In recent years it's become a common practice among developers – probably encouraged by publishers and their PR departments – to pack as much excitement as they can into the early hours of their games in the hope that less attentive reviewers, and gamers alike, will be wowed sufficiently to give their approval.
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance for the Xbox 360 is unusual, because during those early hours you'd be forgiven for thinking it to be the dullest and most tedious dungeon trawler to be released in living memory. Early levels are undermined by repetitive design and uninspired boss battles, yet, as you progress a little further, a veil is lifted and it reveals a fun, if unremarkable, action-RPG with enough content to keep fans busy for a good deal of time.
What Ultimate Alliance does well is avoid bewildering the player with information they can't deal with. The early stages may seem dull but they allow you to learn the basics, to understand what works without providing an easy get out. Once you've got a handle on the basics, more complex elements are gradually introduced and you'll still be learning new things when you've gone a fair way into the game.
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Basic control is indecently simple and is ideally suited to the beat-em-up style prevalent throughout the game. The A and B buttons are used for light and charged attacks and you can combine these for simple three button combo moves, with X used to grab hold of enemies to pummel them or throw them off ledges, whilst jumping/flying uses the Y-button. These are, however, the very bare bones of a super-heroes' arsenal, since as we all know, it's all about the super powers.
Much like the basic controls, accessing your powers is perfectly intuitive and they're available instantly by holding down the R-trigger and pressing the desired face button. You can have up to four powers mapped to the face buttons, and these can be changed as you progress through the game; earning new abilities and becoming more powerful. You can even change and upgrade your outfits, providing further bonuses such as regenerating health or energy.
Most of these specifics will be pretty familiar to anyone who has played any RPG, and though these elements prove mildly diverting you can just as easily let the game automatically allocate points for you. Handily, the game also allows you to remove and redistribute upgrade points after they have already been awarded; reversing the effects of poor judgement.
This ability to reverse illustrates the mainstream focus of Alliance's RPG element, and why it's more of a diversion than a key component of the gameplay. The addition of team creation, which rewards you with team bonuses for completing objectives using a select few heroes, adds a little more depth but not that much more, and those used to more hardcore RPG titles should be aware of this RPG-lite attitude before they buy Ultimate Alliance.
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As part of the Marvel comic book behemoth, Ultimate Alliance delivers pretty much everything a fan could possibly ask for. The cast of playable heroes is suitably large, and despite a few missing persons, represents a fairly significant portion of the Marvels super-hero stable. Naturally, there's a massive cast of baddies to fight too, all of whom have come under the auspices of Dr. Doom to form the imaginatively titled 'Masters of Evil'. Their plan? Well, suffice to say it's to get up to no good and it's your job as a member of S.H.I.E.L.D to stop them.