It would seem that there would be a bit of a conundrum in having an RPG-style experience system with such a huge cast of characters. You'd think that any hero who isn't constantly a part of your active team would become useless after the first level. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance addresses this smartly by artificially increasing the experience levels of nonactive heroes as your active team progresses. Nonactive heroes will usually be about one full experience level behind your active heroes, which is just enough that, should you choose to swap in a hero that you haven't used before, they'll still be tough enough to keep up. Perhaps most interesting about the whole hero customization system in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is the fact that few of your choices are permanent. Though you can't take back any money spent, any skill points you've earned or purchased can be redistributed to different special powers at the drop of a hat. Additionally, if all of this talk of skill points and team boosts seems boring or confusing to you and you're just interested in beating up lots of bad guys, you'll love that the game handles all character customization by default.
Who you choose as teammates can earn you unique performance enhancements.
Beyond the individual heroes, the actual team building plays an interesting role in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. When you're initially given the choice to create a team, you can either pick a prefab group such as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, or you can pick four heroes of your liking to create a custom team. You can swap in other heroes as you please, but by playing with heroes that have been designated as a part of your team, your team gains reputation points that can be used to infer specific bonuses on the team. Playing with heroes who aren't designated as part of your team will reduce reputation, though if you stick with your initial team of four for a while, you'll be able to add additional heroes to the team. Separate from the team reputation system, who you choose for your team can earn you yet another stat bonus. Some of them are obvious. For example, you'll get an X-Men boost for playing with mutants, and a Fantastic Four bonus for playing with Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and The Thing. Alternately, if you play with, say, Captain America, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Spider-Man, you'll get a New Avengers bonus, while playing with all female characters will earn you a Femme Fatale bonus. Juggling specific heroes' skill points, gear, and costumes, as well as your team reputation points and roster-specific team bonuses, can be overwhelming at times, but this also facilitates a great amount of flexibility for those who seek it.
The amount of crate and barrel smashing that you'll do in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is discouraging, but the game does a lot to keep the action interesting and varied. There are a few puzzles that you'll have to solve while simultaneously wailing on villains, though they have a tendency to alternate between painfully obvious and excessively obscured. There's no shortage of boss battles, the best of which incorporate Resident Evil 4-style real-time cutscenes that prompt you to press specific face buttons in order to successfully attack the enemy. The mechanics of these sequences are rarely difficult to pull off, but they make moments like your confrontation with Galactus satisfying and memorable. The game is also unafraid to indulge in the occasional gameplay tangent, which is no more apparent than when you face the villain Arcade in his ominously named amusement park Murderworld, which finds your heroes engaging in video game and carnival activities in rather unexpected ways. You can play Marvel: Ultimate Alliance by yourself, allowing the computer to pick up the slack with the three heroes you're currently not controlling. You can instantly assume control of a different team member with the D pad, and holding the left trigger gives you access to some basic team behavior controls. The artificial intelligence can generally hold its own, but it doesn't always listen to orders and can act a bit buggy at times. For a better experience, you can have other, real-life players take control at any point for some satisfying cooperative play, which holds true regardless of whether the other players are playing on the same system or over the Internet.
Another fun distraction is the way you can earn experience points in between missions by correctly answering Marvel-themed trivia questions. The trivia questions range from relative basics, like which newspaper Peter Parker works for, to obscure details, like the name of Fin Fang Foom's home planet. There's no time limit for answering questions, making it easy enough to hit up the Internet for answers, and you'll find that you can find the answers to most questions by chatting up non-player characters in the game. Still, it's a nice touch for fans to see just how much they really know about comics.
Seamless cooperative play makes it easy for others to jump in.
Even if you choose to ignore the numerous side missions that you'll be presented with along the way, it'll easily take you a good 15 or 20 hours to play through Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and it's a good ride from start to finish. The game gives you the sense that you can affect how the story ends by certain decisions you make, but these choices are usually pretty superficial, and not really worth playing through the entire game again for. The unlockable hard mode is much more attractive since you can import the buffed-up team you already beat the game with. Beyond being a well-made and accessible action RPG, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance really captures the essence of the Marvel Universe, a pretty incredible feat considering the breadth of the source material, though there are just enough omissions to easily justify a sequel. This is simply a must-have for Marvel fans, though the action itself remains satisfying enough for those in search of a good dungeon-crawl to enjoy.