Recently I’ve been spending most of my spare time with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a rather Nintendo Switch title from back in 2019.
Back then I gave the game a polite review, citing its solid action/RPG gameplay, its big cast of Marvel characters and its good-enough-for-a-comic-book-crossover story. I also didn’t think I’d particularly want to revisit the game, due to its uneven difficulty curve and frequent, frustrating boss fights.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve found that if you can look past the first playthrough, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is a soothing, relaxing, almost Zen experience, which is rewarding in short bursts and much more varied than it initially appears. It never aspires to be the next great masterwork of gaming — and, ironically, feels more absorbing than a lot of “better” games as a result.
Vampires, mutants and cosmic rays
Like many games, a DLC pack convinced me to pick up Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 again after essentially ignoring it for two years. Over the Christmas break, I wanted to play something light and fluffy, which wouldn’t be hard to put down if I needed to do something more pressing, such as, well, almost anything. I settled on replaying the Ultimate Alliance series, since without the MCU, I haven’t really been getting my Marvel fix lately.
The first two games hold up pretty well, particularly if you caught their short-lived PS4/Xbox One remasters a few years back. But it wasn’t until I hit Ultimate Alliance 3 that I found something a little more substantial. That’s because Ultimate Alliance 3 had three DLC packs that I hadn’t touched yet. Each one adds a handful of new playable characters, as well as a series of “Gauntlet” challenges and/or a new story segment. It’s not a bad deal for $20 altogether, especially since you get some fan-favorite characters, such as Blade, Jean Grey and the Fantastic Four. (I don’t know who was clamoring to play as Spider-Man C-lister Michael Morbius, but whoever they are, I’m happy for them.)
Right from the get-go, I had a problem. Unlike many other games with DLC characters, Ultimate Alliance 3 doesn’t simply unlock them automatically. Instead, you have to earn them by completing a series of challenges. And these challenges require levels well in excess of what you would earn by completing the game a single time on the default difficulty. If I wanted to access the DLC I’d paid for, I would have to play through the whole story again, and undertake optional standalone challenges, and compete in the Gauntlets, and buy gear from the in-game shop, and hunt down powerful hidden items, and, and, and.
I’d paid for my characters fair and square, and I intended to grit my teeth and go through with this process. But a few hours into all the busywork, I had a startling realization: I was having fun. Much like the comic books that inspired it, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is superb “look at all the pretty colors and don’t think about it too hard” entertainment. Should I be seeking out deeper, more meaningful media in my free time? Possibly. But if your goal is to zone out — or to catch up on some podcasts, YouTube series or even TV shows that don’t require your full attention — Ultimate Alliance 3 can and will get the job done.
A virtuous cycle
If you’ve never played an Ultimate Alliance game before, the appeal is extremely easy to explain. The series comprises three hack-and-slash action/RPGs, in which you construct a four-person party of your favorite Marvel superheroes.
Ultimate Alliance 3 has an enormous roster of playable characters: 52, to be precise. Unless characters are in your active party, they won’t gain any experience. As such, if you want to use more than four characters to complete the game’s myriad objectives, you’re going to have to switch things up and grind. However, the game encourages you to do this in multiple ways. As you level up characters, you earn currency to unlock skills that empower your whole team. You can discover equipment that give huge XP boosts. Even if you just want to unlock optional costumes and voice lines, you’ll have to work your way through a good chunk of the playable cast to do so.
After a while, the game builds up a predictable, and predictably rewarding, loop:
- Pick a team
- Play through the main story mode or a challenge mode with that team
- Use your leveled-up team to grind for XP-boosting gear
- Equip XP-boosting gear on a new team
- Play through the story or challenge mode at a higher difficulty
After a while, you can bring a whole crew of characters from Level 1 to Level 100 in about an hour or so, and you can then run that team through a whole new set of challenges, which earns you more costumes and upgrade points, which lets you tinker with a whole new team. And you can do this with approximately half of your attention elsewhere.
A rabbit hole worth visiting
A while back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about what we were playing. At the time, I was in the middle of Dragon Ball Xenoverse: a fun title, but hardly one of the great games of the past decade. He replied that Xenoverse was a “good-enough game,” and that sometimes, those were more fun than “good” games.
I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly. Whenever you sit down to play a God of War, or a Red Dead Redemption, or a Halo, you know that on some level, you’re playing an “important” game. Even if the game itself feels fun and breezy, it’s a huge part of the gaming culture, and it demands your full attention. Whether you wind up loving or hating the game, you have to have something coherent to say about it, because sooner or later, someone is going to ask, and perhaps even ask you to defend your opinion.
Conversely, no one is going to care what you, or I, or anyone thinks of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Its entire raison d’être is to let you live out a superhero team-up fantasy. It has nothing to say about the culture surrounding gaming, or pop culture in general. It doesn’t demand deep thought or dissection. It doesn’t even demand your full focus. It’s junk food, but we all crave junk food now and then. And giving into that craving once in a while is probably healthier than ignoring it entirely.
The odd thing about Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is that a single playthrough doesn’t convey just how deep the rabbit hole can go. If you played through the game once, with one party, I’d highly encourage you to download the DLC and give it a second try. Maybe you won’t be in it for the long haul, like me — but if you are, the online co-op scene is still alive and well.