Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is like many Hollywood blockbusters: Good fun, little substance. Considering it crams many of the most well-known movie characters around into one over-the-top experience, its identity as an epic crossover event makes sense. Having access to 30-plus Marvel heroes in one action game is pretty darn cool. Unfortunately, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 doesn’t utilize its star studded cast of heroes and villains in any ways that are truly meaningful.
13 years have passed since the last entry in the franchise, but it’s often hard to tell while playing Ultimate Alliance 3. It’s dated in a way that might please diehard fans of the first two games, but as a modern action game it sticks out — and not in a good way. The story is a generic rehash of a tale most movie observers are familiar with by now. And while Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is enjoyable chaos to play on the couch with friends and family, don’t expect much more than fan service and a whole lot of button mashing in this Nintendo Switch exclusive.
You know the drill
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 retells The Infinity Gauntlet saga. If you haven’t been living under a rock, chances are you already know where I’m going with this. Thanos is out to get the six Infinity Stones. So the Alliance, comprised of heroes both well-known and not, must find them all before the Mad Titan.
Each of the ten linear chapters takes you through familiar Marvel locales, including Raft prison, Wakanda, Avengers Tower, and the Xavier Institute. Each and every one of these locations follows a similar progression: Walk down hallway, encounter baddies, kill baddies, repeat. Despite taking place in such iconic Marvel areas, there’s practically no room to explore and they lack personality. If it wasn’t advertised that I was in Avengers Towers beforehand, I can’t say for sure that I would’ve known.
Prepare for a whole lot of button mashing.
Outside of cutscenes, the visuals are uninspired. The Switch isn’t as powerful as the Xbox One or PS4, but the graphics look worse than most AAA Switch games. Perhaps that’s because the combat animations are the focal point. Flashy, chaotic, and sometimes downright hard to parse, the animations routinely reminded me of a fireworks show finale. Lots to gawk at, if you can follow along.
Combat is as predictable as the level design and progression. Each hero has a light and heavy attack. Light attacks are always standard punches, but heavy attacks sometimes have a more direct correlation to the hero — such as Hulk’s earth-trembling attack where he essentially moves the ground before him.
For the vast majority of the roughly 12-hour campaign, I spammed the light attack while throwing in a heavy attack here and there. It’s a whole lot of button mashing, whether you’re smacking ninjas or giant robots.
Character-specific abilities do gradually unlock as you level up, with each hero having four total. These moves use energy, so thankfully you cannot spam these endlessly. Abilities diversify the combat in fun, over-the-top ways. For instance, I played a significant chunk of the campaign with Spider-Man, using my web-shooters to bind enemies.
But even with cool abilities, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 never demands a strategy. I never felt like it was necessary to plan out my moves in advance. I essentially used abilities just to wipe out enemies more quickly, but I was still just doing a different form of button mashing.
While a significant portion of the combat is spent repeatedly watching damage numbers fly off of enemies and waiting for their red health meter to vanish, some fights add another variable. Larger grunts, mid-bosses, and final bosses all have Stagger meters that act as shields for their health. Heavy attacks do the most damage on Stagger meters, and once it’s empty, the baddie is stunned for a few seconds, or sometimes longer during certain boss fights. This is your opportunity to give a villain everything you’ve got, from abilities to well-timed synergy attacks (tag-team abilities) to Ultimate Alliance special moves. Ultimate Alliance moves can be stacked, which creates the most screen clutter I’ve probably ever seen in a game.
Each level has at least a handful of standard enemies with Stagger meters and multiple boss fights, so this mechanic is in play quite a lot. That said, this doesn’t fundamentally add depth. It merely adds more button mashing. See a Stagger meter? Spam heavy attacks. The boss is stunned? Unleash everything at your disposal.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an action game that lacks strategic depth. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off your brain and Hulk-smash your way through a legion of supervillains and their underlings. But, ideally, you’ll play Ultimate Alliance 3 with others, either locally or online. At all times, you have four heroes in your squad. If you play solo, the other three will be controlled by the CPU, which is admittedly competent.
Ultimate Alliance 3 is the type of game that sets up perfectly for a couch co-op session. And it’s simplistic enough for casual fans to jump into. My eight-year-old daughter isn’t much of a gamer but she loves Marvel. She adores Hulk and had a great time smashing baddies while I swung around as Spider-Man (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal), providing support from above. The online sessions I joined worked well, with no lag or issues on my end. But there’s no substitute for bashing villains alongside loved ones on the same couch.
The camera angle in local co-op is sometimes an annoyance, though. Because it follows you overhead like the first two games, when you stray far from your team, things can get wonky. In tight hallways, my vision was obscured entirely at times. The camera feels closer to what I’d expect in 2006 than 2019.
Good and evil
Like the first two games, the allure of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 comes from the staggering roster of heroes and villains. It’s not often that we get AAA Marvel games in the first place, but it’s unprecedented to play a game where Spider-Man can fight alongside Iron Fist and Wolverine. The 30-plus playable character lineup features everyone from the Guardians of the Galaxy to the original Avengers to stars of recent blockbusters such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Miles Morales. It also features heroes from movies we’d like to forget about — ahem, Daredevil and Ghost Rider.
