I was such a mark for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 that as soon as it was announced, I knew I was going to own it. I didn’t need to see the trailer, the roster, any of it—just the name. MUA (and the X-Men Legends games, and Marvel Heroes when it was active) just… hit that sweet spot for me. Gauntlet-style play, Marvel (more specifically, X-Men) characters, powers and combos, I’m here for it. Every time.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

Team Ninja
Koei Tecmo
Nintendo Switch
July 19, 2019

That said… is it any good? Well, sort of. It hits the notes you want it to—you get a team of four active characters from a roster that spans the Marvel Universe, you move through largely linear environments taking apart hordes of grunts (Hand Ninja, Outriders, Raft prisoners, etc), you get certain synergy bonuses depending on how the characters in your party interact with one another. There are even alternate costumes! It’s all there, it’s just… still lacking, sort of? The first Marvel Ultimate Alliance had a total of 53 playable characters. Some of those were costume swaps—U.S. Agent for Captain America, Vengeance for Ghost Rider, that kind of thing. MUA2 had a grand total of 39, spread across the different platforms it was released on. MUA3, releasing 13 years later, has only 36 on release, although DLC will add another 14 over the next several months, for a total of 50. That’s a solid eventual roster, but the way that it’s structured means that many fan favorites are not available at launch. For instance, if you’re a Fantastic Four fan, you’re waiting until October at least—the first full DLC pack didn’t even drop until September 30th, and it was a Marvel Knights themed pack called Curse of the Vampire.

Ultimately (heh) that’s fine—50 characters is a lot to work with, and Nintendo’s DLC pricing structure means that a single pass will get you all of them. However, the thing about a game like this is that it’s targeted at a very specific audience, and that audience knows what they want. Reactions to the roster were certainly polarized, and it’s understandable. After all, while there are some popular new additions (like the Guardians of the Galaxy), who wants to buy a game at launch if your favorite character won’t drop until a full three months later? I share some of that disappointment as an avowed X-Men fan; while there are four X-Men characters available in the base game (no, Deadpool doesn’t count), to only have four to work with when the series originated in the X-Men franchise (MUA being an expansion upon the concepts originated in X-Men Legends) is discouraging. There’s probably a metaphor in the erasure of mutant contributions… no one tell Cyclops, he won’t shut up about it for ages.

An active team roster for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 consisting of the four X-Men available in the base game: Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Psylocke. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, Team Ninja, Nintendo, 2019.

This took way too long for my tastes!

Sure, the argument could be made that I can always play those other games if I want to play X-Men characters so badly, but again, the newest of those earlier iterations is 13 years old. It’s a significant step backward in graphical quality, gameplay experience, even consoles; while remastered editions of MUA 1 and 2 were made available on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows, they were also eventually removed from sale, so if you didn’t buy them during that period, you’re stuck playing older versions with console-locked characters.

This is a big aside for what is ultimately (heh) a minor complaint—as has been said, more characters are on the way, and in a bonus for yours truly, the first two were Colossus and Cyclops, two more X-Men characters, for free.

As for the gameplay itself? It’s exactly as expected, with some new twists—MUA3 leans into the concept first introduced in the Facebook game Marvel: Avengers Alliance, and builds part of the game around the existence of a special kind of unobtanium known as Isotope-8. Since its appearance in M:AA, Iso-8 (as it’s more commonly known) has been a general MacGuffin pursued in various game plots from Marvel Puzzle Quest to Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The Official Game. MUA3 uses it much like those earlier iterations—your side goal in the game is to collect it and use it to power up your characters. It should be noted that this is in addition to both the standard experience-based level-up mechanic and the FFX-style enhancement grid that also exist, for a grand total of three separate systems that all interact. It sounds like a complicated mess to deal with, but it’s really not—one is essentially automatic, and you’re introduced to the other two at different points in the game, with time to get used to each. Still, the game probably didn’t need three distinct systems.

The Shadowland level in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Characters are silhouetted against tall, flat-paned windows that reveal a deep blue-purple sky. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, Team Ninja, Nintendo, 2019.

