When Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order was announced during The Game Awards 2018, I was hyped. Who needs Square Enix’s The Avengers? Well, I only have a Nintendo Switch so I was happy with the thought of getting some kind of Marvel action. Since I’m focused on playing and writing about superhero games, why not talk about a game that I own and have already played months ago?
So let’s do just that. Note that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is quite a nuanced game (as with most modern games) so I’ll try not to go in deep when it comes to details. I’ll focus on a high level description of the things that I think will be relevant to the player experience.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is actually the spiritual successor of X-Men Legends, and I’ve seen a lot of people say that they consider the two franchises as one and the same. The games in the franchise/s are action RPGs wherein you can choose a team of four characters. You can only control one character at any given time, with the rest of your team being controlled by the A.I. in-game. You can, however, easily switch to a different character.
Another thing that’s important to mention about the franchise is that the games tend to be based on whatever incarnation of Marvel is popular during development. If you check out screenshots of previous X-Men Legends games (I’ve got a post for X-Men Legends II for you here), you’ll see that they were based on the character designs used for the Ultimate X-Men comic book series. Similarly, the first Marvel Ultimate Alliance was influenced by the then-growing Ultimate Marvel universe. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was in turn, heavily influenced by Marvel’s Civil War comic book storyline.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, developed by Koei Tecmo’s Team Ninja and published by Nintendo, is also influenced by what’s popular now. A lot of the superheroes here have designs that are closer to their Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnations. The Guardians of the Galaxy are in the spotlight, and the game’s plot revolves around battling Thanos and his Black Order. I didn’t get to play the first two Ultimate Alliance games. I never felt that I needed to, while playing this game.
The Ultimate Superhero Roster
Even more than the gameplay, what drew me to Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is the roster of playable characters. There’s just so many characters to choose from in this game! If you don’t get the additional DLC, the game comes with 37 playable characters and an additional two as free DLC. That’s a total of 39 playable characters. Although, I will say that some of them will require grinding before they can be unlocked.
As I said before, this game has heavy influence from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So most of the characters you know from the movies are probably in this game. There are also some deep cuts, like Elsa Bloodstone and Crystal, who are likely only going to be familiar to comic book readers. Well, I used to read and collect Marvel comic books, so I know all of the characters.
Now, why is the roster so important to me? Well, this makes the game completely versatile, in my eyes. You’re a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy? Play through this entire game using them. You liked the Marvel Netflix TV shows? Three of them are playable in this game, and Punisher is in the DLC. You’re an X-Men fan? You’ve got great options for different X-Men lineups here. You can even play an all-villain team.
Personally, I played through the game with the Marvel Cinematic Universe Big Four of Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor. And it’s been a while since I last played, so I’m probably going to try to replay this game later on with a different lineup.
X-Men Legends was classified as an action RPG. Despite retaining similar mechanics, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 has leaned much closer to the action side and barely has any RPG elements left. You’ll need to form a team of four from the available heroes. And you’ll go through each of this game’s stages with your team.
You can change team members at special S.H.I.E.L.D. points or before starting a level. The D-Pad lets you choose which team member to control, which is indicated by the HUD at the lower left of the screen. This diagram also shows each team member’s health (red ring), energy (blue ring), and Extreme gauge (yellow).
The combat mechanics are pretty simple. You’ve got a Light and Heavy Attack which can be used for different combo strings. All characters can jump, and a lot of them can actually fly too (just double-tap the jump button). You’ve also got a dodge roll button that let’s you move outside of an enemy’s attack range. However, basic moves will only get you so far. And there’s not much sense in playing a superhero game if you’re not going to use superpowers, right?
Special Abilities and Synergy Attacks
To beat strong enemies in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, especially the bosses, you’ll need to use each character’s special abilities effectively. Each character has four, with each done by pressing the R button and the corresponding face button. These abilities have different types, synergies, energy costs, and special effects. These abilities can be upgraded up to four levels.
Synergy attacks are simply two characters using abilities at the same time. Unlike the previous Ultimate Alliance game, Synergy attacks don’t have a special animation. It’s really just two of your heroes using one of their abilities at the same time, against the same enemy. You can initiate a Synergy attack by pressing ZR instead of R. If you don’t have a teammate with a compatible Synergy, or if they don’t have enough energy, this results in a normal ability use.
Your teammates can also initiate Synergy attacks, and all you have to do is to respond. In the Team HUD, when you see the A button flashing in your character’s headshot, pressing A triggers the Synergy attack. Note that in co-op, this is done a little differently.
The final attack type is also very simple. When the Extreme gauge of your character fills up, you can do an Extreme attack by pressing L and R at the same time. If everyone’s Extreme gauges are full, pressing L and R repeatedly will make all four heroes unleash their Extreme attack. Sometimes, it’s better to have everyone do this at the same time (e.g. when a boss is stunned). This also works differently in co-op modes.
Customization and Upgrade Systems
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 uses several upgrade systems. First of all, each superhero has his/her own accumulated experience points (XP) and level. Leveling up a superhero awards them with Ability Points that can be used to upgrade his/her abilities. Leveling up also allows a superhero to equip stronger ISO-8 crystals and unlocks additional ISO-8 slots.
ISO-8 is the closest equivalent to items and armor in this game. And this makes sense, because superheroes don’t go through regular equipment changes (Iron Man doesn’t count). ISO-8 are special crystals which provide stat boosts, grant special traits, or characteristics to whomever you equip it to.