Each hero plays similarly with light and heavy attacks, while abilities are where they start to show their unique personalities. Iron Man shoots devastating beams from his suit, Hulk vaults into the air and smashes down for an area of effect attack, and Captain Marvel has a ridiculously cool Photon Punch ability that can pummel the Stagger meter in a hurry.
The huge roster is undercut by the leveling system. Only the heroes in your party level up through combat, which eventually makes a significant chunk of the roster impractical to use and unless you go back to early sections and grind. The adventure starts with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but once I unlocked some new characters, I switched them out. Once I reached the midway point, I thought I’d switch back to the Rocket Raccoon/Groot combo (they play as one), only to realize they were severely under-leveled.
The leveling system leaves you to either keep your squad intact for the long haul or only add characters to your team that you unlock later on, such as Black Panther or Ghost Rider. For most of the game, I used a team of Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing as all four of these heroes, but it would’ve been nice to be able to swap characters whenever I wanted without having to struggle with lower leveled heroes.
With so many heroes in play throughout the story, it’s nice to see such a wide variety of supervillains to fight, too. In the Raft prison level alone, you fight Sandman, Electro, Venom, and Mysterio. You also fight heroes under the control of villains in some levels, such as Miles Morales, Spider-Woman, and Doctor Strange. After those fights, they join the Alliance.
The number of villains to battle makes Ultimate Alliance 3 sometimes feel like a boss rush. Since boss fights are the best part of the game, due to the sheer pandemonium on screen and increased challenge, this isn’t a bad thing. Kingpin, Doctor Octavius, Green Goblin, Dormammu, MODOK, Ultron — these are just a handful of the iconic villains you’ll fight en route to your final showdown with Thanos.
The 30-plus playable character lineup is impressively vast.
Some of the bosses, such as Sandman, have more depth than standard fights. For the Sandman fight, you have to solidify him with turrets shooting oil before dealing any damage. Boss fights were also the only time I felt the need to make use of the dodge or block. At the same time, these fights can turn tedious. I lost track of how many bosses have a dual-laser attack that spins in a circle.
That said, the huge collection of heroes and villains are Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s greatest strength, even if the leveling structure limits your party the more you progress.
Outside of the leveling system, the role-playing elements can practically be ignored. There’s a humongous skill tree with buffs to purchase that alter stats like strength, vitality, resilience, and energy.
You acquire currency so quickly that you can often purchase a handful or more each time you reach a checkpoint. I figured my characters were getting significantly better, but when you compare the buffs to overall stats, it’s actually kind of hilarious. My Spider-Man’s vitality is currently 15,000. I just bought a 100 vitality buff. What’s the point?
Sure, these stack but you gain far better stat increases through leveling. Skill tree bonuses are global, but working your way through a skill tree won’t solve your problem of under-leveled heroes. The same goes for the buffs you can get by adventuring with two or more members from the same superhero team.
You can also equip ISO-8, rare materials that offer additional boosts. Some of these are more substantial, especially when you combine them to create bigger crystals. My Spider-Man currently has a vitality boost of 1,000 from a Red ISO-8 and a strength boost of 1,000 from a Purple ISO-8.
The problem with the RPG mechanics is that you don’t have to put any thought into it. Each time I reached a S.H.I.E.L.D. checkpoint, I simply purchased and equipped the best ISO-8 materials I had available and grabbed the next handful of skill tree upgrades just because.
Infinity Trials tie into the RPG systems by offering new challenges set in levels and areas you’ve already completed. Accessible from both the main menu and at checkpoints, you can run through these challenges to level characters, rack up currency and items, and new (bland) costumes. The trials often have modifiers such as damage or vitality changes and star ratings that determine rewards.
At the very least, Infinity Trials give you dozens of “new” challenges to conquer after completing the campaign. You can also run through the story again on Superior difficulty, which considerably ups the challenge.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 has a sizable amount of content and none of it is riddled with microtransactions. In fact, there isn’t a single microtransaction to speak of, even though the game has an item that would figure to be a prime candidate for squeezing money out of players: XP Cubes, which can instantly increase a hero’s level.
A $20 expansion pass is available for purchase now, with three pieces of DLC set to arrive starting this Fall. I’m curious to check out the DLC, as the pass is set to add new story missions, modes, and characters from Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Marvel Knights.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 drops 30-plus heroes and more than a dozen villains into a chase for the Infinity Stones. It is at its best when played cooperatively but the button-mashing combat gets repetitive. Hero-specific abilities do help shake things up and the flashy animations are impressive. The RPG mechanics are poorly implemented, with much of the stat buffs feeling superfluous. It’s fun to play on the couch with friends, but overall it’s mindless and unmemorable.
Is there a better alternative?
If you’re specifically looking for a superhero game, Marvel’s Spider-Man is far better and DC Universe Online has much deeper RPG mechanics.
How long will it last?
It took me 12 hours to beat the campaign. You can probably double that time by completing all of the Infinity Trials, and there are also paid expansions on the way.
Should you buy it?
If you’re looking for a flashy action game to play on the couch with friends, yes you should buy Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. If you’re looking for a superhero game that favors quality over quantity, you can probably skip this one.