Review: Nintendo Switch exclusive ‘Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’ is fun and flawed

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is on track to become a sales success for Nintendo. It’s not surprising, as the Switch-exclusive game is heavily influenced by the last two Avengers movies, to the point of featuring Thanos as its primary villain. Now is exactly the right time to be trading on Marvel hype.

It helps that the game isn’t bad. MUA3 is a surprise sequel to 2009’s Ultimate Alliance 2, and like it, is an action-RPG starring a cast of Marvel Comics superheroes, villains, and anti-heroes. You can recruit more than 30 characters, group them into teams of four, and send them out on missions throughout a particular version of the Marvel Universe, in an attempt to keep Thanos and his minions, the Black Order, from getting all six Infinity Stones.

A lot of the draw of MUA3 is in its cast of characters. Like many Marvel games, its plot is a thinly-veiled excuse to send you on a guided tour of the larger Marvel Universe, including Wakanda, Asgard, Avengers Tower, and the Raft, with a murderer’s row of villains to fight. The voice acting is top-notch, and every character seems to get at least one or two moments in the spotlight.

MUA3 is one of the first licensed Marvel products in years to feature the X-Men, since Disney now owns the film rights, and it’s fun to see them back in action. (Everything about the X-Men in this game is calculated for maximum nostalgia value; you spend a level fighting classic Sentinels in the X-Mansion’s front yard, and all the X-Men are back in their ‘90s-era suits.) The Fantastic Four are scheduled to rejoin the roster as well, though they’re coming later as downloadable content.

The rest of the game comes down to the hypnotic appeal of watching numbers go up. Like most action-RPGs, MUA3 is built to take advantage of that strange part of your brain that enjoys mindless repetition for a tangible result. You’re meant to replay stages and take on multiple side challenges to level all of your characters, in order to make them more powerful, so you can take on higher difficulties and the later missions in the main game. It’s a naked treadmill, with every run getting you a few more stat points, an extra level or two, or a new piece of equipment.

That isn’t really a criticism. It’s more of a warning, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. This is the sort of game where you can easily get sucked in and lose your entire weekend. You sat down to see how Iron Man plays at level 40, but you ended up trying to unlock Luke Cage’s bonus costume, which meant you had to level him at the same time, which meant you were playing around with power-leveling strategies involving Ms. Marvel and Spider-Gwen, and now it’s 3 a.m. and you haven’t eaten yet today.

What I will criticize, however, is the game’s mechanics. There’s a lot here that feels half-finished, or half-considered, as if the game started as a proof of concept for something more ambitious.

The biggest issue is with a new mechanic called Stagger. Large enemies and bosses have a separate meter that depletes at a higher rate than their health, and while they have any Stagger left, they don’t react to incoming attacks. If you deplete the Stagger, the enemy gets stunned for a few seconds, which means it’s open season on them.

It’s an interesting idea. I can see the value of it, since it forces you to be careful and precise, instead of simply running in while hammering all your buttons. But it feels like it was made for a slower, less hectic game than this one.

In practice, what Stagger means is that you’re surrounded at all times by at least two enemies who do not care what you do. You’ll be minding your own business and suddenly, you’re getting shoulder-checked across the room by some giant goon in a prison jumpsuit. Your opening hours with MUA3 are mostly going to be spent watching your characters ragdoll into the air, as normal enemies wade through gunfire and energy beams to punch them in the face. This is even weirder when you’re playing characters such as Thor or the Hulk.

In practice, if you’re not careful, most of the enemies in MUA3 can lock you down and beat you up more or less at will. The early game is apparently meant to be built around evasion, careful play, and watching for your opportunities.

Eventually, you do get to a point where you figure things out, find characters you like, and start exploiting particular abilities to get ahead. There’s a feature called synergy moves, where two characters standing near each other can cooperate to fire off a more powerful combination attack, and most of the synergy moves have a couple of hits of armor during their animation. Once you’ve got a go-to team, you can figure out ways to get around the Stagger mechanic and start making some real headway. It does feel like you’re brute-forcing the game rather than playing it, but frankly, Stagger is broken enough that I don’t feel bad about that in the least.

That same half-finished feel can be found in the game’s UI, where it’s a lot harder than it has to be to manage your equipment or character abilities; the hardware, which often slows down dangerously when there’s a lot happening on-screen; and the camera, which often seems like it’s actively working against you. The campaign also features a lot of weird, out-of-nowhere difficulty spikes, such as an area in the Wakanda level that’s infested with inexplicably lethal enemy snipers. There are parts of the game where you deliberately pick fights with gods, and they aren’t as hard to get through as that stupid sniper’s alley.

What Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 does for me, mostly, is make me look forward to a theoretical MUA4. There’s a lot here that I like — the characters, the general action, its addictiveness, a few of the stages — but that makes the rough spots stand out in even sharper relief. The Stagger mechanic needs some more time in the oven to be useful, and the game is almost too hectic and crazy for the Switch to handle. It’s worth checking out, especially as a four-player party game for a cheap evening’s entertainment, but it’s got some serious flaws that would need to be addressed before I could give it an unqualified recommendation.

It’s interesting that it’s a Nintendo-published title, though. One of the primary issues with Nintendo hardware since the days of the Nintendo 64 has traditionally been a weak third-party lineup. If you buy a Nintendo console, it’s usually to play Nintendo games: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, etc. Non-Nintendo system exclusives on Nintendo hardware have traditionally done poorly over the years, to the point where the Switch has virtually none.

Sure, the Switch has a really healthy lineup of third-party releases, but almost none of them are exclusives. Most of the third-party games on the Switch are also available somewhere else, most commonly Steam, and were ported to the Switch to take advantage of its position as a portable platform. Of the handful of titles that are currently exclusive to the Switch, almost all of them were published by Nintendo. (Notable exceptions include Golf Story, Gear.Club Unlimited, and the forthcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.)

With Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, Nintendo’s made a surprising move, resurrecting another company’s old beloved franchise, turning it over to a contractor to complete, and publishing it on its own hardware. Granted, this was a virtual slam dunk — it’s hard to imagine a Marvel game failing outright at this point in time, with Avengers: Endgame as the new all-time box office champ, and Ultimate Alliance as an old favorite to begin with. But it’s still a bold step toward securing more high-profile exclusives for the system. With MUA3’s success, a lot may suddenly be riding on Platinum’s Astral Chain, a similar third-party-produced, Nintendo-published exclusive.

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