Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 forgets the small things from its past

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While the core gameplay in the latest Marvel game is strong and surprisingly addictive, Ultimate Alliance 3 lacks some of the little joys and quirks that came with its predecessors.

Look, I love superheroes — especially when it comes to Marvel. A fanboy like myself (and a devilishly handsome one, I might add) hardly needed any convincing to pick up Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Its reveal at last year’s edition of The Game Awards was a genuine surprise, considering it’d been nearly a decade since the second game was released, and it sent me into an anaphylactic shock. Not only were the Ultimate Alliance games a favorite of my superhero-loving self growing up, but so were the often-underrated X-Men Legends titles from earlier before. A sequel had me, as the kids (I think?) say, stoked.

Now having played the game for a considerable amount of time, I do admit that Ultimate Alliance 3 is incredibly fun from a gameplay perspective. The combat may be streamlined much more than its predecessors, but it somehow manages to work and feels satisfying as any beat-em-up I’ve played in years. I love grinding out experience points and leveling up all of these characters that I’ve grown to love so much, and even some I’ve never heard of. Who in the world is Elsa Bloodthorne and why had I never heard of her until now? She is rad.

However, Ultimate Alliance 3 is a reminder of one of my personal pet peeves in video games: When sequels disregard the small things.

You see, a lot of times in my gaming career I’ve come across sequels to franchises that — especially if it’s one that had lain dormant for a while — have some features or gimmicks missing, even if they’re can be seemingly superficial ones. Unlike the previous entries in the series, including X-Men Legends, Ultimate Alliance 3 has a litany of nuances and features that are nowhere to be found.

One of my favorite parts of the original Ultimate Alliance was the variety of costumes that you could unlock for each character. But on top of just cosmetic changes, each suit for every character actually gave you different stat boosts. My beloved Spider-Man, for example, had his symbiote suit that gave you the ability to increase his health, critical damage, and defense. The scarlet spider suit could let you increase his web damage, experience gained, and defense. In Ultimate Alliance 3, it’d be a stretch to call the unlockable costumes “costumes”, as they’re almost entirely just simple color-palette swaps.

In general, the upgrading system — while shockingly addictive and engaging in its own right — feels uninspired compared to previous games. Instead of different equipment with Marvel references, everything boils down to ISO-8 crystals that boost basic stat lines. As a frequent player of fantasy sports, I recognize there’s fun to be had with numbers, but having more zany and unique collectibles rather than generic crystals is more appetizing. That also goes for other collectibles, which could have been far more tantalizing if there had been much beyond some concept art and character bios done through the eyes of the Guardians of the Galaxy (which are admittedly entertaining).

Where are the aforementioned costumes? What about comic book covers? Heck, I’d even take some more backgrounds for the title screen.

The game feels far more derivative than previous titles, and that’s saying a lot considering they were hardly the open-world sort of affair. Everything is far more linear, and there isn’t even a hub world for you to unwind in between your next major step forward in the story.

Gone are the days of exploring the X-Mansion, or other famous locales like Avengers Tower or Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Even, devastatingly, there aren’t any trivia games. Rather, the variety of environments and worlds you’ll venture to in Ultimate Alliance 3  feel like a missed opportunity. Perhaps this is expecting too much, but one could argue we might be too accepting of the bare minimum.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a fine game; sometimes it even manages to be excellent. Maybe these small gripes are a sign of ungratefulness or even a delusional critique from a fanboy that cares too much about trivial features. But it feels like this is the sign of a game that was holding back.

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There was the potential to go all-in, but it stopped itself before taking a chance at trying something more grand and risky. I’m having tons of fun with it, yet I can’t dismiss its shortcomings. I wanted the ultimate full-course meal of Marvel nerdiness, but I only managed to get a dish of perfectly safe appetizers.