Vicarious Visions' upcoming Marvel: Ultimate Alliance for the PSP is the portable version of the console game of the same name. The game follows in the footsteps of Vicarious' last PSP game, X-Men Legends II, another slick counterpart to a console game. MUA is the evolution of the winning formula that's been used in the X-Men Legends games. It plays up the character progression and item collection elements seen in those games and tosses in some nice customization touches. The veteran developer has proven to be more than just a port house and has consistently delivered some smart conversions and expansions of games on other platforms. Given the developer's ambitious nature and its track record, we've been excited to see what Vicarious has in store for its latest PSP game.
We wound up playing through a sampling of levels taken from different parts of the game that let us check out several members of the game's cast of 20-plus playable characters. For those keeping a running tally of the combatants, we tried Iceman, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, Thor, Thing, Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Wolverine, Electra, Ghost Rider, Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer, Captain America, and Spider-Man. Each hero featured its own unique moves and abilities, and if you use the right combination of heroes, they can wind up being excellent complements to one another.
We were able to check out a whopping 10 levels in the game, which showed off the eclectic cast of characters being assembled for the adventure, running the gamut from playable characters to cameos. The first two levels we tried were on the now-familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier level at the start of the game and again found Cap, Spidey, Thor, and Wolvie responding to an SOS from Nick Fury.
The first level ended with our taking on the Scorpion, while the second part of the helicarrier level pitted us against Bullseye. There wasn't much new content in the level, which we've played a few times now on the other consoles the game is appearing on. The big difference from our previous play-throughs is that the level now contains a number of small polish tweaks that show off hints on how to play.
The next set of three levels we tried found our superteam going proactive and trying to take out the villainous Mandarin. As a card-carrying villain, he seems like a logical choice to be a part of Dr. Doom's newly reformed Masters of Evil, who are set up as the game's protagonists in the helicarrier level. The levels offer a change of pace from the airborne madness of a helicarrier under siege by villainous robots, and they find you exploring the Mandarin's fortress and dealing with his henchmen, many of which are animated statues. The first Mandarin level led to a confrontation with the Grey Gargoyle, a lesser-known villain in the Marvel universe, who's a pain thanks to his ability to temporarily turn you to stone. The second Mandarin level had us crossing paths with everyone's favorite sorcerer supreme, Dr. Strange, who we unlocked as a playable character. The last Mandarin level had us facing off against the villain who wielded his trademark rings, each of which has a unique and annoying ability to cause trouble.
The Mandarin's Asian-themed castle was a sharp contrast to the next area we played, the always troublesome Arcade's Murderworld. For those unfamiliar with the red-haired villain, Arcade is essentially a hired hit man who uses a lethally booby-trapped amusement park, the aforementioned Murderworld, to take out his targets. The levels had a whimsical but deadly tone to them as circus-themed foes came out of the woodwork to try to kill our heroes. The first level ends with MUA's quartet of heroes attempting to free the X-Men's Jean Grey from Arcade's control (and features a very awesome retro game we'll share in a bit), which leads to a fight against the powerful psychic. The second Murderworld level takes place in one of Arcade's signature Murderworld locales, a giant pinball machine, and features the Shocker and Rhino as your adversaries.
The next level, which took place in Mephisto's realm, offered a decidedly satanic change of pace from the previous levels. For those unfamiliar with the big M, Mephisto is an entity of pure evil, often mistaken for the devil, who wields vast mystic powers and has his very own mystic realm chock-full of slaves. The evil creature's mystic dimension was heavy on the supernatural and ended with a choice to free either Nightcrawler or Jean Grey (who's apparently a "damsel in distress" in MUA).
The next to last level we played featured a boss fight against Ymir the frost giant. The tall one should be familiar to fans of Thor and Norse mythology, as should his icy realm of Niflheim. The claustrophobic battle had our team of tiny heroes taking on the massive ice-club-wielding brute as they were cornered in a section of frozen forest in the realm.
