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Marvel Ultimate Alliance

The thinking man's repetitive button-masher

Superheroes and villains spill out of Ultimate Alliance like jam from a doughnut. With around 25 characters to choose from, it's entirely possible you could suffer from Marvel fatigue before you can even progress past the selection screen, but once you start the game proper, things quickly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It's a top-down Gauntlet-style slash-'em up with RPG overtones, extremely similar in all respects to X-Men Legends. Another aspect it shares with Legends is that you literally can't turn around the corner without bumping into some crimson-eyed freak with fingers o' fire out of Marvel's distant past.

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But very few of them are there to advance the plot - they're crammed into proceedings merely to elect a fanboy/girl glow, and after a brief skirmish they're whisked offstage by an unseen cane never to be seen again. For example, when we were traipsing around Dr Doom's dungeon, we suddenly bumped into a power-crazy Jean Grey. After a fight lasting six seconds, she did a runner, and the walls of the castle came crashing down to reveal that no, we're not actually in Dr Doom's Castle, but in fact we're in the middle of supervillain Arcade's fairground - big top and all. What we're saying is, there's almost no meaningful plot here at all - it's just Marvel join the dots, shoving in almost everyone from the comic empire's rich history for no reason other than to service the fans.

But here's the thing: you don't actually have to be a Marvel fan to appreciate Ultimate Alliance. Some of us in the Xbox World office, for example, know so little about Marvel it's a wonder they managed to stick the disc into the 360 the right way round. In fact, if your knowledge of the Marvelverse stretches not much further than the occasional X-Men movie, playing this will feel a bit like being forced to watch an episode of The O.C. with the missus, except with conversations such as, "Who's the guy that looks like a rogue slab of Weetabix?" "That's MODOK, the super-genius". "Oh."

SQUADIFICATION
But the point we're slowly, painfully getting to is that it doesn't matter. Because Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, while at first glance a simple button-basher, has a surprising level of tactical depth, and more importantly, it's addressed almost all the faults from the X-Men Legends series. For example, forming a squad. Like X-Men, there's an obscene amount of heroes to choose from, and it's only natural that some of the crapper ones fall by the wayside. In Ultimate Alliance, you're encouraged (but not required) to create a core team of four superheroes early doors, allowing you to focus on building up these character's stats and flat-out ignoring crapheads such as Moon Knight. On the other hand, this causes a problem if your team ends up being not entirely to your liking, as it punishes you for switching characters mid-level - but at least it offers the chance to focus on a core quartet, blindsiding the 'too many heroes spoil the broth' problem that plagued Legends. Another major improvement over X-Men Legends is an especially important one here, particularly if you're planning to play the game in multiplayer and with people you wish to remain on speaking terms with.

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HOCUS POTION
Previously in Legends you collected potions on your travels which were shared amongst your team and activated manually. What would normally happen was that your teammates (and especially the AI) would sit in the corner pigging all the potions while you were peeling yourself off the floor after a particularly brutal encounter with a giant dragon, causing the sort of tension usually reserved for a Mike Newell speech at a Women's Lib meeting. However, in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, little health orbs burst from the corpses of defeated enemies and automatically redistribute themselves fairly among the team - a far more just system designed to reduce inter-team squabbling to zero. If you like the competition, mind, there's an additional option to switch the action to Arcade mode, where the player who gets the deciding wallop in takes the spoils - a nice little extra that ends up adding a killer edge to a multiplayer which is often in serious danger of going a tiny bit blunt.

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