On paper, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order has everything it needs to be a superb game. Team Ninja developed it, arguably one of the most impressive action game studios in the industry. It has a roster overflowing with fan favourites and is the follow up to two highly-revered (among fans) superhero ARPGs that released a decade ago. With that many stellar ingredients in its favour this game should be great, but ultimately feels lacking.
If you've turned on a TV or been on the internet in the last five years, you'll immediately recognize at least a handful of the game's characters. The roster is stacked with familiar faces from Marvel's vast history, with many showing direct influence from the MCU. The story is a fresh slate for the series, but its overall arc is relatively similar to the recent Avengers movies.
Thanos, accompanied by his loyal Black Order, is after the six Infinity Stones and its up to you to assemble a team of four heroes to thwart him. Thankfully the in-between beats of the story are well written enough to make up for the lack of new ground by putting characters in frequently amusing groupings and situations. New villains show up with insane frequency and are introduced in ways that will have their fans smiling. These moments come so often that the game never really lets you take a breath in between the action. Everything moves at such a fast pace, and some characters come and go so quickly that it can at times diminish the excitement of seeing them appear (especially if its one of your favourite characters.)
Throughout the journey, you'll visit a bunch of beautiful levels with plenty of variety between them. Levels are a mostly linear affair with little deviation from the critical path. You'll assemble your team of four from a roster of over thirty characters, with many unlocking during the roughly ten to fifteen-hour campaign. It was always exciting to unlock and try out new characters, but the way the game handles levelling these characters can very quickly lock you into only playing with a handful of them. Playing with characters will level them up, so they stay relatively in range of the level requirements, but characters you leave back at base get nothing. You do gain XP Cubes that you can use to boost characters stats, but their finite amount means you have to be careful with your choice. Characters you unlock in the story are thankfully always on-level with the current mission so you can, at least, experiment with new additions freely. I ended up sticking with an odd-ball team consisting of Iron Fist, Captain America, Spider-Man and Deadpool for the vast majority of the game.
The main problem I found with Ultimate Alliance 3 was the leveling system and the game's difficulty. I played on normal, foolishly assuming that I'd be able to coast through the game for my first playthrough. Outside of being mildly railroaded into sticking with your character choices, the challenge on some levels feels out of balance. Enemies that should be cannon fodder can all too easily deliver killing blows to your team. It feels out of place seeing the mighty Thor bouncing Mjolnir off of the nose of a common thug a dozen times only to see him still fight back. The high difficulty from bullet-sponge enemies with superhero-level strength detracts from the power fantasy of actually, you know... being a hero.
Now before you sit there and say "oh this dude just can't play games", you need to know that I LOVE hard games. There's nothing I enjoy more. I think it has to be said that this game, even on normal, is harder than some games on their hard difficulty. Despite beating all of the FROM games and others influenced by them, this game had me pulling teeth at times. It's possible to get around this by taking on the Infinity Trials and replaying previous chapters, but to me, that's something I want to do after my main playthrough.
Combat is very straightforward with each hero having a light attack that can be combo'd (I'm using that term loosely here as pressing the same button up to five times hardly feels like a traditional 'combo'.) Each character also has a heavy attack and four hero abilities, but that's it. You won't unlock new powers; you'll just be upgrading the ones you already have. You'll have to manage energy bars for your hero abilities while blocking and dodging enemy attacks and looking for team-up attack opportunities. The action plays out nicely for the most part, and the frame rate does an admirable job of keeping up with everything. Things can be hard to keep track of in handheld when all of the heroes are popping off their supers, but this is mitigated on the big screen. The combat is fun enough but just doesn't have that special Team Nina feel that I've come to expect. By the end of my time with the story, I didn't feel much pull to go back with other characters which is something I thought I would be doing for hours with the game before release. With a total lack of combos to learn and the no possibility to change hero powers, the whole thing starts to feel a bit shallow towards the end.
Puzzles are peppered throughout the story, and while these can be a fun distraction, they rarely present more than a few minutes of respite between set-pieces. Playing with a group of friends really feels like the way this game is meant to be played. Handing three other friends a joy-con for drop-in-drop-out co-op is a blast. Just expect them to be disappointed if they're joining partway through and want to play with a character you've neglected... Playing co-op with my three pals shouting out targets to each other and counting down to super attacks was immensely gratifying and the highlight of my time with the game. Picking up the controller to carry on the next morning on my own, was a tellingly sobering experience as I tried so desperately to recapture that joy solo.
It may sound like I'm being overly critical of Ultimate Alliance 3, but I, along with many others, had high expectations. It's perhaps unfair to base an opinion on said expectations, but when a team of such top pedigree misses the mark, it feels all the more disappointing. There is still a bunch of fun to be had with the game if you're will to look past its quirks in the levelling system. It can be frustrating to feel locked into sticking with your base team and only trying out new heroes that unlock with a base level in line with the current missions.
Combat looks great but just doesn't have enough nuance to give it the legs needed for this type of game. The character roster and story provide plenty of high points and nods for avid fans to pick up on, with plenty of callbacks and easter eggs for other heroes and franchises in the Marvel umbrella. There is also three sets of DLC and several free DLC characters still coming to the game, which will help give it a bit more longevity. I sadly can't see Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order being as fondly remembered as it's predecessors during the years to come.