For the first few hours, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order feels very much of a time and place — specifically 2006, which was when the previous installment was released. My first impression was of a game that felt rather samey, and a touch clunky at times. Critically, and despite its 13 year hiatus, it feltas though it either hadn’t managed to come up with a single new idea, or hadn’t bothered to. I was having a really hard time with it, and said as much on Twitter.
I’ve had some extra time to sit with it since then. Despite not feeling like I was having much fun, I pushed through into the mid-game. It was there that I started to find the fun. Or, well, maybe fun is giving it too much leeway. What actually happened was that I started to accept Ultimate Alliance 3 for what it was.
It’s a throwback to the PS2 era. A simpler time, when you could get away a story that introduces Marvel characters with the breathless urgency of a first-time fanfic author, when you could get away with mashy, two-button combat. Once I accepted that about it and met Ultimate Alliance 3 where it was, I came to enjoy it a great deal more.
The thrust of the story is an alternate version of one you’re likely already familiar with: Thanos and his goons are on a mission to claim the Infinity Stones. The Stones themselves have fallen into the hands of numerous Marvel villains. It’s up to you to assemble the greatest collection of heroes from all of Marvel’s worlds and take them down, one-by-one, area-by-area. It’s a huge mashup of characters, settings and story arcs from throughout the entire history of the Marvel Comics universe, bashing its action figures together like an excited seven-year-old.
The game begins on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and quickly introduces the original Avengers squad, before moving through a series of themed, episodic levels. There are no brakes on this huge tour of the Marvel universe — Avengers, X-Men, the Spider-verse, even bloody Alpha Flight are involved.
It’s this willingness to stuff the game with comic book deep cuts that keeps the story feeling lively even as it plays it out in contrived, predictable patterns. Every time I’d veer toward cynacism, it would pull me back with a clutch character reveal or story beat that would make the old comic nerd in me smile and nod.
Most of my playthrough was conducted solo, but I did get some time to play two- and four-player and its clear that this was how the game was intended to be played. As a couch co-op experience, Ultimate Alliance 3 is surprisingly tight and leads to much more interesting hero combinations and synergies than you might come up with on your own.
My friends are rusted-on Diablo stalwarts, min-maxing is in their blood, and so the hunt for the most effective combos began immediately. When the game introduces skill and power modifiers that allow for further upgrades and stat management, they began to have a field day. If you have the means, I highly recommend getting a few mates around for this one.
In the end, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order doesn’t want that much from you. It’s happy for you to turn off your brain, mash the punch buttons and enjoy the ride. Like a theme park ride, you can see how it all works and what’s up ahead, but if you can agree to believe it then you’re in for a great time.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Tons of characters; Story is pure comic book pulp; Enjoyable co-op
Lowlights: Plays at stat complexity but doesn’t actually have any
Developer: Team Ninja
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Review conducted on a pre-release code provided by the publisher.