For gamers of my generation, the Marvel Ultimate Alliance franchise (and the related X-Men Legends series) represented a fully playable comic book wonderland. Taking cues from epic crossover events like Secret War, players were offered an ever-growing roster of superheroes and villains from which to construct the perfect four-person fighting squad. Sadly, with the exception of a 2016 port, the game has been largely absent from the marketplace since the early 2000s. This made the announcement of the Switch exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order big news, and I was lucky enough to get in an early copy in for review ahead of its July 19 release date.
I was thrilled to discover that the age-old action RPG formula still holds up, while the Infinity Gauntlet-inspired plot and hybrided visual representation—which brings in designs from the comic book, television, and film series in equal measure—are sure to appeal to both old-school comic readers and the broader gaming audience alike. Unfortunately, there are also elements that didn’t quite line up with my expectations for a current-gen gaming experience.
The Gang’s All Here
A game like Ultimate Alliance lives and dies by the strength of its character roster, and in that regard, The Black Order truly delivers. From the Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Defenders to the X-Men to the Inhumans, you’re practically guaranteed to find your favorites well represented. Add to this a sprinkling of playable supervillains, powered-up bosses like Thanos’ titular Black Order, and helpful NPCs, and you’re looking at game that truly represents the amazing variety inherent in the Marvel universe.
Access to all these characters can lead to some expected leveling problems, as a constant influx of fresh faces (at much higher starting levels than those that came before) can easily tempt you away from your old stalwarts. To remedy this, the game regularly tosses XP Cubes at the player, which can be used to quickly level up your greener characters or further beef up your new heavy-hitters.
Bonus experience isn’t the only thing to be found in MUA3‘s sprawling levels. Mowing down enemies frequently produces red (health) and blue (energy) orbs, and you’ll quickly become adept at changing up your active hero using the mapped directional buttons to assure that those with flagging status bars get the goodies they require.
You’ll also shortly learn that destructible environmental elements like plants and benches (as well as the standard conspicuously located crates) can be demolished to produce money and color-coded components needed to unlock squad-wide buffs via the system’s branching Alliance Enhancement system. These wide, webbed skill trees can help tailor the game to any play style, with nodes available that boost everything from healing to core stats.
Bejeweled and Bewildered
As if these resources alone weren’t enough to contend with—and as if the Infinity Stones didn’t bring enough preternatural bling to the table already—you’ll also unlock ISO-8 crystals frequently during gameplay. Physical manifestations of residual cosmic energy, ISO-8 jewels can be equipped (and eventually leveled up) to give your warriors even more capabilities. These include run of the mill buffs like stat boosts and bonuses to overall character strength, and even more granular and nuanced assets like increased attack damage at the cost of decreased damage resistance and, my personal favorite, decreased damage to enemy health in exchange for a significant increase in damage dealt to their Stagger Gauge.
In MUA3, more powerful opponents have a purple Stagger indicator. Once depleted, your enemy is temporarily stunned, meaning you and the crew can wail on them unabated. Not only can staggered enemies not defend themselves, they also take more damage, which really helps out during lengthy boss battles.
Fight for What’s Right
Combat is, of course, the name of the game, and you’ll get plenty of opportunities to mow down generic Raft inmates, AIM agents, Hand ninjas, and other-dimensional baddies as you wind your way through Ultimate Alliance 3‘s wonderfully varied environments. Despite the breadth of the character roster, you’ll find that the generic enemies only come in a handful of flavors. This, however, doesn’t make cleaning their collective clock any less satisfying.
The controls in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order feel finely tuned to the Switch Pro Controller and double Joy-Con setup, with heavy and light attacks mapped to the X and Y buttons. As individual characters level up, you’ll unlock unique special Abilities for the four face buttons that can be executed by pressing the corresponding button and the R trigger. These moves deplete your blue EP Gauge, though, so it pays to switch things up between light, heavy, and Ability attacks to allow your energy to regenerate.
These Abilities really help to differentiate the characters on your squad, and even those with similar builds, like mutant swordsmen Nightcrawler, Deadpool, and Psylocke, feel vastly different with the addition of these more nuanced attacks. This concept is pushed further by the inclusion of multiple Ability types, like the Energy property of Wasp’s “Wasp Sting” or Spider-Gwen’s Projectile type “Catchy Attack Name” Ability.
Abilities also have special Synergy Traits—like Whirlwind for “Wasp Sting” and Rapid-Fire for “Catchy Attack Name”–and characters with similar traits can use these attacks in tandem by pressing the A button when prompted, further upping the damage and the spectacle of their cooperative super-heroics via a Synergy Link attack. You’ll also occasionally be tasked with stringing together a pair of Synergy Traits to solve environemental puzzles, such as opening specially shielded crates that contain rare ISO-8 crystals or similar powerful items.
