Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does not feel like a 2019 game; it’s not “always online,” it isn’t “e-sport ready,” and there’s a noticeable (and welcome) absence of micro transactions (it also looks nothing like the much-hyped Crystal Dynamics-developed The Avengers game, recently debuted at E3). In fact, much of the Team Ninja-developed, Nintendo-published Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a throwback to the previous generation of gaming: it’s grind-y, repetitive, and rather simplistic in the RPG elements integrated into the core mechanics. And yet, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year — a wildly entertaining action game with some serious replayability.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place, bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike.
Ultimate Alliance 3 exists in a strange space; it’s not a sequel of the previous two titles in the series (it’s not even set in the same universe), nor is it aligned with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For better or worse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order lives in its own strange little alternate universe, albeit one where Thanos and The Black Order are still trying to assemble the Infinity Stones for cosmically destructive purposes. As one might assume, the game follows its 36 playable heroes as they hunt down the six Infinity Stones across the galaxy.
The beats of the plot are stunningly obvious to anyone who has read a comic book or seen an MCU film in the past decade, but I’m here to report that Ultimate Alliance 3 has absolutely nothing to say about those stories, nor does it offer a new take or angle on the now-familiar material. Beat-to-beat, Ultimate Alliance 3‘s story is abundantly forgettable, a series of silly scenes constructed for one purpose: to get to the part where everyone uses their super powers and everything turns into an absolute mess of particle effects, attack animations, and beautiful chaos. (Or, in the case of the incredibly brief, embarrassingly boring chapter on the Inhumans, utterly pointless.)
“Chaos” is the best descriptor for the core gameplay loop: like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 sees players controlling a four-person squad, with the ability to shift between characters at the tap of a button (in single-player mode, Ultimate Alliance 3 also supports up to four players in any offline or online mode). Each character has heavy/light basic attacks and four special abilities, the latter of which can be combined in various ways with another teammate’s abilities (called “synergy” attacks) to combat massive waves of AI enemies and bosses.
There is also a third meter that builds up in order for all four characters to trigger a special ability at the same time. Although it is absolute visual nonsense (an often-incomprehensible mess of animations and effects, despite a rather consistent frame rate), these super abilities are strategic elements in dealing massive damage at key points during combat. (Plus, they look cool.)
Ultimate Alliance 3‘s core mechanics are rather simplistic and familiar: each super hero can be leveled to 100, raising the stats of their abilities, and can apply up to four stat-modifying ISO-8 crystals. Anyone whose played an action-RPG knows the deal here: it’s like Diablo III without grinding for equipment — or for the real fans, like a simplified version of the now-defunct MMO Marvel Heroes. It’s all about progress, leveling up characters to make them more powerful, completing missions, and taking on challenges to unlock ability points on the game’s massive, hexagonal upgrade tree.
However simplistic its mechanics are, it’s still undeniably satisfying; triggering massive, particle-effect-laden synergy attacks never gets old, even after more than 40 hours spent playing through the story (and its four unlocking difficulty levels), as well as the game’s Infinity Trials, a separate challenge mode which unlocks special characters and alternate costume for completing variety of different objectives. Ultimate Alliance 3 just feels good to play — even despite its occasional problems with camera (especially in local multiplayer mode), and the rather repetitive loop of “kill faceless bad guys in room, leave room, kill more bad guys, kill boss, repeat.”
It would be easy to write off Ultimate Alliance 3 as “not enough of a good thing.” Lazy environmental design, uninspiring graphics, and repetitive combat loops are blatantly obvious shortcomings, bound to underwhelm players upon first impression. But give it time; eventually, Ultimate Alliance 3 reveals the true frenzy in its heart, and becomes a very challenging (and surprisingly punishing) game. At its higher difficulties, this is not an easy experience, which oddly transforms it from a game of persistent progress into one of measured experimentation and demanding execution.
Ultimate Alliance 3, often to its detriment, doesn’t really engage players with the depth of its combat system. There isn’t a list of synergies to be found in the game, though that might encourage players to experiment with different combinations of characters and abilities, as there’s a bonus system attached to squad construction, where certain combinations of two, three, or four heroes will buff specific traits on all included heroes.
It also doesn’t foreground the strategies that later bosses and trials will require; at high levels, Ultimate Alliance is about efficiency, position, and discipline — about using one’s abilities and team-specific strengths to contain the chaotic challenges Team Ninja’s constructed. After a dry first 3-5 hours, Ultimate Alliance 3 really begins to blossom, each challenge and boss fight becoming a puzzle of team construction, battle strategy, and timing. It takes a bit to get there, but once it unearths its true nature, it transforms into a completely different, much more replayable game.
That game is based on experimentation and repetition; for those who like their semi-isometric action RPG’s to have some bite, Ultimate Alliance 3 has you covered. The upgrade/refinement ISO-8 system (akin to the Diablo III gem system) alone offers dozens of hours of replay for fine-tuning a team’s stats to optimize runs through the game’s dozens of story chapters and Infinity Trials, the latter of which often come with specific level stipulations and requirements to complete (including both a three-star rating and S+ rank grading system for the real perfectionists).
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t finished yet, either. There are plans to offer both free and paid updates for the near future, in the form of monthly updates and a $20 season pass (for 3 paid DLC character & expansion packs). Cyclops and Colossous are already scheduled to join the roster in a free update on August 30th, and a number of other heroes have already been named, including Moon Knight, Blade, and Punisher (in September 30th’s Marvel Knights: Curse of the Vampire DLC), the Fantastic Four, and others.
The opportunities really are endless; Ultimate Alliance 3 has the benefit of an incredibly strong foundation, which opens the door for so much ingenuity to be added as the game continues to grow. Adding more characters, chapters, and modes in the future will only further the insane replay value this game offers — especially if the competent-if-bare-bones multiplayer experience is expanded on in any way.
A little ugly, a little short, a little simplistic, a little unwieldy with its menus and uneven story… Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place — a game that’s bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike. It’s a very thin thread to try and weave, but Team Ninja and Nintendo have done it, offering a deep roster of playable characters (Elsa Bloodstone or Crystal, anyone?) and some seriously well-refined gameplay systems, bound to last the most dedicated fans hundreds of hours of gameplay.