Did you happen to read the Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 preview that Wez wrote last month? He got awfully excited, raving and gibbering and generally acting like a bit of a Stan Lee fanboy. The thing is, it's an understandable reaction: if you have even a passing interest in the Marvel Universe, this game is like a hefty dose of comic book catnip. It has 24 superheroes in its line-up of playable characters, a truckload more appearing in supporting roles, and the Fusion System - a gameplay mechanic that allows you to team-up for special attacks. And since you've got four heroes in play at any given moment there's plenty of scope for some superb team attacks.
While I'm personally something of a lightweight when it comes to Marvel fandom, I have to admit that I really got swept away during my first hands-on with MUA2. The gameplay is simple and easy to jump straight into, yet it also offers just enough variety to lend the action a bit of depth. Throw in oodles of destruction, a dash of Havoc-based physics and a plot culled from the Marvel Civil War storyline, and you've got the perfect recipe for an excellent action game. That may not sound terribly ambitious, but considering how frequently people cock-up this kind of outing (we're looking at you, GI Joe), it's a real pleasure to see it done right.
Ultimate Alliance 2 starts with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Nick Fury leading a small-scale assault of Latveria - the tiny European state that belongs to Doctor Doom. Mr Fury's actions are completely illegal, but he's got suspicions that the country's current Prime Minister, Lucia Von Bardas, has been selling high-tech weaponry to villains in the US (hmmm, is that an allegory I can smell?). Fury's aim is to open a can of whoop-ass on Von Bardas and the Tinkerer - the evil genius who's been buying the weapons. The whole episode serves as an introduction to the game and its features, climaxing with a major battle with the Tinkerer.
Initially the player is limited to using a quartet that comprises of Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine. Since these four heroes are among the most popular on the Marvel roster, I doubt there will be any complaints about this, but in any case you're soon given the option to add new characters to your team. You may be joined by AI controlled allies (Nick Fury being one example) but whatever the situation, you'll always have a team of four heroes - and if you're playing alone, you'll be able to skip between them as you like. Each character has a light and heavy melee attack, plus a jump and a grab button. While everyone has these basic moves, they're handled in slightly different ways. The Thing is strong enough that he lifts up throwable objects with one stony hand, while most other heroes have to use both arms; Spider-Man will sometimes swing on strand of web when he double-jumps, while Iron Man can fly and hover above the battle.
In addition to these basic attacks, each hero has two super abilities that are triggered by holding the left trigger and tapping a face button. As you might expect, these moves are more closely tied to the traits of each character. Spider-Man starts out with a ranged move that shoots globs of web from his wrist, and a crowd-clearing attack that uses his spray as a kind of makeshift club; The Thing gets a sort of clapping maneuver that works well against single targets, and a jumping stomp that makes short work of crowds. Initially there are only two powers for each hero to use, but as you progress through the game and level up you'll unlock new options. Every time you gain a level you'll earn a single XP point that can be used to boost your powers, and once you've done this to a certain extent they'll start to work more efficiently. The Human Torch has a move that initially scorches one enemy with a column of fire, but if you spend points on it you'll eventually unleash several pillars of flaming death.
With a choice of 24 playable characters, it's inevitable that you'll end up picking a few favorites. Even if you do end up focusing on a handful of people you like, the game will auto-level the characters you ignore - so if you suddenly feel like a changing things up halfway through the game, you won't be left with a gang of useless wimps. Vicarious Visions wants people to swap their teams about, so if you want to switch your line-up in the middle of a level, it'll take all of a few seconds to do so. Furthermore, the developer has included several "boost" pick-ups that beef up the abilities of your selected quartet. You can only have a few of these active at any given time, but clearly some will encourage you to use specific characters. If you find a boost that increases damage for fire, you'll be tempted to summon The Human Torch; if you find something that perks up your melee attacks, why not bring out the Hulk?
As I've said, the nice thing about all these variables is that they lend a hint of depth to proceedings without getting in the way of the action. In play MUA 2 is a frantic and chaotic affair, filling the screen with dozens of characters beating the living hell out of each other. I've not really touched on the Fusion attacks in this preview as Wez covered it in detail last time, but it's worth repeating that these team-up moves look really spectacular. Like so much else in the game, it seems that Vicarious Visions has found the perfect balance in terms of how these attacks are used: you have to build up a meter with standard combat before you earn a Fusion, and you can only have a maximum of two stored at any given time. This setup ensures that the supermoves happen fairly often, but not with such regularity that they become mundane.
It's this kind of smart thinking that makes me feel very optimistic for MUA 2. Yes, at a basic level this is a game about smashing stuff up, moving to the next area and doing it all again - but underneath the hood there seems to be an awful lot of smart design. For example, the game rewards you for playing well: during fusion attacks, a mini-challenge might spring up with a quick bonus goal; if you then manage to take down 10 out of 10 enemies, you'll win yourself a token that can be used to revive downed characters. Each hero also has their own set of goals that must be met to unlock new content, so once you kill 50 enemies with The Hulk in close combat, you'll receive a new costume for him to wear. And If you're playing with friends online (surely one of the best ways to experience the game) and you pause to upgrade your stats, the AI will take over your character while you're fiddling about in the menus.
All of these features will make MUA 2 a smoother and more rewarding experience, but it's the character list and Civil War storyline that will draw in the fans. As I said earlier, I'm no Marvel expert, but to my untrained eye it looks like the game is getting all the details right. I particularly like the taunts and comments that the characters make as they go about their violent business. "My spider sense tells me you're a loser!" cries Spidey as he beats down yet another hapless guard. That may be so, but my journo sense tells me that Activision may have a winner.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is scheduled for release later this year on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, PSP and Nintendo DS.