It's hard to explain why Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is one of my most anticipated games of 2009 without sounding like a dribbling fanboy twit. Yes, I know it's not game of the year material, but there's something so overpoweringly appealing about it, so kinetically-charged playing cards and flying Norse Gods brilliant about it, that it has me more excited than Bizarre Creations' Blur and Raven Software's Singularity and Wolfenstein and pretty much anything else mega-publisher Activision's got up it's sleeve for the rest of the year. That's right. I'd rather play Vicarious Visions' MUA2 than Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2.
Call me stupid, call me dumb, call me whatever you like. I don't care. All I want to do is crush thousands of generic bad guys to smithereens, smash up hundreds of Havok physics-powered crates and fusion power the crap out of everything on the entire screen. I'm shallow, I know. But at least I'm honest.
And breathe - time to actually play the damn thing. The pre-alpha code on show here at Activision's UK office is ropey as hell. It's prone to crashes, loss of sound, glitches and loops, but none of those technical hiccups matter. One) they'll be gone for the final release, scheduled for this September, and two) I'm having too much fun spamming the game into oblivion with as many different fusion combinations as possible.
This, I imagine, will be the most fun thing about the game: Picking a character from the ever-growing roster of Marvel superheroes and villains and triggering fusion powers with each and every one of your four-man team just to see what happens. This is what I spent the majority of my time doing during my play test. This is what I call fun.
By pressing the left trigger you're able to select who you want to partner up with, then let fly. The game tells you what type of fusion power it is: whether it's a single-target power - useful for bosses, like Deadpool - continuous - useful for running around the map smashing into anything and everything that gets in your way - or area of effect fusion powers - mash buttons to make the AOE circle bigger and suck more enemies in. You can't spam them of course - fusion power needs to be built up over time, but it never takes too long to do so.
So, for example, when French (why wasn't he French in the Wolverine film?) X-Man Gambit and the hulking great, er... Hulk combine, the green-skinned monster rips a huge lump of concrete straight out of the ground and Gambit charges it with kinetic energy. Boom.
When the hammer-wielding Thor combines with occasionally psychotic X-babe Jean Grey, she sucks a bunch of enemies into a vortex of telekinetic power before the big man comes storming in with a powerful hammer blow. Kaboom.
Some are more inventive than others. Some are basically mild variants of the same thing. Juggernaut and Storm combine, for example, in much the same way that Gambit and Hulk do. Juggernaut rips a massive slab of concrete from the ground, which Storm electrifies. When Hulk combines with Jean Grey, she uses her telekinetic power to send another giant slab of the ground spiralling towards an unfortunate foe. Whatever they are though, they're all good fun, and usually spectacular to watch.
The controls are fiddly at first - there's just so much going on that it's hard to keep track of where you are and who you're supposed to be hitting. It doesn't matter much - the game's heavy on cannon fodder. There aren't many enemies that pose a threat, not during the opening two levels anyway. Mostly goons with guns, rocket launchers and mechs - all lambs to the great bad guy slaughter. It's almost as if the fusion powers aren't needed - basic light and heavy attacks, grabs and character specific powers serve well - but the fusions do speed up proceedings.
There's more to MUA2 than the fusion powers of course. While the game's the sequel to the 2006 original, there's no need to have played it to understand what's going on here. There are vague role-playing elements: during cutscenes you choose from three main dialogue types: aggressive, defensive and diplomatic. This doesn't change much in terms of plot (although if you play diplomatic you'll get Deadpool to join your party after the boss fight with him), but it does affect your bonus powers. Keep picking aggressive lines of chat and you'll boost your attacks, for example.
There's a plot, too. The game loosely follows the popular Marvel Civil War storyline. Military type Nick Fury invades Doctor Doom's back yard, a massive scrap between heroes and villains causes a huge explosion that kills hundreds of innocents, the government passes a restrictive act and you're able to choose between those in favour of registration and those who aren't. Some characters, like Iron Man and Mister Fantastic are locked to a side (in their case the pro-registration side), but others are playable on both, which should help replayability.
The big question to ask is, will the game get old as soon as you've seen all of the possible fusion powers? That Vicarious Visions is packing the game to bursting point with playable characters seems deliberately designed to stop this from happening. Will the core "move from area to area killing lots and lots of enemies in a decidedly linear fashion, with the occasional line of dialogue to choose from" gameplay be enough to keep things fun? Will my unadulterated perversion with all things Marvel paper over the game's inevitable failings? With only a month or so to wait till the game's release, answers are coming.
The way I see it, I'm not going in expecting the second coming. I'm going in expecting a summer blockbuster of a game, heavy on explosions, wanton destruction and more Marvel characters than any cross-over comic book series in history. Oh, and no-nonsense fun. I can't see the game failing to provide on all of those counts.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is due out in September for 360, PS3, Wii, Nintendo DS, PS2 and PSP.