In 2004, Raven Software surprised a lot of people with X-Men Legends, an action role-playing game focusing on the exploits of Marvel's mutant superheroes. The Diablo-style gameplay was a significant departure for Raven, a developer best known for its extensive work on first-person shooters. Perhaps more surprising was the game's success in introducing action RPG conventions to the world of superheroes, a fairly novel combination at the time. It proved to be a winning formula, one that Raven further refined with last year's X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. Not content with the localized struggles of the X-Men, the concept has been blown out to an intergalactic, interdimensional scale with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. With more than 20 unique playable heroes; a massive campaign that features a wide variety of well-known Marvel Universe villains, supporting characters, and locations; and plenty of hidden extras, it's the biggest piece of Marvel fan service seen in a video game. It also builds upon a lot of the gameplay systems established in the X-Men Legends games, making for an experience that's deeper, longer lasting, and generally more satisfying.
Ominous deeds are afoot right from the start in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Dr. Doom has brought together a coalition of supervillains under the Masters of Evil name, whose first act is to attack a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. An opposing coalition of superheroes quickly comes to the aid of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, who takes command of the situation and coordinates the superheroes as they continue to track Doom and his minions across the universe and into different dimensions. The sheer quantity of Marvel supervillains you'll face on your quest to defeat Dr. Doom is genuinely staggering. Heavy hitters like Ultron, the Mandarin, Mephisto, Loki, and Galactus all play major roles, but there's still room for lower-profile villains like M.O.D.O.K., Fin Fang Foom, Arcade, Grey Gargoyle, Blackheart, Super Skrull, and literally dozens of others. There are a couple of truly excellent twists and turns, and the story does a good job of concealing the true nature of Dr. Doom's plans until just the right moment. Some of the finer points, such as the excess of long-winded expository speeches in between levels, don't stand up to close scrutiny so well, but the narrative is successful in keeping the game moving at a fast clip.
Your starting lineup in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance consists of Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, but after a few levels playing with these heroes, you're given the option to create your own custom team. At first you'll have about 18 different heroes to choose from, and they represent a good cross-section of high-profile heroes and more obscure fan favorites. Old-schoolers like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and several X-Men are there, as are a number of heroes who are likely unknown to those who don't keep up with comics, such as Moon Knight, Luke Cage, Spider-Woman, and Deadpool. As you progress you'll run into other heroes such as Blade, Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider, and the Silver Surfer, who will in turn join the cause. Part of the fun of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is the sheer variety of places the game takes you. While the X-Men Legends games seemed stuck mostly in dungeonlike corridors and sewers and such, here you'll visit some of the most spectacular and mythical locations in the Marvel Universe, including Mephisto's Realm, Asgard, Mandarin's palace, the Skrull homeworld, and, finally, Dr. Doom's sinister Latverian castle. Many of the environments really do look as if they came straight out of a comic book.
The basics of the gameplay should be perfectly familiar by now to fans of hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers like Diablo, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, or Raven's own X-Men Legends games. Commanding a group of four superheroes, you'll fight your way through swarms of enemies, becoming more powerful and gaining new abilities and the occasional piece of gear along the way. From the get-go, everyone can perform a handful of straight-up melee combos. There are a few details that give the basic combat some depth beyond simple button mashing, such as the ability to disarm enemies and grapple with them and enemies that are only susceptible to specific attacks. Pulling the right trigger gives you access to a number of your hero's special powers, and these special powers, along with, for example, the ability of flight when appropriate, play a big part in giving each hero a unique feel. As different as the abilities can look and feel, most can be easily slotted into a handful of categories. There are melee attacks, radial attacks, projectile attacks, beam attacks, individual and team boosts, and high-powered "xtreme" attacks that you can only trigger after your usually slow-filling momentum meter reaches capacity. Save for the Silver Surfer, who seems stymied by the terranean nature of the gameplay, the heroes feel quite comparable to their ink-and-paper counterparts.
Though you have little control over how your heroes' basic stats (like health and energy) increase, with each new level you're given skill points that you can put toward special powers. Each hero has eight or more special powers in an arsenal, though many of them are inaccessible until you reach certain experience plateaus. You can also use cold, hard cash that you pick up by beating enemies and smashing crates to purchase points, though they start off pricey and become exponentially more so as you progress. Each hero also has three alternate costumes that you can unlock, which not only can drastically affect the hero's appearance, but also come with a unique set of bonuses that you can pay to increase. Defeating significant villains and finding special treasure chests will usually net you a piece of performance-enhancing equipment. Usually any hero can use any gear you happen upon, though it never shows up on their person, and there are also lots of rare pieces of gear that only specific heroes can use.
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.