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Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (PlayStation 2) artwork

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (PlayStation 2) review

"You might think that tossing 23 playable heroes, dozens of villains, and countless recognizable characters into the same game would be fan-service enough, but some people donít know when to quit."

Dr. Doomís plots for world domination are a dime a dozen, but now itís serious. Under his leadership, villains from around the globe and beyond have united to become The Masters of Evil. From low-grade rejects like Tiger Shark and Radioactive Man, to heavy-hitters like Bullseye and the world-eater himself, Galactus, everyone wants a piece of the action. Someone has to save the day, but this is no time for lone-wolf heroics.

You can only control one character at a time in this two-fisted beat-Ďem-up, but up to three computer-controlled teammates will rumble dutifully at your side. Wolverine, Spider-Man, Thor, and Captain America form your initial team, and all it takes for a seamless character-switch is a quick flick of the D-pad. You can keep this line-up, or you can mix and match from a hefty roster of 16 starting heroes, with seven more to pick up along the way. You could make a band of strong-arm powerhouses, a small group of Avengers, or finally give the Fantastic Four the gaming experience they deserve. The choice is yours, but you might roll your eyes at some of the heroic hopefuls.

Marvel has been making a Herculean effort to push their characters into the pop-cultural limelight, but they may have dug too deep in the superhero trashcan. Ultimate Alliance boasts some true icons like Ghost Rider and Human Torch alongside neglected favorites like Deadpool and Captain America, but then we get to Ms. Marvel, Dr. Strange, and Spider-Woman. If you can tell me who Spider-Woman is, you are past due for getting outside. What about Luke Cage? Does the blaxploitation hero from da streetz really have the fan-base to warrant a game appearance? It doesnít matter. I threw Cage on my team for the sake of experimentation, and two hours later, he was my main man.

With Ultimate Allianceís list of customizations, getting attached to your heroes is inevitable, no matter how far down the second string they may be. Pounding enemies into the pavement, smashing the crate-laden environment, and completing mission objectives all yield experience to craft your ideal hero. You could build Spider-Manís defenses with Web Shields and Snares, or you could turn him into a rapid-fire, web-shooting marksman. Without a doubt, some heroes are more powerful from the outset. Deadpool is pathetically weak compared to Wolverine or Human Torch, but after gaining some experience you wonít even notice the difference. Going one step further, you can equip your heroes with stat-enhancing gear and buy bonuses for your entire team as their reputation grows.

Crafting your own team of heroes is certainly a highlight of Ultimate Alliance, but the action is fast, brutal, and non-stop. From secret government bases, to Mandarinís palace and Arcadeís twisted Murderworld, the levels are filled to the brim with henchmen. What they lack in variety, they make up with numbers and power. Learn how to fight, or youíll be cancelled faster than an issue of Alpha Flight. In addition to superpowers, every hero has the usual assortment of button-mashing attacks to throw down, including grabs, basic combos, and realistic pipe-swinging action. I know Iím supposed to be the good guy here, but pummeling someoneís face before cramming it into the floor just feels so right.

This is a team game, so utilizing combos will be your best shot for victory. As Iceman, you could arm everyone with the melee-enhancing Frost Bite and let Thing steamroll the entire room, or try trapping the enemy first with Spider-Manís Web Snare. With so many potential combos, Ultimate Alliance is one beat-Ďem-up in which combat never gets old, especially when The Masters of Evil show up. Any given level serves up three or four boss-fights, and although the first few are usually standard bum-rush battles, the last bosses require a little more strategy. You will need to find a way to sidestep Mandarinís legion of robots and force-fields, trick the invulnerable Kraken into bringing the roof down, and pass M.O.D.O.K.ís intellectual challenge. The bosses are not always the hardest, but at least they are memorable.

Tossing 23 playable heroes, dozens of villains, and countless recognizable characters into the same game should be fan-service enough, but some people donít know when to quit. Each hero has three additional costumes to be unlocked, and you wonít find a single color-swap. From Captain Americaís U.S. Agent outfit, to Iron Manís War Machine armor, Raven Software truly went all out. Even the costumes have upgradeable attributes. To see it all, you must find the Comic Missions hidden throughout the levels. Separate from the main storyline, Comic Missions pit you one-on-one against villains, time-bombs, and unbelievable odds, but with spectacular rewards if you complete them.

Marvelís characters have appeared in numerous games as of late, but Ultimate Alliance is the only one worthy of diehard fanboys. For the rest of you, knowing Jean Grey from Phoenix, or Wolverine from Weapon X wonít matter one bit. Ultimate Alliance offers so much background through character dialogue, albeit heavy on the cheese, that youíll walk away feeling like an expert. Besides, Raven lifted the bar so high it could be a long time before we see another beat-Ďem-up with these levels of depth and intensity.

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Staff review by Brian Rowe (August 29, 2007)

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