12/17/2006 2:16:16 AM
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance PSP Review
By Rich Dixon
I've heard game writing described as lazy, and there's a lot of truth to that. The problem is, it's just so easy to get away with.
Take this review, for instance. "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" is the sort of game I should really enjoy reviewing. I like comic book characters. I enjoy games that allow me to play as comic book characters. I have a soft spot for Marvel, corporate behemoth that it might be. And I enjoy long, involved RPGs that have you explore rooms, win countless fights, and level up your characters. So there's no reason in the world that I wouldn't enjoy this game. But the thing is, I already reviewed this game, back when it had another name.
You can see for yourself. Look up my review of "X-Men Legends II" for the PSP. Then play "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance," and try to think of anything I said about that first game that doesn't also apply to this one. The characters are a little different, sure -- though X-Men like Wolverine are still playable -- and the story is different, I'll give you that. But otherwise the two games are identical: they look the same, and they play the same. Any temptation to call "Ultimate Alliance" a sequel to "Legends" is undermined by the fact that, in some ways, "Ultimate Alliance" is worse than its predecessor.
So do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to get lazy, like the developers of "Ultimate Alliance" were. Instead of building a new game they slapped new graphics on an old engine, and I'll do the same: instead of writing a new review I'll quote from the old with a superficial veneer added to signal what's new -- or, more often, what's not.
"Activision’s 'X-Men Legends II' takes full advantage of the RPG’s genre characteristics. It gives you control over four characters at a time, drawn from the X-Men universe and including some of the villains those heroes have faced, makes a fun process of building up their powers and equipment over the course of many, many battles with villains large and small, and sets it all within an interesting story that’s slowly revealed as you explore a large and varied world."
Still the same deal: now the characters draw on the full Marvel lineup (so Captain America and Thor are among the heroes you can choose from), but otherwise it's exactly the same gameplay model: lots of battles, the occasional boss, and a story slowly revealed.
"There are some isolated camera problems which leave you staring at a wall while your team battles on the other side of it, and when entering a room filled with enemies the framerate almost always drops to zero for a few seconds while the PSP’s processor tries to catch up."
Yeah, same deal again. My least-favorite camera moment -- there were several bad moments to choose from -- involved portions where you fight along an exterior corridor that force you into a side-scroller gameplay model. Games used to be side-scrolling for a reason: game engines couldn't handle the demands of a fully 3-D environment. We've moved past that now.
"Save points are often frustratingly rare; there’s nothing that makes losing a boss fight so unpleasant as having to repeat a 20-minute run up to that boss fight, just so you can have a second chance."
They're still rare. The game only allows you to save at certain points on the map, which are usually quite a ways away from the location of a boss battle. This is as antique a feature as the side-scrolling: there's no earthly reason anymore for designers to continue to refuse to allow us to save wherever we want. And considering how much arbitrary save points can detract from the enjoyability of a game, I'm surprised that they're so slow on the up-take.
"Meanwhile, the game’s user interfaces tend to suck. If you find an item you want to pick up, but your inventory is full, dropping an item involves a process of no less than ten keystrokes, backing into and out of four different screens, each of which is preceded by a load time. RPGs are time-consuming enough without that sort of unnecessary overhead. "
And yes, the interface still sucks. Character data, such as ability upgrades and equipment, is still buried far too deeply in the interface -- so deep, in fact, that I mostly ignored that aspect of gameplay because I didn't want to deal with the hassle. And the developers managed to make the interface suck that much more by eliminating a map navigation feature that was available -- and very useful -- in "Legends II."
"Really, though, these are minor concerns that in no way compromised the extent to which I enjoyed this game."
The second time was not the charm for me. As long as I was fighting and collecting loot, I was happy enough, but the fact that this game is like a carbon-copy of the earlier title, only somewhat worse, kept me from really enjoying it. If you're stuck on a long plane flight or otherwise find yourself with several hours to kill, you could do a lot worse than "Ultimate Alliance," but then you could do a lot better as well.
Graphics: 7. The character are a little on the teeny-weeny side, but otherwise the game has the polish of its predecessors.
Sound: 8. Good music and voice work, though some characters have no vocal variety.
Gameplay: 8. If you like dungeon-crawlers, this is your bag.
Story: 6. Meh. I never really found myself wondering how the story would come out.
Replayability: 7. Single-player gets annoying before you finish the game, but you might find more life in the cooperative multiplayer mode.
Overall: 7. “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” is just like "X-Men Legends II," only less so.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance PSP Review