Eight button superheroes: the power fantasy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance

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By Neil Merrett

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, released in 2019 on Nintendo Switch, developed by Team Ninja

The colourful and diverse world of Marvel Comics is simplistically recreated in the New Ultimate Alliance game. At your disposal is a whole host of visually arresting superpowers, from electro webbing, to insectoid energy attacks and kicking people with shapeshifting feet.  All these powers are available to the player at the touch of a button – or eight of them rather.

Games can be many things. Sometimes profound, sometimes mindless, sometimes moving. Other times they can be underwhelming, irredeemable, satirical or just plain stupid.

They are much like that other popular cultural touchstone – the superhero.

These fictional beings that tap often into our basest, most simplistic or even deranged power fantasies can be profound, sometimes mindless, moving, underwhelming and even legendary.  Sometimes, they can be all these things at the same time.

The increased technical sophistication of gaming design and technology means all of these quirks and contradictions of the super hero world are fair game to be recreated on home consoles and computers. Yet their translation into pixel format, despite the popularity of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Big Barda, has not necessarily gone smoothly.

Granted, Sony had a mega-hit for its Playstation Four console last year with a Spider-Man game that sought to refine a number of earlier games based on the hero by seeking to recreate a digital New York that the player could swing over, interact with, and struggle through.

How well the game managed to recreate the soap opera dramatics and high action energy of an average man struggling to balance his human side with the responsibility required to wield superpowers will be down to each gamer.

Similarly, the character of Batman has been envisaged in a trilogy of phenomenally popular games over the last decade that see him wrestling with an array of monsters, both literal and metaphorically, using his detective skills, martial arts abilities and questionable street driving.

From his heyday in the late 1930s, Batman has flirted with an identity as a dark, introverted avenger on the cusp of villainy himself, to a space faring defender of justice and a camp pop-art battler.

Yet the success of these recent Batman and Spider-Man games is partly in their ability to build interactive experiences that mimic the larger than life comic books on which they are based, as well as their colourful villains and locations. Yet at the same time, the gameplay is wedded to more cinematic storytelling concerning some of the darker more psychological readings of these characters invented decades ago.

The cultural ubiquity of these characters has long since traversed and transcended their initial appeal as cheap entertainment for children and soldiers – some semi-literate – battling one of real life’s closest run ins with supervillainy

In all cases though, even when trying to reflect something true about the lives of their audience and the complicated world in which we all live, comics and superheroes are at their best, a silly and wonderful window into a colourful imaginative world.

A world where (see video below), supermen have super dogs, complete with matching capes and time travelling heroic teenagers undergo adventures with a fantastical creature known as the Super Moby Dick of Space.

It is here we find ourselves at Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, the third game in a long-dormant series of RPG-like brawlers where the players pick a team of four Marvel Comics superheroes in order to literally smash and bash their way through hordes of bad guys, mad scientists, ghost vikings and uber fascists.

The game is in a word brash.  But brash in that most bombastic and American of ways. That in itself is as fitting for a superhero game as a dark psychological take of redemption and self sacrifice.

Captain America can smash his trademark shield into the ground to offset a group of badguys, before throwing his weapon in a ranged attack at some far off enemy.

Or take Ms Marvel’s kick attack, where she extends her foot into an elongated club that can lob a whole host of enemies in the air for heroes such as The Wasp to wrap up in weaponised tornadoes before they have even hit the ground. This creates a satisfying and almost crunchy combat system that rewards some experimentation with different teams of superheroes to see how many bad guys can be scooped up in the air at once and sent to the depths of Mephisto’s realm. A well functioning, if clunky to navigate online mode allows players to select an individual superhero and join other makeshift teams around the world to help build their powers.

Alongside basic attacks, each player has four super powers that can be upgraded during gameplay as an award for progression. While all of them are visually arresting, they are often based around a set pattern of attack types such as projectiles, elemental attacks, and parries, firearms or explosives. Limited flight around the restrictive game worlds is also possible for some characters.

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Ultimate Alliance 3 is much more mindless than profound, way more exciting than it is moving, but it is still enjoyably true to one of the core appeals of a superhero.

This is the being able to face an army of two dozen or so unequivocal bad guys, either in solo play or co-op and overcoming them with the bombastic powers of simple, unequivocal good.

In Ultimate Alliance, we are not bogged down by our own heroes fallibility, or the moral greyness of our actions when acting in a way that we perceive as a morally right.

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At some points in the game, the player will be tasked with “persuading” an anti-villain to join your cause in an alliance against the forces of entropy. This is realised in the game with a brawl where the anti-hero must be beaten within an inch of their life.

Despite resembling the game Diablo 3, of which the game shares some similarities with regard to world view and interface, Ultimate Alliance invokes the old co-op arcade brawlers of the past.  Games where a team of superpowered martial artists would overthrow some awful regime or crime lord.

Within eight buttons of your controller, the player can manipulate dimensions, chaos energies, realities, the laws of physics and insect anatomies to make sure that bad guys don’t succeed.

It is colourful, bright and at times very simplistic, but this is satisfying when clearing a conquered land from a seemingly insurmountable group of evildoers.

The key motivation for the game is to smack around bad guys to gain more powers and make each team member that little bit stronger and resilient against the slings and arrows of outright villainy. This is possible either in the game’s story mode, or through special missions and time trails that offer extra rewards for the more devastating superhero teams.

It is escapism in the grand tradition of Captain America punching Hitler, or Superman bringing dictators to global justice – and it’s all possible with a couple of button pushes.

 

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