Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Hands-On

We get our hands on Vicarious Visions' upcoming action RPG featuring the whole Marvel universe.

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We've been anxious to get our hands on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 since the game was first announced last year. The original game offered a fun, accessible run through the Marvel universe and had a kitchen sink mentality toward which characters were involved. For the sequel, Activision and developer Vicarious Visions bring the kitchen sink again. However, this time out, the game's story drops you into the popular and polarizing Civil War storyline that finds hero fighting against hero in a moral dilemma of security versus freedom. After months of being talked about and shown the game, we've finally been handed a controller and sent off to choose a side with a work-in-progress Xbox 360 version of the game. Our thoughts so far? Oh, hell, yes!

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We were able to play two levels in the game: the Washington, D.C. level we were shown last month at E3 and a new city mission titled Prison Transport. In Washington, D.C., we played with a team of four that included the Invisible Woman, Gambit, Hulk, and Thor. The level is set on the eve of the Civil War so tensions are running high in the nation's capital as the quartet is tasked with dealing with mobs of enemies, eventually facing off against Deadpool who pops up as a mini-boss. The game handles very much like its predecessor and features a new onscreen display that's been given a facelift. Your selected hero's portrait, health, and power displays have been buffed up to look sleeker.

Some may need to get used to the power displays, which use color coding rather than flash a button for the corresponding power. The heroes and their powers have all been tweaked for the better. The Invisible Woman is now well rounded enough to be a top player in a fight, whereas previously, she was near the bottom of the ladder. The Hulk and Thor are good steamrollers, although Thor has some new attacks that give him more flexibility than the Hulk. Gambit is a solid fighter, but we didn't click with his power set yet, so we reckon we'll have to explore his various power configurations to make a final judgment on him. The Deadpool fight was nicely done, thanks to a comic lead-in that nailed the character's personality and a good game interpretation of his powers.

The Prison Transport level was a more traditional MUA level that tasked the team of Storm, Deadpool, Wolverine, and Jean Grey with clearing the path for anti-registration forces to come in and rescue heroes being moved to a detention center. The big obstacle was a series of antiair guns that prevented the anti-reg force's air ship from coming in for the rescue. You're tasked with moving through the city and taking out the gun emplacements, which are heavily defended. The level has you rolling the streets and rooftops of the city. Along the way, you'll find an audio log that fills you in on some of the backstory of the conflict. The level's mini-boss is Songbird, who you'll chat with briefly before the inevitable brawl.

You'll have no shortage of great characters to choose from when assembling your team.
You'll have no shortage of great characters to choose from when assembling your team.

Overall, the level was laid out well, with plenty of opportunities to use your fusions and inflict massive damage on your foes. Some strategy was involved in the battles as the enemies included energy-resistant robots that shirked off Storm's lightning. It was a nice chance to try out Jean Grey, who was rocking her green and gold Phoenix outfit. Unfortunately for fans, this is the powerful psychic/telekinetic version of Jean and not the cosmically powered sun-devouring force-of-nature Phoenix. Her powers were a good blend of ranged and close-quarter attacks, as well as some area effect action that provided great setups for your teammates. The level also showcased the conversation tree system and the three possible paths to take--aggressive, diplomatic, or defensive--which will each yield unique benefits. On top of that, we got to check out the different bonuses, which can be equipped on your team to offer everyone perks.

In addition to our hands-on, we also got a quick peek at the hub system in the game, which is where you'll catch your breath in between missions. The hubs will offer the same functionality as before and let you engage in training missions, as well as tweak your roster. You'll also be able to chat up your team to get more backstory, with conversations varying among the different hero combinations. If someone has a unique interaction, the conversation icon above a hero you can talk to looks different, which we thought was a nice touch.

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The game's control is basically the same as its predecessor with some refinements to make things a little smoother. Your core controls for attacking, jumping, and interacting with people and objects remains the same. However, powering up your heroes or your four-man team is much easier this time out. We especially like the ability to call up the various upgrade menus on the fly during a multiplayer game so that everything does not come to a screeching halt for anyone playing with you. Better still is how the game will temporarily take control of your character and play for you while you figure out what tweaks you want to make, ensuring you remain a productive member of your superteam at all times. While handy in an offline game, we can see this feature being loved in a big way by online players.

MUA2's visuals are really shaping up nicely. The new graphics engine, which does double duty powering the game proper and the bulk of the cinematics, brings the Marvel universe to life in rich, vivid detail. We've already made mention of our wholehearted approval of the game's art style, which does a fantastic job of bringing the heroes to life with a look that's reminiscent of the spirit of comic artist Steve McNiven's style on the comic. The two environments we saw looked sharp, with a high level of detail and plenty of stuff to break. The special effects used to showcase the various superpowers on display are looking great. Obviously, some powers and combinations benefit from this more than others because there's only so much you can do to sex up the Hulk pounding the ground and throwing things. From a performance standpoint, the game purrs along at a smooth clip and didn't appear to hitch even when things got extremely busy with enemies and effects. MUA2's camera seems to be working out well, although we noticed a few spots where it set itself at an angle that made things tricky for brawling. It doesn't appear to be too much of a problem, but, obviously, we hope it gets tightened up before release.

Audio is coming together nicely and serves as a great complement to the polished visuals. The characters seem to be chattier in battle this time with what sounds like a greater variety of lines in combat. This is working well as a showcase for the personality of some of the Marvel Universe's more colorful residents, such as Spider-Man and Deadpool. In addition, the game's score offers good accompaniment to the action. There's a decidedly different feel to it this time out, which obviously reflects the heavier nature of the storyline, so expect a more epic tone.

Long before Dhalsim, there was Mr. Fantastic.
Long before Dhalsim, there was Mr. Fantastic.

Based on what we played, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 looks like it's poised to please fans and hold on to the magic of the original. The tweaks being made to gameplay and the game's overall presentation work well. The new fusion system is a fun nod to the kind of interactions that fans have been dreaming and writing fan fiction about for ages. There's a lot to like here, and that's even before you take into account the game's story, which bumps up the game's appeal another notch. As of right now, the minor issues we pointed out don't appear to be anything that will tarnish the good impression the game has made. Anyone eager to get in on the action and fight for the side of his or her choice should look for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 this September on just about every platform under the sun. Look for much more in the coming months.

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