There is an intangible, indescribable old-school quality to Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 that stands out. It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly, but as you play through the game, so much of it seems to harken back to an older, simpler time in video gaming – an era before games as a service, an era before cinematic storytelling, an era before open world bloat and loot grinding. As you play through Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, you realize it is a lot like one of the central characters featured in it, Captain America – it is not of this time.
This is for good and for bad. It is for good because this is a simple, pick-up-and-play brawler with some very old school sensibilities on how it approaches things. You’re not subjected to interminable cutscenes or exposition, there aren’t any forced tutorials, you’re not hunting across the map for the highest tier “Epic” or “Legendary” loot, and the game itself is refreshingly immediate to play – snappy controls, simple but satisfying mechanics, and a pre-HD era approach to long time, but now dying gaming tropes like puzzles and boss fights.
This anachronistic approach is good in other ways, too. Marvel has become an all encompassing cultural icon in the last few years – Avengers Endgame is now the highest grossing movie of all time – but Ultimate Alliance 3 feels almost untouched by that all-consuming behemoth.
"Unlike most modern Marvel gaming ventures, which seem to be guided by the aesthetic and considerations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see also- the exclusion of the X-Men from Marvel vs Capcom Infinite), this here is a game that has no bones about throwing the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, Defenders, and Guardians of the Galaxy in one mega crossover."
Unlike most modern Marvel gaming ventures, which seem to be guided by the aesthetic and considerations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see also- the exclusion of the X-Men from Marvel vs Capcom Infinite), this here is a game that has no bones about throwing the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, Defenders, and Guardians of the Galaxy in one mega crossover as they take on Thanos and the Black Order in the hunt for the Infinity Stones. Yes, Disney now owns Fox, which means future Marvel games will probably have similarly full featured rosters too – but the development of this game predates that acquisition, and it’s very nice to see that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 still attempts to be a shrine to all Marvel fans, not just the movie ones.
Of course, there are other ways that Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is influenced by the MCU – a lot of characters seem to act and behave like their movie (or Netflix show) counterparts, the story itself (Thanos on the hunt for the Infinity Stones) is basically a retelling of the MCU arc, and the game is filled with winks and nods towards the modern Marvel incarnation we all know and love (such as Daredevil making a spry remark about fighting in hallways, or, of course, the Infinity Gems being called the Infinity Stones).
But on the whole, this game feels like a loveletter to all Marvel fans. There are references and homages to decades of Marvel history, the aesthetic is right out of a crossover event comic, and it feels like developers Team Ninja filled every pixel and corner of the game with love and adoration for the Marvel mythos.
As satisfying as the game’s repository of Marvel references and love can be, however, in the end, what makes or breaks Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is how it plays. This is simultaneously where the game is at its strongest and its weakest. Much like the previous games in the series, Ultimate Alliance 3 is a top down brawler with light RPG elements peppered in. You assemble a squad of up to four characters at a time, and then go fighting your way through waves of enemies to try and stop Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones.
"In solo play, the game can feel shallow, and begin to drag. Mashing your way through encounters solo doesn’t feel satisfying, and the levels themselves are really linear, with only the odd branch leading to a special collectible or challenge for you to take on."
Combat is extremely simple – you have two attacks, you have special, plus modifiers for special character specific moves, and some team up moves, ranging from the simple “Synergy” moves (where you and other characters just perform the appropriate moves together) to the spectacular “Ultimate Alliance” attacks, where all the characters let off what basically amounts to a finisher at once, wreaking havoc on the enemies in glorious fashion (best saved for the boss). That’s the gist of it – you can easily make your way through the game just pounding the face buttons. There are some minor puzzles, and some excellent boss design, but on the whole, it’s one brawl after the next.
That can be a good thing or a bad thing – in solo play, the game can feel shallow, and begin to drag. Mashing your way through encounters solo doesn’t feel satisfying, and the levels themselves are really linear, with only the odd branch leading to a special collectible or challenge for you to take on. The game’s RPG mechanics, which see you leveling up characters, unlocking more moves, leveling up said moves, and also investing in a shared skill tree to enhance the attributes of all your characters alike, aren’t nearly deep enough to add any nuance, especially given how generous the game is in dishing out XP or credits for the skill tree.
Played solo, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3‘s value to you comes more or less down to how much of a Marvel fan you are – not just a fan of the Marvel movies, but a fan of the decades of comics and stories that comprise the Marvel universe. If you’re a big Marvel fan, then Ultimate Alliance 3 is a treasure trove, and you will love it. It’s a museum to Marvel fandom, and it’s enough of a joy for that to be worth the cost of admission by itself.
If you’re a more casual Marvel fan, then Ultimate Alliance 3, solo, is not worth it. The gameplay is shallow, and the story, while fun in its Saturday morning cartoon style goofiness, isn’t engaging enough either to justify a $60 point of entry.
"However, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 truly shines in co-op, and that’s where what are weaknesses when the game is played solo become strengths."
However, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 truly shines in co-op, and that’s where what are weaknesses when the game is played solo become strengths. The combat being simple means anyone can pick up the game and join you without there being a barrier to entry – have a few friends over? Just hand them a Joycon, and they’re good to go on virtue of sheer button mashing if nothing else. The linearity in the levels? That means no one is getting lost, no one is getting left behind, and you’re all always together taking on the mobs of enemies. The simpler puzzles and exploration? That means the levels are very well paced, and you move from one combat setpiece to the next with almost alarming regularity. The story being goofy and out of the way? That means you can be laughing along with friends without having to pay attention to the cutscenes, or worrying that you missed something crucial.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 knows that this is its strength, which is why it lends itself so well to co-op play. As mentioned already, you can play local co-op with any combination of single Joycon, dual Joycon, and the Pro Controller, with instant drop in and drop out. Local play is also supported over two (or more) Switch systems wirelessly. Finally, you can play co-op online, and in what is a rarity for a Nintendo game, the online modes are extremely intuitive and well designed, with the ability to team up with random players, or friends only.
Of course, the game does take a hit in co-op somewhat; functionally, you can no longer instantly swap among the characters when playing online unless you are the host (and have a part of less than four players). Framerate does seem to chug heavily in co-op, especially when there are four player controlled characters taking on some of the larger mobs, and a lot of the special powers and explosions are on screen at once. And if somehow you manage to be a straggler even with Ultimate Alliance 3‘s linear design, you are instantly teleported to the host.
These are minor considerations, however, and on the whole, Ultimate Alliance 3 knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be anything but that. It’s a simple, fun story with simple and satisfying gameplay, and gold mine of Marvel references. Hardcore Marvel fans will find a lot to love in Ultimate Alliance 3, straddling as it does the many eras of Marvel’s history so well. For everyone else, Ultimate Alliance 3 is an entertaining and extremely fun game that is best experienced with others.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Immediate and responsive controls; simple but fun gameplay; excellent boss design; a great roster featuring a treasure trove of Marvel characters; loads of references to Marvel comics, movies, and TV shows; sharp writing and Saturday morning cartoon sensibilities; a very nice comic book aesthetic; great co-op gameplay and game options
In solo mode, the game is extremely shallow mechanically, and the linear levels and predictable story aren't enough to compensate for that; some severe performance hits when things get busier