I think most people have a favourite super hero, or at least a favourite set of super heroes. For lots of people my age it's X-Men, simply because of the great cartoon series that was on TV every morning before school. The great thing about Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is that it'll please the majority of super hero fans - that is unless you happen to favour anyone from DC Comics or one of the few characters from the Marvel stable that isn't included. No matter, in a world where every man and his dog has a comic book license of some sort, it's a miracle that Activision managed to bring together such a great collection.
Ultimate Alliance is essentially a fairly simple beat 'em up with some basic RPG elements thrown in. Dr. Doom has gathered together an impressive collection of super villains for a dastardly plan, and it's up to the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guys) to stop him. The baddies really are a varied bunch, with well-known villains such as Ultron and the Mandarin being joined by lesser characters such as Arcade and Grey Gargoyle. It's an impressive line-up in anyone's book.
You, and the rest of your four-man team, kick, punch and super power through a series of levels, taking out generic goon after goon, and then tackling bigger boss-like characters who are working for Doom - the biggest bosses look spectacular and even make use of a QTE system where you need to hit buttons that flash up on the screen. You can switch between each character in your team on the fly, and each has a selection of special moves that can be used to unleash extra damage on the enemy.
The game is a clear extension of what Raven did with the X-Men Legends games, but the variety of environments on offer in Ultimate Alliance is much better. You still get to trawl through some fairly dingy looking areas, but they're joined by some pretty fantastic looking environments, such as Atlantis and the Skrull homeworld. It would have been nice for the background images to have looked a little sharper, but they're only really noticeable when you look for them, and don't detract from the action packed gameplay.
Developer Raven Software has done an excellent job at making the RPG element to the game fairly transparent for people that aren't interested in it. As you progress your characters will level up and earn points which can be used on new powers, items and costumes, and coins you pick up can also be used to buy points. You can choose to handle this manually if you like, but the game does a pretty decent job of automatically spending points if you tell it to. Fairly early on in the game you'll get to form a team. Teams that stick together earn reputation points, which make the unit more effective.
Although there are more than 140 Marvel heroes in the game, the actual playable list isn't nearly that big, and comes in at just above 20. It's by no means a bad list, with the likes of Wolverine, the Fantastic 4, Spider-Man, Thor, and Captain America being plenty big enough to carry the game. The team roster system lets you switch members around if you feel like it, but after a while you'll probably grow to like the four that you've played most of the game with. Losing a team member at the hands of a villain isn't pleasant, but fallen comrades can be revived at save locations set up at various points in each level.
When playing alone you can have a great time as the combat is simple, but enjoyable, and you have some basic control over your team mates, but it's with friends that the game really comes to life. Four players can play on a single console, dropping in and out as they please, and there's even support for the same number over Xbox Live. It's not a co-op game in the same way that Rainbow Six: Vegas is, in that if your mate doesn't cover your back, you won't die, but playing with friends is still far more enjoyable.
When playing cooperatively you can choose to play with any spare slots being taken by computer controlled characters or with just human players. Xbox Live play wasn't significantly different to the offline experience, with lag very rarely being an issue. The big disappointment is that no more than one player can play on a single console when online. If you have a group of three playing on one system, this means that you can't simply hop online to recruit a final member, which is a shame.
Despite being released across current-gen and next-gen systems, Ultimate Alliance looks surprisingly good, although the PlayStation 2 version is definitely the least attractive of the bunch. On the 360 it's certainly clear that it's a current-gen game with a layer of polish slapped on it, but that polish makes it look pretty damn good. The lighting and special effects are where you'll see the next-gen power shine through, but sadly this seems to have come at a cost to performance. The frame rate in Ultimate Alliance on the Xbox 360 isn't too great, and often drops just below smooth, although not to the levels seen in the PlayStation 2 game.
Being based on comic book characters the over-the-top voice over work used in the game fits really well. All the lines are delivered with a straight face, but they're so forced it sounds like you're watching an 80's kid's TV show. The voice work combined with some excellent super hero music (if there is such a genre), makes for a brilliant sounding game. You'll often be treated to cutscenes to develop the story, but these can be pretty poor. The game's opening movie looks great, but others throughout the game look very ropey, and appear to be made using in-game assets.
If you're a fan of the X-Men Legends games that have appeared over the last few years you'll know what to expect from Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, but you'll probably still be surprised at how polished and lengthy the game is. Xbox 360 Achievement points are handled well too, rewarding players who put time and effort into the game, and a number of unlockables (including a hard mode that lets you import your beefed up team) are well worth playing for. Marvel fans shouldn't think twice about buying Ultimate Alliance, and anyone with a hankering for some multiplayer action should lap it up too.