Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is unique: In theory, you can get every ounce of gameplay, including two plot lines — the Pro and Anti-Registration branches — and upgrades, for both team and individual heroes, that are just enough RPG yet not so much that you'll feel compelled to grind. If you care to grind a bit, for XP and missed rewards, you can replay any mission in the HQ mission simulator. Conversations with other characters acting in NPC mode contribute attribute points, sometimes accumulating toward Trophies. For those who know their Marvel universe, HQ has a trivia machine so you can play mini-games that are worth character XP and Trophies. It's playable to gamers of only middling Marvel mania. The trivia game is a fair mix of light and deep questions about numerous Marvel superheroes and story lines; you can earn at least some XP if you've only seen and remembered a few of the Marvel-licensed movies, even if you've never read the comics — though, of course, you'll have missed out on some of the greatest pop fiction and pop art of our time.
The single-player approach to Ultimate Alliance 2 is action/RPG, heavy on the sore-thumb action, and the RPG elements are still worthy of keeping the automatic XP distribution option switched off. It's a lot of fun, and, commendably, after finishing a mission, even if the final boss fight for that stage was a little tough, or it's a little late in the day, you're engaged to play on. That's the theory. In practice, with both local and offline co-op multiplayer for up to four players — the total number of any active superhero team — Ultimate Alliance 2 is quite more of a blast playing along with real people, preferably offline in local multiplayer; due to the top-down rear camera and team-based principle of movement, there's no real benefit to each player having his or her own exclusive screen. Local co-op plays like a team sports title in that it looks and behaves the same as solo play, but you have the benefit, or sometimes excruciating hilarity, of playing with real-world friends all in the same room.
The online multiplayer mode is appealing when no one nearby is available, and the Trophies, XP, upgrades and unlocks are all well integrated into the online co-op experience so that as long as all players are playing at, or beyond, the same mission point as their online host, you won't miss out on anything and then have to replay those missions solo to get the goodies. (Trophies are properly handled, too, with the recently introduced progress bars establishing your pre-Trophy status. If you're intentionally working toward a particular trophy, or you'd just like to know how you're managing overall, you don't have to wait until that melodious surprise chime startles you out of your gaming reverie.)
For a campaign-style game with RPG elements, Ultimate Alliance 2 is not overly long, presenting about 12-15 hours of gameplay in the main effort, depending on your strategy and style of play. The content is certainly more than sufficient by contemporary standards, especially if you return to play branches of the story, and perhaps pick up additional collectibles, unlocks and Trophies. Likewise, if you want to max out the skills and powers of even a fair share of the playable superheroes, there's a lot of extra gameplay opportunity. You could run through the principal campaign more than a few times with all the heroes unlocked, never using the same team twice, though it often behooves you to select the most appropriately skilled heroes for your gang of four. This serves to remind the gamer what a venerable, broad and diverse presence Marvel has in the American pantheon of comic book heroes. Sure, we well know about Spider-Man and Iron Man, and the Hulk mythos is integrated into our lives almost as much as Ford automobiles and Kleenex tissues, but there's a lot of depth in the Marvel catalogue, and much of it is represented in Ultimate Alliance 2.
No doubt a reasonable fraction of Marvel fans will be disappointed in the action gameplay of Ultimate Alliance 2. They'll be the same people who were disappointed in the action element of the original Ultimate Alliance, as it's the same basic system. Marvel mavens who enjoyed past-generation console titles like the two God of War games will, however, feel right at home. It's true: Beyond plotting and executing well-chosen Fusion attacks — attacks pairing two heroes into a single powerful, extended, point-racking combo — there's not much sophistication in the combat system. Often, spectacular combos that are particular to individual heroes are executed as much by serendipitous accident as intent; you can often get through even protracted battles rife with enemies by using the same special attack over and over with the same character, skipping out of the line of fire long enough for the special attack meter to recharge. However, if you add in the features of an RPG, a genre in which the in-game combat is often poorly interactive or awkward to use and excessively complicated to learn, the button-mashing action of Ultimate Alliances 2 becomes more appealing, perhaps as a welcome relief from the burden of thinking through absolutely everything to progress. The combat system is also effective; success against foes doesn't seem as if the PS3 generated a semi-random number and assigned that as damage to your assailant.
Ultimate Alliance 2's graphics are suitable for current-generation HD consoles, though beside more adept art direction, you won't feel much difference. I say "feel" because, objectively, you should see some difference, as there have been enhancements to the graphics engine. The numerous cut scenes, however, are in my opinion substantially better than the previous effort, both in art direction and technical rendition. Audio is solid, a good Dolby Digital production. I rather like the score, so much so if I heard it under different circumstances I wouldn't recognize the hallmark of video game music. Now, that's fine praise.
An area of clear gameplay improvement in this sequel is the oft-mishandled matter of wayfinding in action/adventure games. In the original Ultimate Alliance, I got lost. I got lost in the map, and I got lost playing with the mini-map. If I wasn't lost, I sometimes couldn't suss out exactly what I was supposed to do in order to progress, making me believe I was actually lost. There's none of that in Ultimate Alliance 2: a press of R3 on the right analog stick, and the hero you're playing at the moment displays around his model an arrow leading to your next objective; if you're already in the right area, so long as it's not too large an area, you won't see an arrow. I didn't get lost at all, which encouraged me to truly explore, take dead-end passages, climb blind stairs, jump, fly or web-swing onto ornamental platforms, all in the name of discovering hidden pick-ups and pursuing relevant Trophies. Knowing I could always get back on track, I didn't despair of taking foolish, nonessential path digressions, definitely enhancing my enjoyment of the full scope of the content.
Another favorite feature, at first causing me some confusion, is the Casual difficulty setting. On Casual, hero characters not only don't die in missions, but they also don't level-up as teams or individuals, and there's no XP skill promotion. This made no sense at all. Why strip the easiest setting so bare that it became merely a button-mashing fiesta? Because they're superheroes, that's why. I figured it out a little while after my young son found the game box and gazed in wonderment at the Spider-Man punching out of the cover. The RPG elements, starting with the Heroic setting, are far too complicated for him to manage, as is probably the healing and revival system, especially considering that you're handling medic duties for the entire team. At the Casual setting, even a kid can beat up on foes as his favorite Marvel heroes, in an ESRB T-rated game, so rated for mild language and violence — a violence that's surely benign by even rather conservative contemporary gaming standards. Rather than complain over the insensibility of it, I applaud the developers for including a difficulty level truly intended for the very occasional or younger gamer who loves the old and new Marvel legends as much as anyone.
Ideally, you'll play Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 multiplayer with local friends as much as you'll put in solo time with the campaign. As mentioned, pains have been taken so that in most scenarios, you're rarely penalized in extras and rewards for playing co-op online or off; you're certainly never penalized in fun factor. If you enjoyed Ultimate Alliance, you'll surely enjoy the enhancements and new content of this sequel. If you never played the original and the particulars of this title likely suit your gaming tastes, especially if you have friends who'll play along through the missions, by all means strap on your alter ego and get to saving the world.
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