Super heroes of all kinds would seem to be an excellent fit for a Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance style adventure. They are incredibly over-powered individuals beating up on scores of nobodies, followed by a fight to the death with some sort of bloviating super evil foe. Replace goblins with alley thugs, dragons with radiation infused multi-armed master criminals, and chain mail with tight tights and they are almost the same thing. For the most part, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 plays off the genre jump very well. Fighting through throngs of enemies works well alone, better with friends, and never gets tedious enough to warrant walking away from. On the other hand, it is missing the one thing that keeps games like Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath so addicting. A good action RPG is not just about killing things, it is about killing things for fat loot, then using that fat loot to kill bigger things. Apparently Marvel super heroes are a picky bunch or are all on Stark’s payroll; not one of them bothered to pick up even a single chunk of gold or equipment the whole time, and some of them could really use the upgrade.
Grinding for equipment and weapons works because it creates player ownership. This goes double for characters that begin with customization. Millions of World of Warcraft addicts can attest to this, when they aren’t dancing naked with night elves on mail boxes or writing tawdry fan fiction, anyway. The basic mechanics of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 are the same, but there is almost no character progression. Wolverine starts out as a slightly gimped Wolverine, and by the end he is still Wolverine, just with more hit points and perhaps a different, even gaudier outfit. I understand that this is a requirement of the subject material; there is no way that Marvel would allow anyone to do silly things like change around Iron Mans weapons or take away Captain America’s shield in favor of dual wielding machine guns. There was a game like that, it was called City of Heroes, and Marvel sued them. As much fun as it was to play as Deadpool, it would have been better to play as my Deadpool, even though he would probably yell at me for trying to change him.
Putting all the repressed comic book/Dungeons & Dragons nerd rage aside, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 makes a valiant attempt at replacing customization with variety. The initial odd couple(s) team of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man and Captain America only lasts for the first level, after which new heroes quickly become available. They do seem to break down into a few categories, ranged attackers, big ugly bruisers and small fast guys, which forces at least a little thought into assembling a team of heroes who work well together. It would be hilarious to roll with The Thing, The Hulk, Juggernaut, and Thor, but it would not be very effective and would take forever to walk anywhere. I will admit that when I unlocked Deadpool he found a permanent place on my team, not just because he was hilarious but because he was also really, really effective, breaking the forth wall more often than Psycho Mantis without any of the silly controller jiggling and kicking ass at the same time.
For a game that was obviously designed with multiplayer in mind, the AI does a respectable job of keeping the friendless amused. The computer controlled heroes do tend to be a bit conservative with their powers, though, so most of the damage dealing is up to the player. Special powers are never really used up, which makes their hesitance to execute them pointless. Each character has a reserve of stamina that is used for special attacks, but that reserve refills automatically by itself, and can be made to do so even faster by several of the team perks earned by killing bosses, so seeing Colossus just punching people when he could be throwing them through walls is a little frustrating. At least you can jump between characters quickly and easily, so straightening out lazy super humans is usually not a problem, but it can cause some boss battles to become more hectic than they need to be. Most bosses require the use of fusion attacks to even put a dent in their health, and everyone’s fusion attack is slightly different, so the player may find himself fumbling around for the right combination while being assaulted from all sides. More annoying than anything else, it discouraged changing my team up when I finally figured out exactly who I wanted to use. Aside from cosmetic unlockables, there was just no reason to experiment with new combinations.
Thankfully, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 does not try to cram all of Secret War and Civil War into a ten to fifteen hour game. It is not that there was too much to cover, more that a game that preachy would be difficult to stomach. Instead things are boiled down to Iron Man and his guys versus Captain America and his guys, Nick Fury in the middle, with the player team jumping in with one of the camps after a few levels depending on who they find less annoying. Just when things are getting interesting there is a plot twist, and no matter what the player chose everything comes back together, so choosing sides really only affects which good guys get beaten up on during the middle of the game. There is still a big bad that needs to be taken care of in the end, and the player has no choice but to fight it.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is certainly fun, but it could have been better if it actually made good on the teases of choice instead of guiding the player down a very narrowly branching, then converging path. Everything from the plot to the way the characters level is automatic, amusing, and in the end, not terribly fulfilling. Asking for true freedom with trademarked characters probably is unreasonable, but actually finishing off that smug bastard Stark by embedding Cap’s shield in his head would have been a site to behold. I suppose that it is staying true to its source material in the most honest way possible: the what ifs are the best part. Too bad you don’t actually get to play them.