that some squishier characters are much harder to level effectively. Yet, at the same time, Ronan gave me a run for my money no matter what level my heroes were at during the fight. That Power Stone really is powerful!
Midway through the game, there is a mini-boss rush, as players are forced to fight through at least three boss fights back-to-back with no way to heal in between. The game is silent in telling you that you aren’t expected to win these fights. I only found out once I had realized that the boss’ health and stagger meter remained constant despite my constant attacks. But I knew it wasn’t a glitch, as the minions they sent after me could still be defeated. Other fights seemed nearly unwinnable no matter which characters were used, and they ultimately devolved into bouts of spamming the same heavy attacks with stronger heroes while praying that the AI stayed well enough away from the boss’ area of effect to keep myself alive until the end.
Despite my complaints about the difficulty spikes, I did appreciate the game’s attempt to liven up boss battles by requiring players to use other means to weaken the boss, using water to make them vulnerable, shocking them leaving them open for attack, or throwing stones filled with cosmic energy at them to ramp up the damage potential. This helped to break up the normal skirmishes of waves of goons and shows that some real thought was put into making these encounters unique and memorable to the characters themselves and their history.
My final complaint is the lack of meaningful alternate costumes. The unlockable costumes were always popular in past Ultimate Alliance games and here, they are effectively palette swaps with the exception of Deadpool’s alternate color chef outfit, which is unlocked by purchasing the Season Pass. For example, so far I have unlocked alternate costumes for Spider-Man and the Hulk through Infinity Rifts (the main way to acquire new costumes and a few surprise characters not earned in the campaign), and both of them are exactly the same, only gray. That’s it. That’s the only difference. I know that Gray Hulk is a character, but I don’t think that is what they were going for here. Other than the extra characters that can only be unlocked via rifts, I did not see much point in grinding through all the trials to earn an alternate gray or white color for my heroes.
Despite these minor faults, the core gameplay and story are better than ever and should be experienced by every comic book and/or MCU fan. Marvel fans will love the sheer scale of customization and options for leveling up heroes and the surprisingly massive roster of heroes available in the base game. Fans of the comics will love the game’s graphics and art style as it looks amazing in docked mode and decent enough when playing in handheld mode. Anyone who played the other Ultimate Alliance games should most assuredly love MUA3 as it is a love letter to the original series of games and to everything fans love about superheroes: seeing their dream team come together to defeat evil. Having direct control of the action and the composition of these teams is what makes it truly memorable and exciting.
The Bottom Line
With its biggest roster to date, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is filled with familiar fan favorites and a few obscure additions, but is slightly bogged down by a dated camera system and some oddly timed difficulty spikes which, if players can look past these few flaws, is still sure to be enjoyed and supported for years to come.