At what point is a sequel no longer a sequel? Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order releases ten years after the last game in the series, with a new developer and new publisher. Having played the remastered versions of the originals when they came out only three years ago, I’m genuinely surprised at how much this game feels like a close sequel. The Black Order almost slavishly reproduces the gameplay of those originals – the good, bad, and the ugly.
Starting with the positives, the game is a fun beat-em-up in which the overarching mission is to stop Thanos and the Black Order from obtaining the Infinity Stones. This is all you really need to know for the plot, as it really just serves as an excuse to bring all these beloved Marvel characters together to romp through some famous locations like the Raft and Avengers Tower. It’s great to see so many Marvel characters included, and with more on the way in the DLC you’re bound to find one of your favourites. The writing and voice acting is really strong, and there are plenty of actors reprising roles from pre-existing animated and game adaptations. You will recognise the likes of Fred Tatasciore as Hulk, Laura Bailey as Black Widow, Nolan North as Rocket Racoon and Deadpool, and even Yuri Lowenthal returning as Spider-Man. The little quips and interactions that have become such a hallmark of Marvel are present here as well, even if the dialogue is sometimes a little cheesy.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is very much a linear experience consisting of pick four heroes, beat up bad guys, move forward, and repeat. You receive bonuses by grouping certain characters together, such as the original Avenger lineup, characters making their Ultimate Alliance debut in the game, or Marvel royalty. These bonuses are often small though, so they do not really dictate character choice. Scattered throughout the levels are checkpoints that restore your health, and allow you to upgrade the team or swap-out heroes. During the action you are free to switch between the characters as you wish, and you’ll also be able to revive three fallen heroes per checkpoint. On the whole it’s a simple format that works perfectly for shorter Switch sessions on handheld. There is also co-operative play for up to four players, available both online and locally on one system, with the usual Switch caveat that with several people playing on the handheld screen it’s difficult to follow.
Controls consist of light and heavy attacks, blocks and dodges, as well as four special moves that are unlocked as characters increase in level. Certain characters also have moves that synergise, so you’ll be able to do extra damage if the two of them attack together. During combat you’ll charge up Extreme attacks: over-the-top animations that deal plenty of damage. If more than one character has their Extreme charged you can get them all to use them at once to deal out maximum damage, but this also unfortunately causes some frame rate drops.
The game repeats a lot of the problems the earlier ones had, so much so that I wonder whether this was a deliberate move by the developers to faithfully recreate the series, warts and all. The biggest issue is the camera, which moves all over the place and often prevents you seeing what is going on. Whilst you can sometimes control the horizontal movement (though not always) this doesn’t necessarily help, particularly if you find yourself trapped in the bottom corners of the screen. Obviously on handheld mode this problem is exacerbated, and the combination of the dodgy camera and over-the-top special moves taking up the screen make it difficult to follow the action a lot of the time. In co-op things are even worse, particularly if the characters are spread around. A different camera mode which follows your player character more closely is available, but this then prevents you from seeing the full scope of a fight, and consequently you’ll be blind-sided by an enemy you couldn’t see coming.
Other than the minor team bonuses the heroes are pretty much interchangeable, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount who you pick. The exceptions to this (just as it was 10 years ago) are characters that can fly. Flying characters have a massive advantage over their more grounded allies, and can easily avoid some of the more powerful boss attacks by simply being in the air. I would have liked it if the game required a more tactical approach, where you need to swap out heroes to deal with certain situations. As it stands you will probably settle on a favourite team fairly quickly, and there is little need to change it throughout.
A few more relics from a previous era of gaming include:
- basic enemies that are quite obviously pallet swapped versions of the heroes, although the bosses have a lot more variety;
- heroes shouting out the names of their special moves, Street Fighter style;
- cutscenes that show a different selection of heroes to your actual team;
- atrocious ally AI that makes no attempt to avoid boss attacks, often standing completely still as things are fired directly at them.
It is the sort of game that you’re more likely to see on mobile than console these days, and it does have more in common with something like Marvel Future Fight than Insomniac’s Spider-Man. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. The cel-shaded cartoony aesthetic is akin to a moving comic, and this, in conjunction with a conscious effort to mostly steer clear of the look of the MCU, will help avoid some of the confusion that the upcoming Avengers game is causing. The visuals are certainly one place where the game excels, and are in places genuinely striking – such as one moment where the game switches to a side-on view, with the heroes silhouetted against the night sky.
Despite most of the characters looking very different to their MCU counterparts, the game isn’t afraid of using familiarity to its advantage. The plot is derived straight from Infinity War, and you’ll recognise a bunch of set pieces and villain fights from other movies as well (I won’t spoil any of them here). The game opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy in their movie line-up, a team that was barely a blip on the radar when the original Ultimate Alliance games were released but are certainly A-list now. The cast of superheroes is drawn almost exclusively from recent movies and TV shows, including the likes of Venom and the Inhumans. Only two of the playable characters in the base game have not made a live action or big screen appearance to date, although there are a number of upcoming DLC heroes who are lesser recognisable to non-comic fans. The writers have even thrown a few MCU in-jokes into the dialogue, such as Daredevil’s “I do my best fighting in hallways”.
The first Ultimate Alliance game was heavy on RPG mechanics, whilst the sequel largely did away with them. This game brings that element back, with plenty of upgrades and stat management included for everyone who likes to play around with them. Characters go up in level and earn points to spend on upgrading their special attacks, whilst stat boosts can be unlocked which impact the whole team. The game also includes the ever present ISO-8, an element which first appeared in the flash game Avengers Alliance and has appeared in virtually every Marvel mobile game since. These items can be equipped to characters to give them an individual stat boost, and combined to craft more powerful versions (think gems in Diablo). Your heroes don’t level up if you aren’t using them though, so that’s another reason to stick with the same team throughout. Since, as mentioned above, there is no tactical reason to change characters this isn’t too big a problem, but it would be nice to not be completely disadvantaged if you wanted to mix it up. You can level up other heroes by repeating chapters or doing trials, but the repetition is not really worth it.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a true sequel to the original games, for better or worse. At core, it is a really fun game to play, with an interesting roster of characters, attractive and (mostly) stable visuals, good writing, and a really impressive voice cast. Yes, the game has its negatives, and whilst their presence is perplexing they can generally be overlooked. If you’re looking for some mindless superhero fun and a greatest hits parade of Marvel characters and locations, this is the game for you.