We've been waiting for another Marvel Ultimate Alliance for a clean decade. The quality of games based on Marvel heroes since then has been spotty, stretching from the excellent Marvel's Spider-Man on PlayStation 4, to the dire X-Men Destiny. Marvel seems to be getting its licensing act together though, so we've been graced with a new Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
Nintendo, Marvel Games, and Koei Tecmo have teamed up for this brand-new adventure, inspired by the various versions of the Marvel Universe. There's as much of the Marvel Comics, as there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even the various animated entries. But given the development team behind this, I'm not surprised to see some other inspirations.
If you've played Marvel Ultimate Alliance or Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, then you probably know that combat wasn't necessarily the primary reason for playing. Marvel Ultimate Alliance's combat system is standard dungeon crawler, with two attacks and various character-specific powers to get you through most of the game. As long as you didn't eat too many attacks, it was simply about choosing your favorite characters and piling on four-color fisticuffs. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 added Fusion attacks on top of that, allowing different heroes' powers to interact in unique ways. It was more exciting than the first game, but also didn't require much in the way of thought either; attack a boss until you get a Fusion attack, and then let 'em have it.
In Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, the combat system baby steps forward. Koei Tecmo's Team Ninja was in charge of development, and it's drawing on its time on Hyrule Warriors here. Hyrule Warriors was the Legend of Zelda-themed musou game-"musou" being the name of the genre of beat-em-ups that followed Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors series. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 shares a number of staff with Hyrule Warriors, and other Warriors titles, including director Hiroya Usuda, combat design lead Takeo Fujisaki, engineering lead Takanori Goshima, and level design lead Tetsuya Ishikiriyama.
Where the connection becomes apparent is in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3's new combat system. The basics are the same as the previous Marvel Ultimate games, with two different types of attacks, and a set of powers accessed by the shoulder buttons. Fusions have given way to Synergy, which are automatic effects that happen whenever two heroes use special moves that complement one another. But a major part of Ultimate Alliance 3 is the new Stagger system.
Stagger is a purple meter that appears under the health bar of all bosses and some stronger enemies. While this meter is full, you do little damage to a foe. You need to use special moves, and Synergy attacks to lower an enemy's Stagger meter to zero, at which point they fall into a Stun state. Once they're here, you have a limited amount of time to pile on the damage.
Stagger is absolutely key to succeeding at all in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. On the standard Mighty difficulty, you will not beat many of the bosses without exploiting the Stagger system. It's a main part of active play, but it'll also affect your team composition. Every character has four special moves, and each move has a different Energy Point cost, Damage, and Stagger rating. I always made sure that I had at least one hero with a move that had a high Stagger rating, and I'd switch to them to soften a boss up. Early on, Iron Fist was my go-to Stagger mule as his Thunder Kick had a high rating. I later transitioned to Psylocke, and then Black Panther, but I always had at least one character with a Stagger exploit move. It's that important. (You also do more Stagger damage if you attack when an enemy is charging their own attack.)
Players of Hyrule Warriors will note that this is similar to the Weak Point Gauge. In that game, certain attacks and tools were needed to get the Weak Point Gauge to appear on certain enemies and bosses. Then you could use some of your best attacks to take the gauge to zero, which would result in a massive special attack. Here, the meter counting down to that special attack is always visible, and the massive attack doesn't happen automatically. Every hero has an Extreme attack you can activate once your Extreme gauge is full; I tended to save my Extreme attacks for maximum boss damage.
One thing I was surprised to see in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 were "telegraphs." I'm the resident MMO guy here at USG; I just recently finished up my review of Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers, while also playing World of Warcraft's latest patch. In most Final Fantasy 14 fights, players will encounter telegraphs, visual indicators that show where an enemy's attack is about to hit. Half of the battle is seeing these telegraphs and moving out of the indicator to avoid damage. In a raid, Final Fantasy 14 and World of Warcraft become vast battlefields of colored areas where players are not supposed to stand, lest they take too much damage and die.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 relies heavily on telegraphs for every single boss fight. You need to learn the attack patterns, and time your counter attacks in-between the boss' heavy-hitting moves. I was honestly shocked at how much Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 relied on the same mental skills I'd honed in MMOs. The previous Marvel Ultimate Alliance games used visual confirmation for most enemy attacks, you'd see the boss wind up or start charging and that was your cue to move. That still exists in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, but overall, the game is much better about letting the player know that an attack is coming.
Combined with the focus around staggering, the attack telegraph leads to a game that rewards better play more than its predecessors. Team Ninja wasn't just content in bringing forward what Raven Software and Vicarious Visions had done with the combat, leaning on the distinctive Marvel characters to carry the day. Combat in Ultimate Alliance 3 simply feels better (and faster) than what came before. It's you're expecting to pick your favorite heroes and faceroll through the game, it's not that easy anymore.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is coming to Nintendo Switch on July 19, 2019.