ISO-8 crystals are dropped by enemies as you go through the game’s stages, and are also offered as rewards in special missions. They can be upgraded and refined, just like equipment and weaponry in other games. Fans of this game have already developed different methods of farming for ISO-8 crystals. If you’re like me and you just want to beat the main campaign, then you won’t have to worry much about this. But if you want to unlock everything, you’ll need to learn how to farm for and upgrade ISO-8 crystals properly.
Finally, the Alliance Enhancement system involves a series of stat boosts grouped together in hexagonal grids. Each upgrade can be unlocked using earned in-game resources. These stat boosts are applied to all of your characters. Completing all upgrades in a single hexagon grid unlocks the upgrade in the center. Usually, these are powerful upgrades. It’s best to check on these upgrades and identify which hexagon you want to prioritize as soon as you start the game.
Plot and Fan Service
Now that I’ve discussed the important gameplay mechanics, let’s talk about the plot of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. The story begins with the Guardians responding to a distress signal. This results in a confrontation with the Kree, Nebula, and Ronan the Accuser, who were actually trying to hide the Infinity Stones from Thanos and the Black Order. Keeping the stones away from Proxima Midnight, Star-Lord grabs the Space Stone and sends each of the Stones to different locations. He was also able to transport himself and the Guardians to Earth.
This sets up a storyline that will take you and the Guardians to notable locations of Marvel Comics. And which each location, you’ll meet new heroes and face battle numerous villains. You’ll end up at the Raft and face some of Spider-Man’s deadliest enemies. You’ll have to fend off Ultron’s invasion of the Avengers Tower, and help the X-Men defend the Xavier Institute against Sentinels and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants.
The story is epic, but also very simple. Your heroes have to collect the Infinity Stones from different villains, with the Black Order chasing after them too. At the end is a final confrontation with the Black Order and Thanos himself. It’s not very nuanced, but it was good enough to keep me engaged. And it was a good enough explanation of why the heroes are going to all these different places.
Graphics and Performance Issues
I liked Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 a lot, but the game has got a lot of issues. The first one involves the graphics and performance, and this is mostly because of the Nintendo Switch hardware. Graphics are cel-shaded but look more like it belongs to the PlayStation 3 generation. The game uses dynamic resolution which can be as high as 1080p or as low as 720p in docked mode. And it tries to run at 30 fps but suffers from occasional frame rate drops.
Personally, I’m not hard to please when it comes to graphics and performance. So I was able to bear the occasional blurriness in the graphics and the stuttering animation. But not everyone is like me, especially those who are used to the performance of PlayStation 4 games.
The bigger concern here is the difficulty spike in the game, and the need for heavy grinding if you want to unlock everything. If you think you can beat this game with swapping a few heroes in and out of your team, you’re wrong. In the middle of the game, it starts getting harder to progress, and you’ll need to start focusing on a core group of four heroes. I was rotating heroes left and right but I eventually hit that wall and could no longer do so.
And while the game has a lot of unlockable characters and alternate costumes, some of them are locked behind a ton of grinding. Like I said earlier, I haven’t managed to unlock Thanos. And that’s because it takes too much time. That’s especially true for anyone who tries to play this while avoiding guides.
Finally, this game’s camera has a life of it’s own. There’s a setting to switch between a distant or close up view, but half the time the camera does what it wants. Mostly, this is based on the layout of the level, which needs to be showed via a specific perspective. This makes local multiplayer a lot worse. It’s typical for players to struggle for control of the camera if the game doesn’t have a split screen mode, and that’s the same in this game. If you want to play this in multiplayer, it’s best if it’s online or via local wifi using multiple Switch units.
Additional Content and Extended Lifespan
People who relate a games value with the amount of time required to experience every aspect of that game is in for a treat. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 has got this in spades, especially if you buy the additional DLC. The base game already comes with Infinity Rifts – a series of short stages with different mission objectives. Beating some of these rifts will require high level characters and powerful ISO-8s, so expect a lot of grinding.
For non-gameplay related content, you’ve got the Gallery, which contains hero and villain profiles. These were written from the perspective of the Guardians of the Galaxy, so some of them are actually quite funny. There’s a movie player where you can rewatch any of the cutscenes that you’ve already seen, and a music player that does the same for the soundtrack. Finally, you’ve got a section for the concept art that was used when designing the 3D models for this game.
Now let’s talk about the additional DLC, which you’ll have to buy in a bundle. The Curse of the Vampire expansion came with Nightmare difficulty for the main story, as well as Gauntlet Mode. This mode is just a set of repeating challenges, and the objective is to survive for as long as you can. It also brought in S.H.I.E.L.D. Depot, an in-game store where you can buy alternate costumes, voice lines, and upgrading resoures like ISO-8 crystals. Rise of the Phoenix brought in Danger Room, a competitive mode that you can play against the computer A.I. or another player. My favorite expansion is Shadow of Doom, simply because it has an Epilogue story for the main campaign.
I enjoyed Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 a lot, but that’s because I knew what I was getting into when I bought the game. It’s like a popcorn movie with a standard plot that’s entertaining but light. I knew that most of my enjoyment would from all the fanservice that this game had. And I’ve also accepted the limitations of the Nintendo Switch hardware. This game received mostly average to above average critic ratings. That’s more than anyone can say about Marvel’s Avengers by Square Enix, when that game first came out, right?
While I’ve already beaten the main campaign, I know I’ll play this game in the future to unlock Doctor Doom (and maybe Thanos). I even got tempted to play again, while writing this review. I’d recommend this game to all Marvel fans, especially MCU fans. Just be aware of the game’s issues and shortcomings and if you think you can accept those, then definitely get a copy.
If you’d like to get a physical copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order and you live in the Philippines, you can purchase from Shopee using this link.