The final level we played was a not-so-scenic tour of the Skrull homeworld, which was currently being "tenderized" by the devourer of worlds, Galactus, the scariest dude in a purple headdress you're likely to ever meet. Though we'd seen the level before in an early state when we got our first look at the game, the run for survival through the streets of the alien world as Galactus does his best Godzilla impressions has been polished up quite a bit--though it's still very tough to not get fried when he starts flinging beams.
The sampling of levels gave us a chance to get a better feel for MUA's tweaking of the X-Men legends formula. The game follows the same basic structure as the Legends games with some small fixes to make the experience more streamlined. You'll still use a hub that houses a variety of familiar faces from the Marvel universe, which will offer different services such as info and side missions. In addition, you'll be able to edit your gang of four as you open up more characters and costumes. The costumes have turned into one of the most interesting aspects of the game with the way the new leveling system works. As before, you'll earn experience that will level you up and let you assign points to your character's powers. However, new additions to the character-enhancing mix are the abilities you can buff up, which are specific to a hero's costume. As you play, you'll eventually unlock three additional outfits for each hero. The costumes will have unique attributes--such as enhanced defense, health, or other buffs--that will vary widely, offering serious alterations to your character's stats. Better still is how Vicarious and Raven have used the feature to further bulk up the game's roster of heroes. While the game does have a set number of playable heroes you can unlock, the costumes offer some slick variations that amount to whole new characters. For example, one of Thor's "costumes" is in fact a Beta Ray Bill skin that remakes the Norse god into his alien homie. We'll obviously be shot dead if we say too much, but suffice it to say, if you've been following recent Marvel events like Civil War, you'll be very pleased by the heroes in MUA. Better still, there are some very cool classic folks thrown into the mix as well.
In addition to the core game mechanics, Vicarious has made sure to toss in all the cool extra modes Raven is including in the other versions, such as an arcade-style mode where you'll compete with friends for the most points and a bit of retro action. As we mentioned earlier, you'll find a cool extra in Arcade's Murderworld in the form of an arcade game you can play. The game is a new spin on Activision's classic Pitfall. The visuals look exactly the same when you play it, with one twist: Amid the blocky sprites on the simple backgrounds you'll notice that the "Pitfall Harry" you're guiding is actually a smoothly animating stick-figure representation of one of your team, complete with enhanced abilities depending on the hero. For example, Iron Man can float briefly, which is handy for flying over snapping crocodiles (we'd prefer the ability to repulsor their heads off, but so it goes).
As with X-Men Legends II, Vicarious has gone to town when it comes to packing the PSP game with exclusive content to make it a unique experience in its own right. To that end, the game is rocking a host of cool stuff. You'll find four characters unique to the PSP game and 10 exclusive comic-book missions. You'll find new, exclusive modes, such as hardcore heroes and hardcore team, which challenge you to go through the game with a single hero or set of heroes that can't be revived, so once they fall in battle, they're out of the picture. Another new mode is uber mode, where you're given a level-99 hero and sent off to tear through the game, which isn't as easy as you might think. To prove your mad hero skills are on point, the game will offer online stat tracking, so you can see how you stack up against players from across the continent. The stat tracking is just part of the game's ambitious suite of online features, which also include an enhanced infrastructure mode that offers voice chat for online multiplayer games. You'll also find PSP-exclusive downloads, such as wallpapers, on the game's official site, which you can visit to check your stats.
The visuals in the game are shaping up to be on par with X-Men Legends II--with some bells and whistles. The game uses the same viewpoint as XMLII, though there's considerably more going on in the backgrounds. The character models all look good, as do the environments. The work-in-progress game we tried ran smoothly for the most part, although it did hitch up in a few spots. Loading in between areas and menus has been improved some, as has the sleep mode support.
Based on what we played, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is turning out to be a dense offering on the PSP that is on track to surpass X-Men Legends II. The game already appears to have the appeal of the Legends cousins, and the new features are gravy on top. If you were a fan of the Legends games or were always curious about them, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is shaping up as a game to keep your eye on. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.