By carefully chaining together moves—or, in my case, mashing buttons wildly and semi-randomly—your fighters fill up a yellow Extreme Gauge (encircling the character portrait beneath the Health and EP Gauges). Once full, you can press both the L and R triggers to execute spectacularly punishing Extreme attack, but even this doesn’t have to be a solo act. While it initially only triggers for your active player character, if other members of your squad also have full gauges, you can continue to press L and R to add their powers to the mix, all the way up to a totally over-the-top, four-character Ultimate Alliance Extreme Attack.
When You’re a Jet
In keeping with the theme of Marvel super-teams (and because MUA3 can never seem to have enough mechanics), you can gain additional bonuses by careful composition of your active squad. Team bonuses are calculated based on how many members possess matching Team Bonus Info.
Bonuses are applied for things like canonical team membership (X-Men, Original Avengers), overall character fighting style (Agile Fighters) or power set (Web Warriors), and even broader criteria (Women of Marvel, Villains). It’s a nice nod to the source material and provides some additional cohesion, but the bonuses are pretty minor when compared to ISO-8 buffs or even the might of a properly leveled-up hero, so don’t let it dissuade you from making your super squad your own.
Go ahead and add Elsa Bloodstone to the mix alongside Wolverine and Ghost Rider. Sure, I didn’t know who she was either, but she’s got guns and hunts monsters. What’s not to love?
A Multiverse of Possibilities
While the central story mode of The Black Order is a pretty quick play—I made it through the easiest difficulty over a single weekend—the game makes it a point to mix things up with a punishing third difficulty level (unlockable upon completion) and a very Diablo-esque Infinity Rift system.
Throughout the game, you’ll encounter visible tears in reality. Entering these rifts will move you out of story mode and into an Infinity Trial, usually a rematch against a previous area boss with additional restrictions and/or mission parameters. Complete the trial and you’ll earn bonus orbs, crystals, and similar items. Fail and… well, you can always come back again later.
A Hero’s Greatest Weakness
As you can tell by the previous 1200 or so words, I have lots of thoughts (and feelings!) about MUA3. As both a longtime Ultimate Alliance fan and a comic book guy, I found a lot to love about the title. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few shortcomings. Some of these are simply inherent in the old-school nature of the franchise. Sure, I mean, the game looks great and the voice acting, while not exactly MCU caliber, is equally inspired. However, a few elements simply feel outmoded.
The XP Cube system, for example, is a nice concession, but I much prefer a more contemporary system wherein experience is shared between all characters, thus keeping your roster flexible. Similarly, no matter who my active squad members happened to be, the same stock players (usually members of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers) were the only ones represented in the mission cut scenes, and that simply feels like an oversight in 2019.
Plus, there are a couple of specific issues that apply when playing solo or in handheld mode—which just so happens to be my preferred manner of play.
While MUA3 offers two different camera selections, the far-away Classic mode and a new Heroic mode that follows you more closely, both seemed to struggle in tight corners during solo play, where one character at a time is—theoretically, at least—the focus. Often, even when locked onto an enemy (one of the perks of the Heroic camera), I’d find my active character completely out of frame during a pitched boss fight, the camera seemingly showing me some weird shot from a corner adjacent to the action.
Most troubling, though, was an annoying performance issue I continually encountered in handheld mode. While the game itself never seemed to struggle with overall slowdown when playing undocked, I did notice my character’s weirdly uneven gait when moving from one battle to the next a room or two over.
My active hero would often go from a solid sprint to a lumbering walk seemingly of their own volition. This casual stroll would continue for a few seconds and then they would resume their run. At first, I suspected my thumb was slipping from the control stick, but that wasn’t the case. At this point, I’m assuming it has more to do with slowing down my approach so the game has ample time to load in the upcoming environmental assets. (As I’ve mentioned, Ultimate Alliance 3 has some pretty spacious levels, and you seldom encounter any actual load times outside of starting a brand new missions or just before a boss fight.)
It’s a small thing, and definitely not a deal-breaker, but it did serve to pull me out of an otherwise mesmerizing action RPG adventure.
A Pocketful of Heroes
While I didn’t get a chance to experience the online multiplayer or its multi-system local mode, I can tell you that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 plays like a champ in offline co-op, particularly in television mode. This is where it shines, and, arguably, where its roots truly lie.
But even at its worst (and I use the term loosely), going it alone in handheld mode, the game is not only completely playable but a ton of fun—even with the odd bit of superhero power walking or combat camera wonkiness.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does struggle at times as it tries to find its footing between a retro throwback legacy and a more modern gaming experience, but like any good hero, it never fails. It is super-powered fun that you can play wherever and however you want, and it’s a very welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch lineup.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate product links, and purchases via those links may generate a small commission for me, your humble blogger.