The game briefly turns into a side-scroller for this sequence so that you can see the silhouetted characters against the backlighting. It’s pretty cool.

Another new feature added is in the combat system—instead of a straightforward brawler, MUA3 borrows from fighting games a bit, with stuns and juggle attacks. Unfortunately, when you’re first starting out, the game has a lot better handle on those than you do, which can certainly be a frustrating exercise, doubly so when it’s happening in the middle of a chaotic melee instead of a one-on-one fight. Beyond that, the game features synergy attacks, allowing you to execute combined power moves with two characters—I was hoping to see proper combos here, such as the infamous Fastball Special, but no such luck—the synergy attacks largely consist of two characters doing their individual, separate attacks at the same time, although the game does include Iron Man and Captain America doing the beam-refraction thing that originated in MUA2. Similarly, each character has an Ultimate attack, and you can trigger all four of them at the same time, leading to an “Ultimate Alliance EXTREME!” flashing across your screen, which consists of… four characters doing individual attacks that don’t function in any kind of tandem at all. Words mean things, folks! Don’t put “alliance” in the attack if that’s not what’s happening!

Gif of footage from the infamous cybergoth rave meme. Three dancers in fishnets and tripp pants do their own routines, completely out of sync.

Pictured: A Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 Ultimate Alliance EXTREME! Attack.

Other additions include an Iso-8 enhancement lab, where you can combine the Iso-8 crystals you find in the game and upgrade them into more powerful versions, and the Infinity Trials, which are specific sections of the main game you can play at higher difficulties, with certain listed restrictions and objectives. Completing these with a satisfactory rank will give you additional XP items, points to spend on your team enhancements, and ultimately (HAH), access to MUA’s other major classic feature: alternate costumes.

Here come the other two major criticisms I have with the game: first, the available alternate costumes at launch are simple palette-swap version of the characters’ primary costumes. Supposedly this is a feature that will be improved upon by DLC, but it’s still pretty disappointing to see. Alternate costumes were a big draw in the former MUA games because it meant you could access specific versions of characters—you could dress Spider-Man in his symbiote costume, for instance, or switch Thing into his blue briefs instead of the more modern pants and boots look. The other major thing this feature accomplished was to add entirely new characters into the game—for instance,  the aforementioned U.S. Agent, or Scarlet Spider, or even Beta Ray Bill. It made an already impressive roster even more robust, and when I heard that alternate costumes would be making a return, the expectations were set high. Not only were those expectations not met, but to see the release product miss the mark by such a wide margin really feels like a step backward.

Black Widow's white and silver alternate costume for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, Team Ninja, Nintendo, 2019.

Nothing says Black Widow like… dressing her entirely in white?

The other primary issue is with the balancing of the Infinity Trials themselves; they are level-scaled, so you’ll need to be at certain level thresholds to even think of attempting them. The issue with that is that the thresholds are generally high enough that it’s not worth attempting many of them until after you’ve finished the primary game, and if you’ve already done that, then what’s the motivation for more XP items, or the few unlockable characters that are only available in that mode? I suppose it’s fine if you’re the type of person to replay a game on successively harder difficulties until you have everything, but first, I’m not, and second, the story mode itself doesn’t really offer enough to make a replay enticing. As it is, I’ve completed that story, my highest leveled character is only level 45, and I’ve only completed a portion of the first Infinity Trials section. If I complete the rest of the trials at all, it won’t be until the DLC releases—I simply don’t have any motivation until then.

It sounds like I’m being overly harsh, and maybe I am! The truth is, despite all of this, I actually really enjoyed the game! It was a fun return to a genre that hasn’t seen an update in a while, it was a welcome chance to play as new characters that weren’t in the earlier games in the series (and in some cases, like Kamala Khan and Miles Morales, didn’t even exist then), and it has an aesthetic that’s a lot more attractive than those older games, which certainly haven’t aged well, graphically. I guess you could say that ultimately (HAHAHAHA) it’s a pretty fun purchase, though it might be worth waiting until you have access to those DLCs for the full experience.