You don't need to be a comic book geek to know that Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is a lot of fun. Mashing on buttons to make the screen erupt with sparkling superpowers and flashy martial arts squirms into the pleasure center of the brain, and once you succumb to the innate delights, it's hard to tear yourself away. For better and for worse, this sequel to 2006's action role-playing game is highly reminiscent of its predecessor: it's packed with heroes and villains culled from the Marvel Universe, brims with button-tapping glee, and suffers from occasional and annoying technical idiosyncrasies. Its improvements to the formula can't be ignored, however. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is easier to look at and features an intriguing character dialogue component. It also ties the heroic crew together with a much more intriguing story based on the Marvel Civil War miniseries, though comic fans should note that it takes more than a few liberties with that narrative. This isn't a groundbreaking game, but it's an enjoyable and replayable one.
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The first half-hour of the game introduces you to all you'll need to know to get you through. From an isometric camera view, you lead a team of four Marvel stars through hordes of expendable henchmen and glowering robots, occasionally taking detours to solve simple puzzles and bash on the villains standing between you and fist-pumping victory. You lead one hero at a time, while the AI and/or other players, online or off, control the other three. Regardless of which heroes and antiheroes from the roster of about two dozen you choose to take along, they can all string two types of melee attacks into combos, grab various objects and enemies to throw around, and perform four superpowers limited only by a quick-recharging power meter. While each controls more or less the same, there's a good amount of variety among the heroes. Storm can fly and knock down multiple foes at a time with a gust of wind; Venom's tongue can lash about, doing damage to any nearby enemies; and Iceman can call forth an eruption of ice to impale villains from underneath. Whether you're on your own or with buddies, the action is good, laid-back fun.
However, not all the characters are created equal. They're all fairly balanced, but that doesn't make them all correspondingly fun to play. The Invisible Woman's debuffs can be helpful, but she's not as viscerally appealing as Wolverine, with his dramatic clawing, or Deadpool, whose well-rounded powerset and self-referential one-liners make him consistently satisfying to use. However, ceaseless button mashing can make even the best characters tiresome, especially once you've discovered effective patterns that you can keep spamming again and again. Fortunately, you can change easily to another character not controlled by another player and switch unlocked heroes in and out of your active crew on the fly. If you're on your own, you'll be pleased to know that the AI often does a good enough job of taking care of the characters not in your control, using powers frequently and choosing enemies wisely. That isn't always the case, though. Every so often, you'll glimpse AI-driven heroes wandering about but contributing nothing to the chaos, and as in the first game, they might get stuck on objects or stutter about in an animation loop until they break free.
The most notable additions to the action are fusion powers. As you damage enemies, you fill up a fusion meter, and once it's charged up, you can initiate a two-hero fusion attack. There are several types of attacks, depending on the two heroes involved in the fusion. Guided attacks, like the fire-and-ice beam created by Iceman and the Human Torch, let you maneuver the pair about the screen, zapping any foes unlucky enough to get caught in their elemental stream. Clearing attacks, appropriately, clear the immediate area of baddies, such as the laser deflection that Iron Man and Captain America perform. Different fusions come in handy at different times, but many of them are absolutely fantastic to watch, like any of those featuring Storm's whirlwind. Various combinations of heroes don't all make for singular fusions, however. Storm-plus-Gambit is essentially the same fusion as Storm-plus-Spiderman--one throws cards into the cyclone, while one spews webbing into it. The repetition among fusions is disappointing, especially if you tend to stick to the same one or two characters, but fusions are probably the best part of the game: most look fantastic and colorful, they do a lot of damage, and you don't have to be stingy with them.
Man of iron, man of ice: making one sweet fusion.