Armagideon Time

Ultimately nowhere

September 23rd, 2009

I liked the original Marvel: Ultimate Alliance game a lot. It was an incredibly entertaining action-RPG which gave players the opportunity to lead a custom team of superheroes through a series of levels and battles that captured the best aspects of Marvel’s shared universe. From fighting Shocker and the Rhino in Murderworld’s giant pinball machine, ampoule to battling Galactus on the Skrull throneworld, anabolics to the ability to create a custom team based on the Inferno Era Avengers (Thor, Captain America in his black costume, Reed and Sue Richards in their Byrne black & white FF costumes), Ultimate Alliance didn’t skimp on the fan candy.

When the inevitable sequel to the game was announced, I was as jazzed as the next fanboy…though my enthusiasm was tempered by the revelation that instead of offering the holistic tour of the Marvel Universe given in the first game, the follow-up would focus on events inspired by the vapid, overblown Civil War crossover event from a few years back. Even so, I enjoyed the X-Men: Legends games well enough despite having grown tired of the convoluted mess the comics franchise had become, and hoped that UA2 would similarly be able to turn this particular a sow’s ear into a passable imitation of a silk purse.

Then, about a week prior to UA2‘s release, some advance assessments of the game started to trickle down from various folks who’d somehow gotten around the street date. What they were saying wasn’t encouraging in the least — oversimplified gameplay and unlockables, flawed team AI, fixed camera angles, a lackluster roster of characters further split by the hero-versus-hero plot mechanic.

My brother (who had been looking forward to the game more eagerly than I had) and I had both preordered the game with the idea of doing some online co-op. After discussing the pre-post-mortems of UA2, however, we decided that we’d be better off waiting for a steep price drop. I cancelled my preorder with the assumption my sibling was doing the same, yet I wasn’t that surprised when I logged into Xbox Live on launch day and was informed by my friends list that “Ameridroid” was currently playing UA2. (There is no hiding one’s shameful behavior in this brave new world of console gaming.)

The kid’s a fan. I couldn’t blame him, and after a couple of my other gaming pals picked up copies of the game and offered modest praise for it, I ignobly succumbed to peer pressure. While I would not jump off a bridge because everyone was doing it, I most likely will purchase a game I was on the fence about if my circle of trusted pals vouch for its worth. I’m only human, and thus flawed, after all.

Ultimate Alliance 2 isn’t a terrible game, but it doesn’t come close to matching its predecessor in terms of enjoyability or depth. It suffers from many of the problems common to sequels, in that the developers somehow got it into their heads to tinker with the stuff that worked while ignoring the things that didn’t. Character customization options have been utterly gutted, meaning that there’s really only one developmental path to be followed as you level up. The unlockable alternate costumes, and the upgradable bonuses they provided, which added to the original UA‘s replayability, have also been dropped in favor of a single, in most cases awful, additional character skin. (There’s no classic Iron Fist costume, for example, just the choice of two sartorial evils, one resembling a baby’s jumper. Captain America gets his “Ultimate” WW2 outfit, which is one of those things that was mildly interesting when it was first shown, yet the folks at Marvel seem excessively impressed by.)

The game is also unforgivably short. It tries to mask this fault by allowing the player to play as either side in the conflict of heroes, though this essentially boils down to playing through the same sequence of levels, but fighting, say, Cable instead of Bishop.

The graphics in UA2 may be a step up from the original, but it’s really hard to spot (even in hi-def) when the core gameplay involves isometric views of small superheroes beating on legions of small bad guys in a series of dimly lit environments. The visual upgrade effectively means that you get to see the hideous, “realistic” wetsuit-style costume revisions in painful detail during in-game cutscenes. While the seams on Captain America’s mask look gorgeous (providing you have a fetish for that sort of thing), that doesn’t explain why Black Widow looks like she slept on a hot plate in her facial close-ups.

The voice acting in the game is atrocious, both in content and delivery. My wife was sitting next to me on the couch as I played, and her sighs of disgust were all too noticible whenever Captain America or Iron Man indulged in such gems of incidental dialogue as “I wear the flag…so I can’t LOSE!” She eventually began tossing in ones of her own: “Boy, that Toby Keith is swell!” “I got paid five dollars to record four lines!” “This will make the geeks laugh!”

The biggest issue I have with UA2 is carried over from my problems with the Civil War story arc that inspired the game’s plot. For better or worse, the superhero genre is predicated on certain liberties (scientific, logical, legal, political) designed to facilitate the suspension of disbelief in regards to traditionally puerile material. Like most creative rules, they are not etched in stone, and they can be shaped and honed by skilled hands in order to present works of greater sophistication than the baseline “hero punches out villain.”

While the conventions are played around with, or dispensed with entirely, there has to be some thoughtful consideration for the consequences, as was done with Watchmen. If you are going to toss in certain “realistic” aspects, you have to be willing and prepared to follow them to their logical (as pertains to the fictional universe) end, or risk the story’s collapse via self-contradiction. That level of craft and forethought is rare, however, and the usual course of action these days is to simply graft some “edgy” content onto the existing edifice and muddle onward from there. Whether grimly retrofitting decades old silliness as therapy for one’s self-loathing fandom or playing a publisher-sanctioned game of “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if Spider-Man had radioactive jizz?” the end results are not so much “mature” but an adolescent’s flawed idea of what maturity entails.

So it was with Civil War, a successful but utterly vapid attempt to shoehorn the political implications of the so-called War on Terror into a massive free-for-all between Marvel’s roster of spandex-clad caricatures. Presented as an internal conflict over government registration of superhumans, the story got so caught up in platitudes and punching and melodramatic wank that it missed the grotty can of worms it inadvertently opened, that concept of superhuman vigilantes — as either free agents or government stooges — is a pretty fucking creepy one once you toss aside genre conditioning and actually think about it.

Civil War, in effect, opened up the sausage factory for public view while carrying on as normal, with the assumption that the reader was simply experiencing another temporary turn of the status quo wheel. Ultimate Alliance 2, not as beholden to the vagaries of serialized stories, didn’t have to worry too much about those lasting effects, though it does do a fine job in portraying Marvel’s greatest heroes as a bunch of self-righteous assholes. The game does dip deeply into another unfortunate (and outright embarrassing) aspect of the source material in that it repeatedly attempts to evoke parallels between the superheroic civil war and post-9/11 America.

If the choice of achievement titles wasn’t inane enough…

…there are also lovely mock news reports, a president with a prominently displayed flag pin, ample justifications given for preemptive wars, and a poignant cut scene where Captain America and Iron Man are picking through the rubble caused by a terrorist attack on Manhattan, and in the foreground there’s a firetruck with “911″ prominently displayed on its side.

I honestly don’t think right wing politics (apart from the crypto-conservatism inherent in the genre) even played a part in any of this nonsense, just a glib and shallow and ultimately (no pun intended) self-defeating bid for some vague sense of relevance. Somehow, that’s even more depressing, not just in regards to Ultimate Alliance 2, but the current state of the superhero genre in general.

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2 Responses to “Ultimately nowhere”

  1. Dave Lartigue

    So they’re using the rare, little-known definition of “alliance” in which brother fights against brother.

  2. CJ

    I do believe right-wing politics have played a part in this. Activision has made no secret of their borderline offensive political leanings and contempt for customers for only paying 60 dollars for new releases when the dull-eyed thralls should pay more to worship at the throne of pure capitalism. I think that when a company is that flagrant about being awful, things like those achievement points are no mistake.

    Red Faction Guerrilla did the same thing though, but the entire thing was too focused on Fucking Shit Up to come across as the developers actually making a point.

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